The smell of fresh-baked bread or sizzling onions may soon go the way of the dodo in some American kitchens. Will the oven itself become a passé appliance as increasing numbers of health-conscious individuals decide to eat most of their food uncooked? Raw foods are being touted as one of the newest ways to eat healthfully and have a low impact on the environment, but can a person get all the nutrients they need without cooking their food?
Advocates say yes, and swear that eating raw cleanses your body, mind and spirit. If you think eating raw means consuming nothing but salads and smoothies until you sprout wheatgrass from your ears, you may be surprised to hear what is on some of these new menus, from many-layered lasagna to veggie burgers to ice cream, as well as gourmet offerings such as chocolate mousse that are worthy of being served at upscale restaurants.For many people who follow a raw food diet, going vegan is integral, meaning no animal products are consumed. But some raw foodists consume unpasteurized, unhomogenized dairy products, and an even smaller minority eat raw animal flesh. And few are complete purists; though most raw food enthusiasts avoid meals that have been heated above temperatures of 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, many practitioners supplement their diet with small amounts of cooked food from time to time.
Cherie Soria, a raw-food chef who founded the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute, says, "The majority of Americans eat less than 10 percent raw foods. A raw-food enthusiast is just someone who recognizes that the more raw food they eat, the better they feel."
Is it Healthy?
The anecdotal, and widely touted, benefits of eating raw include increased energy, clear skin, weight loss, better digestion and even reversal of chronic disease. Certified nutritionist Monica Dewart explains, "When heat is applied, food enzymes are quickly destroyed, followed by many vitamins and other nutrients. In the case of extreme heat, such as when something is deep fried, the actual chemical structure of the food changes." Over time, digesting cooked foods wears out the body, and chronic disease appears, argues Dewart.
In Living Cuisine, The Art and Spirit of Raw Food, raw chef-to-the-stars Renee Loux Underkoffler elaborates, "Raw foods make optimal assimilation of nutrition easy, provide pure, clean energy for the body, and do not require a lot of energy for digestion. Fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh juices, nuts and seeds, sprouted beans and grains, fermented and cultured foods and low-temperature dehydrated crackers, breads and treats are delicious examples of the cornucopia of living food."
Jesse Schwartz, president of California-based Living Tree Community Foods, says eating raw helps him feel more alive, and points to a more vivid and passionate existence.
Claudia Gonzalez, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says that eating all raw, all the time would be an "extreme" diet. She says the enzymes needed to digest foods don’t come from the food we eat, but are made by our bodies. Gonzalez adds, "If you eat more raw foods without adding calories that’s always a good thing. Replacing refined, processed foods with raw foods is a healthy move. Eating a few raw meals a week can be great, but it’s important not to go to the extreme."
Gonzalez says it’s hard to eat more than 1,200 calories a day in uncooked foods. While this might be great for weight-loss, once the weight comes off, that might not be enough to sustain a typical person’s energy. Gonzalez also points out, "It’s very challenging in social situations to eat raw," and she cautions, "Cooking food below 160 degrees can lead to food-borne illness."
Recent reports about a chemical called acrylamide, found in carbohydrate-rich foods, may give some scientific credence to an uncooked diet. Acrylamide is naturally formed in some starchy foods when they are roasted, fried and baked at temperatures from 120 to 248 degrees, including French fries, potato chips, cereals and crackers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) characterizes the chemical as a potential human carcinogen and genotoxin (meaning it can damage DNA), as well as a known neurotoxin. Representatives from the FDA and the World Health Organization have called acrylamide in food a "major concern." People who eat raw food would get none of the chemical.
Looking at the average restaurant menu and sticking to a raw food plan can mean a procession of plain salads, but that’s changing, as more restaurants are getting on the uncooked bandwagon. Several are raw food only, and many more vegan, vegetarian or health food eateries offer raw selections or host tasting nights. A plethora of recent cookbooks have great raw recipes and tips, as do the books and website by David Wolfe, who is often called the father of the movement, (which he calls "sunfood") and who plays "Avocado" on the Sci Fi Channel’s Mad Mad House.
For those who are not cooking aficionados, even when no stovetop is required, there are a number of companies, including Living Tree Community Foods and Eat Raw, that offer pre-prepared raw snack foods such as olives, pecan pie squares or banana nut brittle.
Make it Yourself
Of course, the freshest way to go raw is to start slicing and juicing in your own kitchen. Dewart suggests, "The most basic equipment needed would be a set of good knives and a cutting board. A blender and/or food processor is a good idea, and many enjoy having a juicer. Since heating foods above the temperature of a summer’s day is out, many raw foodists have a dehydrator. This gently warms food, and is useful for preparing nut/seed loaves or patties." A spiralizer helps you make "pasta" out of zucchini and beets. "Changing textures can change the flavor of foods," says Soria.
And while you may notice the benefits of eating raw immediately, it’s probably not wise to go from a traditional diet to raw overnight. "Switching to a primarily raw food diet could take weeks or months," says Soria.
Some raw foodists, like some vegans, suggest taking a B12 supplement. The logic is that B12 is the one vitamin that can’t be found or made by the body without consuming animal products, though some people argue that it’s not necessary. "A raw food diet is a natural diet, and most of the strongest animals on Earth are raw food vegans," argues Soria. "I think at first, until you really get the hang of it, you might need a supplement or two," advises Dewart.
If you decide to go raw, there are benefits to the Earth as well as your health. Naturally, the lower you eat on the food chain, the less impact you will have on the Earth’s resources. Dewart adds, "One hundred percent of the "waste" materials (seeds, peels, etc.) of a raw vegan diet are biodegradable and compostable. Not only that, but seed-savers can grow perpetually sustainable gardens, year after year. This is the ultimate environmentally friendly diet!" And with no pots and pans to scrub, it’s also friendly on the dishwasher in the household.