Week of 03/28/10

Dear EarthTalk: A friend with many minor health problems recently switched to a diet of only raw plant foods and reports feeling much better. She also insists her new eating habits are better for the environment. Does this make sense or is the strange diet making her crazy?

—Phil C., Reno, NV

A raw foods diet typically consists of unprocessed foods that are not heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit so as to preserve nutrients otherwise lost during cooking. Proponents claim that besides losing weight and feeling more energetic, they are also avoiding the carcinogens introduced into foods by cooking and protecting the environment from drug- and chemical-dependent, water-wasting big-business agriculture.

Some people do short spurts on the raw diet to cleanse their system of toxins, while others maintain a majority raw diet but do eat some cooked or processed foods. Diabetics can especially benefit from a raw foods diet, as shown in the film Simply Raw, which documents the trials and tribulations of six diabetes sufferers who go on a raw foods diet for one month and effectively cure themselves of their disease.

While humans have been eating raw foods since they first began foraging for their sustenance, the diet really began to catch on in recent years when some high-profile celebrities began touting its health and weight maintenance benefits. Carol Alt, Woody Harrelson, Uma Thurman, Sting and Demi Moore are just a few of the big names who swear by the raw foods diet—and now upwards of 100 raw foods restaurants are in operation across the U.S. For a list of raw food eateries by state, check out the SoyStache website.

Humans have been eating raw foods since they first began foraging for their sustenance, but the raw foods diet really only began to catch on in recent years. There are now upwards of 100 raw foods restaurants in operation across the U.S.© Getty Images

Most raw food devotees are vegans, that is, no animal products whatsoever but all the vegetables, sprouts and grains they can muster. Some do eat raw dairy, eggs and even meat—being careful to choose only the freshest stuff so as to avoid getting sick from bacterial contamination.

One shouldn’t embark on a raw foods diet without researching how to make a smooth transition and maintain a proper nutrient balance. Some people hire raw food coaches or consult with nutritionists to walk them through the transition or help them through a cleansing, while others do it themselves with help from friends, natural food store employees, and websites. The Best of Raw Food website, for example, has a plethora of information on how to make the transition. It lists replacement foods for first transitioning to and then maintaining a raw food diet, and provides a tutorial on how to gauge the safety of raw foods.

Those serious about going raw will need a good quality juicer, a blender or food processor, large glass containers to soak and sprout seeds, grains and beans, and mason jars for storing sprouts and other food. Dehydrators that blow air through food at less than 115 degrees Fahrenheit are also popular accessories.

There are some cautions to keep in mind. Cathy Wong of About.com warns that some people experience a detox reaction when transitioning, especially if their old diet was rich in meat, sugar and caffeine—but the negative effects (headaches, nausea, cravings) usually only last a few days. Also, she says, going raw is not advised for children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with anemia or at risk for osteoporosis.

CONTACTS: Simply Raw; SoyStache; The Best of Raw Food; About.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I know that purchasing organic crib sheets, mattresses and baby clothes is better for the environment—but do they make any difference in terms of the baby’s health?

—B.B., Fairfield, CT

Some 25 percent of the world
s pesticides and 10 percent of insecticides go to cotton crops every year, leading many environmentalists and public health advocates to wonder if the cotton clothes and bedding children are exposed to could be negatively impacting their health.© Getty Images

It’s true that conventional baby clothing and bedding—conventional referring to that made with cotton grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and bleached and dyed with yet more harsh chemicals—hasn’t seemed to present a problem thus far for generations and generations of babies. But more awareness of chemical sensitivities has many environmentalists and public health advocates wondering if the clothes and bedding children are exposed to could be impacting their health negatively.

Some 25 percent of the world’s pesticides and 10 percent of insecticides go to cotton crops every year. In addition, petroleum scouring agents, softeners, brighteners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia and formaldehyde are used in the processing of cotton once it is harvested. Beyond the environmental impacts of this onslaught in the vicinity of production facilities, there is increasing concern that residues of some of these chemicals might rub off on baby. According to Rachel Birchler of Mooi, a Pittsburgh-based organic children’s clothing boutique, a baby’s skin is more porous and thinner than that of an adult, and as such absorbs stuff more easily. "This means that children are at greater risk for pesticide-related health problems than adults," she says.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s leading purveyors of baby products, states on its website that "a baby’s skin is thinner, more fragile and less oily than an adult"s" and is "less resistant to bacteria and harmful substances in the environment." Lotus Organics, which makes organic clothing for both babies and adults, reports that "millions of children in the U.S. receive up to 35 percent of their estimated lifetime dose of some carcinogenic pesticides by age five through food, contaminated drinking water, household use, and pesticide drift."

So if organic cotton is so much better all around, why aren’t we all swaddling our babies in it and wearing it ourselves? It’s all about cost. Clothing and bedding made from organic cotton is typically more expensive than similar products made with conventional cotton. Consumers watching their spending are often unwilling to pay more for a t-shirt or pants that are just going to get spilled on and beaten up.

But boosters for organic cotton say that paying less for conventional cotton items is penny wise and pound foolish. "Conventionally produced cotton material lasts 10-20 washes before it starts to break down," reports Mooi’s Birchler. "An organic cotton material lasts for 100 washes or more before it begins to wear down." How could that be? "Conventionally produced cotton take so much abuse in production because it goes through scouring, bleaching, dying, softeners, formaldehyde spray, and flame and soil retardants before it is even shipped to be cut for patterns," she explains.

Also, with more and more organic cotton products becoming available every day, from specialty shops to major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, the price premium for going organic is starting to shrink.

CONTACTS: Mooi; Johnson & Johnson; Lotus Organics.

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