July 17, 2000 -- Curiosity overpowered hunger as I arrived at Organica restaurant, an unconventional member of San Francisco's eclectic range of cuisine offerings. There's no place for a stove at Organica. Vegan dishes -- containing no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy -- made of raw, organic foods fill the menu, which includes much more than just celery sticks and kidney beans.
I sampled "mashed potatoes," a mixture of walnuts, cauliflower, and spices. "Salmon," a combination of carrots, walnuts, dill, and onion, delighted my palate. Fresh-tasting guacamole, spicy hummus, and a traditional mixed green salad rounded out the meal. A dessert of fresh coconut juice -- which I sipped straight out of a baby coconut -- topped it all off.
The raw foods philosophy, however, was hardly founded in the search for culinary aesthetics. This fledgling but growing movement is drawing Americans looking for overall well-being, purification, longevity, more energy, and a cure for diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and even cancer. While there is no scientific evidence yet available to back up these claims, devoted raw food fans swear by their diet's powers.
"By the third day of eating all raw, I found I had solved the riddle to my health," says David Klein, who was chronically sick for eight years with an inflamed colon and fatigue. Now he runs Living Nutrition, a raw foods magazine, which he founded four years ago in Sebastopol, Calif.
Heating Away the Goods
Raw food devotees like Klein stick by their own scientific explanation for why they think carrots, or any other food, aren't as good cooked. Their theory is that the body depends on foods' store of enzymes -- the spunky proteins that help break down food to aid in digestion, says Organica's manager Larry Weinstein, a longtime raw food enthusiast. But expose these enzymes to heat and nearly all will be inactivated. The body, he says, then has to pick up the slack and make more of its own enzymes, using energy that it could've used for other things -- like chewing a raw carrot.
"Raw food is living food," Weinstein says. (Organica's owner Juliano -- no last name, as is fashionable these days -- was away when I visited, probably promoting his 1999 "un"-cookbook, Raw.)
However, heat of less than 120 degrees doesn't "kill" the food. So raw-food enthusiasts can use a heat dehydrator, an appliance that blows hot air on food until it "cooks." For example, Weinstein uses heat-dehydrated garbanzo beans to make falafel, among other dishes, at Organica.
But Wait, There's More
Most physiologists would cringe at the raw food theory, especially because digestion is a scientifically proven process that depends on enzymes that the body generates, and not food enzymes. Theory aside, however, it appears that eating raw food is a smart step toward good health. For instance, consuming more fruits and vegetables can give your body a noticeable boost. Researchers have found that a diet rich in raw vegetables can lower your risk of breast cancer, while eating lots of fruit can reduce your risk for developing colon cancer, according to a study published in the May 1998 issue of the journal Epidemiology. And including fresh fruit as part of your daily diet has been associated with fewer deaths from heart attacks and related problems (by as much as 24%, according to a study published in the September 1996 issue of the British Medical Journal).
But it's not the food enzymes doing the work, says registered dietitian Roxanne Moore, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Fiber and antioxidants, of which fruits and vegetables are prime sources, make the difference. "Overall, the less cooked the fruit or vegetable, the more nutrients and fiber it retains," Moore says.If you don't want to eat raw vegetables, how you cook them determines how much of the nutrients survive, she says. She offers a few tips: Use shorter cooking times. Steam and microwave instead of boiling. And rely on fresh produce, which has more nutrients than the processed or canned varieties.
When Cooking Is Better
Raw isn't always best. Sometimes cooked foods give you more nutrients for the buck, say Rutgers University and Taiwanese researchers at last spring's annual American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco. They found that the body more easily absorbs iron from 37 of 48 vegetables tested when they're boiled, stir-fried, steamed, or grilled. Of note, the absorbable iron in cabbage jumped from 6.7% to 27% with cooking. That of broccoli flowerets rose from 6% to 30%.
Surprisingly, tomatoes may also be best not in the salad, but in the sauce. A study published in the December 6, 1995 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that eating cooked tomatoes could improve your chances of avoiding prostate cancer. Harvard researchers studied men who ate lots of tomato sauce, including that in foods like pizza and spaghetti. Those who ate at least 10 servings of tomato sauce every week were 45% less likely to develop prostate cancer than men who ate fewer servings.
Let's Get Serious
However, don't get bogged down with figuring out yet another diet or baffled over how to cook (or not cook) your veggies or fruits. What's most important is that you actually eat them: 3 to 5 servings of vegetables and 2 to 4 servings of fruit every day, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This amount is a far cry from the 3.6 servings of fruits and vegetables, combined, that Americans are now getting.
The raw foods diet might help bring you above the average American's intake. At least that's what I've found. After following it for a month, I'm eating more fruits and vegetables, though not necessarily raw (I sometimes steam or grill them). I have more energy. I'm spending less at the grocery store (processed snacks are alarmingly expensive) and crave less sugar and fat. I've even lost a little weight -- it's almost impossible to overeat crudit?s.
No matter how you slice it, making room for raw isn't doing me any harm. On the contrary, it's most likely doing some good.