Eating Raw Foods
Is uncooked healthier?
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
"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.