A look at the uncooked-food movement

Will the oven become a passÈ appliance? Increasing numbers of health-conscious individuals are eating most of their food uncooked. Raw foods–food that is not heated above 120∫F–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?

Advocates say yes, and swear that eating raw cleanses your body, mind and spirit. If you think that entails eating nothing but salads and smoothies until wheatgrass sprouts from your ears, you may be surprised to hear what’s on raw-food menus–many-layered lasagna, veggie burgers, ice cream and chocolate mousse 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.

Cherie Soria, a raw-food chef who founded the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in California, 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 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 RenÈe Loux Underkoffler writes, ‘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.’

However, while ‘Replacing refined, processed foods with raw foods is a healthy move, and eating a few raw meals a week can be great, it’s important not to go to the extreme,’says Claudia Gonzalez, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She says the enzymes needed to digest foods don’t come from the food we eat, but are made by our bodies.

Gonzalez says it’s hard to eat more than 1,200 calories a day in uncooked foods. ‘It’s very challenging in social situations to eat raw,’ says Gonzalez. Plus, cooking food below 160 degrees can lead to food-borne illness,’ she warns.

Recent reports about acrylamide, a chemical found in carbohydrate-rich foods, may give some scientific credence to an uncooked diet. Acrylamide is naturally formed in some starchy foods, such as french fries and cereals, when they are roasted, fried or baked at temperatures from 120∫F to 248∫F. The Food and Drug Administration characterizes the chemical as a potential human carcinogen and genotoxin (meaning it can damage DNA), as well as a known neurotoxin, and has called acrylamide in food a ‘major concern.’ Eating raw would avoid it.

While there aren’t yet any raw-food restaurants in Honolulu, elsewhere places like star chef Matthew Kenney’s Pure Food and Wine in Manhattan draw crowds and kudos with dishes such as pineapple-cucumber gazpacho and Thai lettuce wraps. A slew of recent cookbooks have 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 companies such as Living Tree Community Foods and Eat Raw, offer raw snacks like olives and pecan pie squares.

Make it yourself

Of course, the freshest way to go raw is to slice and juice in your own kitchen. Dewart says a set of good knives and a cutting board are the basics, and a blender or food processor is a good idea, along with a juicer. Many raw foodists also invest in a dehydrator, since heating foods above the temperature of a summer’s day is out. This gently warms food, and is useful for preparing nut and seed loaves, says Dewart. 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 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 suggest taking a B12 supplement, the one vitamin that can’t be found or made by the body without consuming animal products. But some people argue that’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.

Going raw has eco-benefits too. 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.

Originally published in E/TheEnvironmental Magazine.