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RAW FOOD: All Smoke and No Fire?

Fad? Fashion feasting for the free spirited flower child? Over-hyped healthy haute cuisine for  high street hipsters? Raw food is certainly a growing trend and as such trend setters are casting aside their stove tops all across the countryside. But is it here to stay? Is raw food cool for a reason?

Before you throw away your matches and forgo Sunday roast dinners let’s take a closer look at raw cuisine and what it is about, how it tastes and the claims of health benefits galore. And if you are a skeptic of this craze then let’s see if you are right to write it off as nothing more than an unlit pipe dream, all smoke and no fire. To understand raw foodism we will scratch beyond the surface and get to the raw essentials of what it is to be a real raw foodie.

Raw food – more than a fad?

For me raw food has always been a dichotomy. The cutting edge of flavour, ‘cooking’ techniques and nutrition. At the same time, raw foodism can also be dogmatic, pseudo-scientific and misinformed. Hearing claims of immortality, cancer cures and almost super human amounts of energy to be gained from a raw food diet certainly piques the interest; whilst for many of us also raises an immediate reaction of skepticism. Not to mention the fact that most of us like our food roasted, fried, baked and boiled – myself most definitely included. So the question remains whether a raw food diet is super healthy or based upon a bunch of half-baked theories?

I can still remember what it was that inspired me to think of raw food as something more than a fad. It was surfing. Not the internet as you may think, but Kelly Slater: surfing extraordinaire and supreme athlete.  When an 11-time world champion that is still on top of his game at the age of 39  attributes much of his health and energy to a raw food diet then I sit up and take interest. If raw foodism really is a super diet then I want to ride that wave.

The raw diet

So a few years ago I had my first introduction to raw food by eating a raw diet for a whole month. Sprouted grains and legumes, raw fish, beef carpaccio, zucchini and carrot noodles, rice paper rolls, Essene bread and Kale Chipswere all on the menu. In fact I found the raw food diet almost limitless in terms of what you can eat but also extremely limiting at the same time.

Starch was difficult to get in a digestible form, with the only real way to eat raw starches being to sprout things.  I also felt hungry constantly. But in a good way. Actually the hunger was not so much feeling starved as the craving that you get when your body is so addicted to refined sugars and starches that unless you eat large amounts of them your body tries to tell you that it needs more. I also liked the fact that I could eat almost constantly – a benefit that cannot be overstated in my view. Most important of all I felt energized and healthy.

Perhaps equally important to me as the feeling of health – because I am resigned to the fact that I am completely indiscriminate when it comes to the types of food I will eat and am not going to eat an all raw diet no matter how good it makes me feel –  was the new, interesting, fresh and intense flavours that I experienced. Raw food is flavour in its rawest form. When you strip away the distractions of cooking and leave ingredients completely unmolested then you experience a milieu of delicate and interesting flavours that you would otherwise never be aware of.

Raw food is not so much just a healthy way to eat, but an interesting, exciting and unique way of looking at flavours and ingredients. The techniques that are employed in raw cuisine – fermenting, slicing thinly, dehydrating, juicing and blending – are an amazing set of methods for preparing great food, regardless of whether you want to eat a raw food diet or not.

Raw food – nutrition or attrition?

It has now been two years since my first raw food experiment. In this time I have not become raw foodist, but I have been left intently interested in raw cuisine – for its flavours, techniques and of course the way it makes the body feel. And if you ever get the chance to try some raw desserts I strongly recommend you give them a try. It is not often that you will try something that is so rich and satisfying yet makes you feel so good afterwards.

It also it a plain and simple fact that if you eat a varied and well thought out raw diet (i.e. one that contains enough protein, carbohydrates, B vitamins and iron)  that it will inevitably be a healthy one. This is for the very simple reason – other factors aside – that a raw food diet will not contain any refined foods that are the general culprits of bad diet in the modern age and will contain loads of veggies, nuts, seeds, grains, sprouted foods, fermented foods and lean meat which are all extremely healthy things to eat.

But here is the crux of the question. Beyond the diet of healthy ingredients, clean flavours and use of top quality produce is there something more to raw food? Does the fact that it is raw make it any healthier than a similar diet of wholegrains, vegetables and zero refined foods? I have also tried eating only vegetables and wholegrains and I felt equally energized and healthy on this kind of diet. So, other than the fact that the raw diet in general tends to be extremely healthy, what are some of the theories that raw food enthusiasts subscribe to?

Raw food theory

Perhaps the foundation of the raw food paradigm is the idea that cooking food destroys enzymes important in our digestion of food. It is a well known fact that enzymes denature beyond about 45°C and stop working, so if food does have important enzymes for our diet this would hold some truth.

It is also a well known fact that enzymes work as catalysts in biochemical processes – including helping us digest our food. An example where a lack of an enzyme in our stomach can severely affect our digestion is that of lactase. Lactase is an enzyme that the body produces to help cut the bond of the complex sugar in milk (lactose) into more digestible simple sugars (glucose and galactose). Without the lactase enzyme the body finds it hard to digest lactose and makes the stomach sore and the digestive system break down in various ways. This is what lactose intolerance is – a reasonably common condition especially in children.

The idea that our food may contain helpful digestive enzymes was most famously put forward by a man named Dr Edward Howell in a book called: Enzyme Nutrition – the Food Enzyme Concept published in 1985. In his book Dr Howell proposed the idea that food in its raw state contains many digestive enzymes. He actually made a lot of other claims, like enzymes hold a ‘life force’ key to longevity and that the body has an ‘enzyme potential’ for creating enzymes and when that is used up we die – hence the claims of extreme longevity on a raw diet, because according to Howell, raw food contains enzymes that our body can use instead of its limited stores of enzymes in the body. Suffice to say that Dr Howell made many claims in his book some of which may sound great in theory and none of which have ever been proved by science. But they are still concepts held onto by many raw foodists.

Raw facts

What we do know is that many digestive enzymes in food are killed by the body’s stomach acid, which mean that digestive enzymes in food most likely only play a minor role in our digestion, if any at all. So Dr. Howell’s theory does not have much credence here.

We also know that a lot of food is actually made more digestible once cooked. This is because some food contains digestion inhibitors such as anti-amylases (which inhibit the enzyme that helps break down starch into simple sugars in the stomach) and anti-proteases (which inhibit the enzyme that helps break down protein into amino acids in the stomach). Also certain types of food like starches and some types of protein (e.g. collagen) are easier to digest when cooked.

Although this is not necessarily true of sprouted foods. The sprouting process gets rid of many enzyme inhibitors and converts indigestible starches into digestible sugars. If you ever get a chance to try ‘activated nuts’ (which are sprouted nuts that have then been dehydrated to make them super crunchy again) I strongly suggest you give them they will redefine what a nut should taste like!

Cooking also causes some vitamins to leach out and dissipate from food, although in most cases the loss is minor and there are cooking techniques to stop the worst of it happening. Then there is oxalic acid which occurs in many leafy greens which binds calcium and many important minerals. It is found to be leached out into the cooking water if the Kale Chips are cooked. But there is some evidence that soaking greens in water without any heat will leach out some oxalic acid also. Not to mention the theory that oxalic acid can encourage peristalsis – which is the muscle contraction your digestive system goes through to push food through the intestines – which is considered a good thing.

Raw food – a complicated and understudied topic

Confused? That is because the topic is complex. I mention these things only to make the point that many of the claims made by either side of the raw food debate are from under-studied areas of science where ideas have just not be tested thoroughly and have not been replicated  if studied- an important benchmark if a theory is to gain any serious consideration.

Perhaps the most interesting example of one of these studies is one performed by Kouchakoff in 1930.  Simply put, Kouchakoff found that eating cooked food caused the white blood count to increase in the body (white blood cells are an integral part of the immune system), while eating raw food did not. This was a process he coined ‘digestive leukocytosis’. Raw foodists ever since have suggested that this is proof that the body sees cooked food as a foreign invasion and causes the immune system to kick into action, putting the body under all stress.

But I am sure you have guessed the problem here. This study was carried out over 80 years ago and has not apparently been replicated. There are a few ideas as to why this is the case – the most obvious of which is that the original findings were incorrect and therefore not possible to replicate. Although one would surely expect any counter findings to be published?! Of course there is the conspiracy theorists that say that researchers haven’t replicated the study because they have some vested interest against raw food. And then there is a far more likely possibility that the original 1930’s study is of little interest to researchers.

For starters leukocytosis is not considered to be a pathological process by many. The fact that white blood cell counts have also been shown to increase after exercise (something we know is good for us!) certainly doesn’t support the Kouchakoff’s theory here. Also the fact that the white blood cells produced after exercise have been shown to be different to the ones produced when there are invading pathogens in the blood stream also suggests that there are different kinds of increased immune activity – not all necessarily bad.

Of course it is slightly strange as to why no follow up studies have ever been published, because it is interesting information either way as far as I can see. Regardless, this phenomenon (if it truly exists) has not really been studied to any degree since the 1930’s in a very flawed study that has been misquoted by raw food enthusiasts for many years now. So we are again left with the only conclusion that we just don’t really know and what we do know we are completely unsure about.

Perhaps the best form of evidence that a raw  diet can achieve amazing health outcomes in a very short space of time was a study that was aired in a BBC documentary in 2007 called ‘Going Ape’. The documentary put nine ‘unhealthy’ volunteers aged 36-49 into an enclosure at Paignton Zoo in Devon for 12 days on a ‘paleo diet’ of raw fruit and veg and some cooked oily fish.

The average cholesterol of the group dropped an astounding 23%, the average blood pressure went from 140/83 to 122/76 and average weight loss was 4.4kg. These were astounding results in such a short space of time. But of course there was nothing in this study to show that it was the rawness of the food that caused this and not just the high fibre, high nutrient and low fat, no refined food diet that was the cause. Similar results have been found from other similar studies – so this was not an anomaly. The raw food diet can be spectacular in terms of health, it is just that it is not necessarily the rawness of the food that is the cause of these great health outcomes.

Conclusion

Yet again we are back at the point of recognizing that a raw food diet is an extremely healthy diet and is interesting in terms of flavours and cooking techniques. We know that the cooking process can leach some vitamins, but also that cooking food can have some benefits. We also know that cooking food can cause some carcinogenic compounds to form and that a raw food diet can lead to things like vitamin B12 deficiency if not carefully considered.

There is also the fact that cooked fats and refined sugars and carbohydrates are a leading cause of heart disease and diabetes today. These are things that do not exist in the raw diet.

So is the raw diet going to change your life? The answer is most probably going to be a resounding yes! But is it the rawness of the food that is the cause of this change or merely a by-product of the ingredients that the diet mainly consists of? The answer would most likely be that it is not really the raw food itself that is the cause of great health outcomes but merely a happy by-product of eating a healthy wholefood diet. Of course raw food in itself does definitely have some benefits and may well prove to have more if anyone actually studies it some more. And of course there is the fact that raw food as a cuisine offers some fantastic recipes and flavours.

So in terms of flavour, health and culinary interest raw food gets a massive thumbs up. Just don’t go getting carried away when someone tries to tell you that there is some mystical reason for it being an amazing diet just yet. A raw diet doesn’t need hearsay to be convincingly good, it is a ‘rawing’ success of its own volition! As the saying goes – where there is smoke there is fire. Where there is no fire there is a wealth of healthy, delicious and interesting cooking techniques to discover.

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4 thoughts on “RAW FOOD: All Smoke and No Fire?

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