The raw foods movement, long considered an obscure offshoot of the vegan lifestyle, is entering the mainstream. From crackers to coconut water, labels touting “raw” are popping up on the shelves of not only health food stores but in conventional supermarkets and groceries as well. These products claim to be more healthful than their more commonplace baked, fried, or in some way heat-processed, counterparts. They claim to be “live” foods and vie for our attention among the myriad fat-free, gluten-free, organic and other vigor-inducing choices available to us when we shop.
Of course, we all eat some raw foods. Anyone who has had a salad for lunch or bitten into an apple has eaten “raw.” So what is all the fuss about? The proponents of raw foodism maintain that anywhere from 80 to 100 percent of one’s total diet should be raw. The raw foods diet consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, greens, nuts, seeds and sprouted grains and beans. Some foods can be gently heated, but must stay below 104 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on which branch of rawism you subscribe to, in order to be considered raw. This becomes important since in addition to blending, sprouting, fermenting and juicing, dehydrating with low-heat temperatures plays an important role in creating dishes that have variety and, to some extent, mimic the baked goods we’re used to eating, like crackers, chips and bread.
A form of raw foodism started in the late 19th century and progressed, bolstered by studies, anthropological records and personal experiences, into diverse nutritional regimens including juicing, fasting, detoxification – and the growing enthusiasm for the raw foods movement of today. The basic tenet of this movement is that eating cooked foods is harmful to our bodies: consuming foods that are raw and plant-based is far more conducive to physical well-being and is, in fact, what nature intended. The foundation for this belief lies in human evolution. Because cooking is a relatively recent phenomenon in the course of human development, the laws of natural selection would dictate that our anatomy, especially our gastrointestinal tracts, had already adapted to better digest and assimilate the foods prehistoric humans ate for hundreds of thousands of years – raw foods – before cooking ever entered the scene. Raw foodists argue that the nutrients in uncooked food are more readily absorbed, or bioavailable, than those in cooked food and that raw food will keep us disease-free in numerous ways:
- Raw foods contain enzymes that help to break down what we consume and also to build necessary proteins. Heating kills these enzymes, thus raw foods are described as live. When eating cooked food, our systems overcompensate for the lack of live enzymes, eventually causing digestive and other illnesses.
- Cooking diminishes or destroys many of the nutrients present in food.
- Cooking causes toxic compounds to form in foods. Some of these are: acrylamide, known to be a human carcinogen; advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, associated with inflammatory and age-related disorders such as arteriosclerosis, hypertension, stroke and heart failure; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, an industrial pollutant and carcinogen.
- Raw foods are low in acid and are in alignment with the blood’s inherent pH balance, which is alkaline. Eating cooked food promotes acidity in the blood which disrupts its normal low-acid level, leading to mineral loss and disease.
- Raw foods are rich in antioxidants, preventing the production of free radicals which do damage to the body and are associated with cancer and coronary heart disease.
- Raw foods help digestion by populating the intestine with beneficial bacteria.
The jury is still out on whether a 100 percent raw diet is sustainable in the long term. A number of raw foodists have gone “high-raw” (80 to 95 percent raw) and find that to be a better alternative. The importance of omega-3 fatty acids is becoming increasingly prevalent in scientific literature. One problem with a fully raw diet is that one must eat a large quantity of nuts and seeds to get enough calories, resulting in a diet that is too high in omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3’s. Non-raw foodists and non-vegans also tend toward this unfavorable ratio in their diets. The best way to get your omega-3’s is to eat plenty of greens. Indeed, “green smoothies,” green leafy vegetables and fruit combined in a high-powered blender, have become a staple of the raw foods diet.
Many people claim to not only feel better when eating raw foods, but to have overcome serious illnesses that traditional medicine could not treat. There is ample anecdotal evidence to support the use of a purely raw diet as a powerful therapeutic tool. Raw foods pioneer Victoria Boutenko documents, in her writings, how going raw cured family members of arrhythmia, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. The radio personality Don Imus turned to raw foods and alleges to have stopped the spread of stage 2 prostate cancer.
Raw foodism remains a practice that challenges cultural norms, and more research needs to be done before its effects are fully understood. Advocates have regarded themselves as being on a personal journey seeking the optimal formula for utmost health. Lately, though, more and more people from all walks of life are becoming curious about what raw foods can do for them. Certified raw food chef and instructor Michelle Premura, who, along with artist Michael Milton runs the Turquoise Barn [linked to http://www.turquoisebarn.com/index.html], a vegetarian and vegan raw food bed & breakfast and learning center in upstate New York, has expanded her offerings of classes, workshops and retreats to meet demand. “The increased interest makes sense,” she says, “as more individuals are becoming aware of the correlation between plant-based diets, healthy lifestyle, weight loss and overall well being.” And Greg, a waiter at Pure Food and Wine, an upscale raw foods restaurant in Manhattan that has been in operation for nine years, revealed, “It’s busier this year than ever. There are tons of reservations and walk ins. It’s been insane.” The raw foods diet is a paradigm shift away from not only the typical American diet but the typical vegan diet as well. It just might be, however, an approach to eating whose time has come.