The raw food movement began in the 1970s, and has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Raw foodists generally eat a diet that is free from meat and processed products, with either very little or no cooked food consumed. While raw food proponents make claims of improved health, enhanced energy levels, and disease prevention, this growing health trend also attracts its fair share of sceptics.
Raw food recipes and diets have attracted some high profile devotees in recent years, including Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. For those people unwilling to embrace an exclusive raw food diet, there has also been an explosion of raw food recipes in magazines and raw food products in health food stores around the world.
Raw foodists believe the process of cooking food destroys enzymes that are essential to human health and makes food less easy to metabolise. According to this view, these enzymes provide a number of life-supporting benefits that are not passed on when food is heated past a certain point. Other raw food proponents claim that eating uncooked food can help reduce the uptake of tissue-damaging toxins such as acrylamide, a carcinogenic chemical which has been found in high concentrations in many baked and fried foods.
While the number of studies based around eating raw food is limited, there is some evidence linking raw food diets to improved health. However, like many studies based around food intake, it can be difficult isolating the reasons for particular results and quantifying subjective experiences. For example, while raw food diets have performed well in limited studies, people who follow a raw food diet generally eat more plant-based foods, which are better for you whether they are cooked or not.
While heat does destroy some healthy enzymes, processing food through heat can also boost the bioavailability of other key nutrients, primarily the phytonutrients. Heat is also capable of inactivating some unhealthy compounds, and is certainly necessary for meat eaters to avoid animal-borne diseases such as e-coli and salmonella. According to Andrea Giancoli, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, many of the benefits of raw food consumption can be attributed to simply eating a healthy balanced diet.
"While it's true that cooking causes enzymes to unravel, the same thing happens to those enzymes as soon as they hit the acidic environment of your stomach." said Giancoli, adding, "They're eating a lot of plants. Comprehensive lifestyle studies—like the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, which lasted 20 years and followed 6,500 participants—have found that plant-based diets greatly reduce the risk of chronic diseases and conditions."
Most dietitians agree that eating lots of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, and grains is a good idea. In a society bombarded by heavily processed foods and unhealthy ingredients, most people would benefit from increasing their intake of raw ingredients. However, with limited evidence to support the benefits of an exclusive raw food diet, you certainly don't have to feel guilty about enjoying the warmth and comfort of a well cooked meal.
January 24th, 2014