The buzz on “raw” is growing, and it has nothing to do with Internet porn or professional wrestling. People are talking about the raw food movement, championed by raw foodists who in varying degrees and applications discourage the use of heat in food preparation. Proponents argue that cooking—vegetables in particular, but some also promote eating raw animal meats—reduces nutrients and alters how nature intended us to eat and digest.
A counter-argument holds that the practice of eating raw food—animal organs in particular—should stay where it belongs, on reality television shows. Cooking improves taste, and in some instances, nutrient value.
Raw foodism occupies a wide spectrum. Über-trendy restaurants from New York to San Francisco specialize in raw-only food. [Non]cookbooks show readers how to prepare beans with a soak instead of a boil. Looking at it objectively, there are advantages to cold, medium and hot approaches—cooking does kill scary bacteria, sometimes raw tastes better, and often a little bit of cooking can get it just right. Real evidence of raw’s effect on nutrition and long term human health is scant—understandably, it’s hard to study—so much of it comes down to personal preferences. But it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?
How raw can you go?
Raw foodism is easier to understand by looking at what it avoids. Boiling vegetables, the only way to go for most of the twentieth century, was a way to ensure nasty germs and insects would not make it alive to the dinner table. But evidence clearly shows that nutrients are lost in cooking as well, leached into the water or destroyed altogether.
So enter raw foodists, who basically divide into two main camps: those who do and do not eat animal meats. The plant-eaters avoid heating food above 115 degrees F (46 degrees C), and they have an affinity for sprouted grains and legumes. Nothing beats eating new life, apparently. The raw animal food eaters offer a bit more challenging scenario: they consume uncooked, unprocessed meats (including organs), aged and fermented (i.e., rotting) meat, and shellfish and unpasteurized dairy products. Their temperature max is 104 degrees F (40 degrees C); some will accept cold-smoked meats.
The argument used by both vegetarian/vegan and carnivorous raw foodists is that vital nutrients and naturally occurring enzymes in food are destroyed by cooking. Going a step further, meat, starches and vegetables subjected to very high heat form the chemical acrylamide. These are found in the blackened parts of your food, particularly after exposure to high heat (e.g., a barbecue), and present in processed foods that are browned, such as French fries, potato chips, breakfast cereals, cookies, toast and coffee. Meat additionally takes on something called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) from high heat. Lab animal testing has found both substances to be carcinogenic in high concentrations. What’s unclear is how much of either element is too much.
Raw foodists, such as those who subscribe to the Raw Food Network, believe that optimal health and weight management can be achieved with food that is uncooked. They may not apply heat to food, but they do believe in juicing and dehydrating, and some even manage to make a raw food cookie.
But practically speaking …
Really? Raw cookies? That anomaly aside, there are bigger questions to consider. If cooking is so bad for food, why has our species evolved so successfully with it? In fact, some scientists argue that the development of cooking allowed us to process more calories faster, leading to more free time for complex activities and the evolution of a larger brain. It may be fundamental to us as a species. Also, some foods are actually toxic when not cooked (kidney beans, rhubarb), while the cooking of tomatoes makes beneficial lycopene more bioavailable (cell walls break down, less so with raw tomatoes). As for the matter of natural vegetable and meat enzymes, the counter-argument is that chewing, saliva and stomach acids break those enzymes down anyway before nutrient absorption happens in the stomach.
I take my cues from the George Mateljan Foundation, an independent, non-profit company that promotes healthy nutrition based on the best available science. GMF does not support a completely raw food diet. The foundation’s online newsletter notes that various foods will fare differently depending on cooking times and methods used. Some rules of thumb:
- Boiling foods in water allows nutrients to leach into the water
- Broiling and roasting vegetables also reduce nutrients
- High heat (deep fry, direct barbecue grilling) causes formation of worrisome acrylamides and nutrient loss
- Steaming or microwaving foods with just a small amount of water enables greater nutrient retention
- Stir-frying in oil, if kept to a minimum amount of time, also retains more nutrients; some ends up in the oil, so try to use that in your meal
- Nutrient retention is also a function of time spent since harvest and conditions of storage (air and light degrade) – i.e., buy very fresh or frozen
- The size and density of the cooked item determines cook time – spinach is done in one or two minutes, potatoes take a lot longer (less if diced into small pieces).
Sprouted Quinoa Tabouleh
Gluten free, high in protein, this recipe requires 24 hours of forethought because those little quinoa grains have to kick into sprouting mode—but actual preparation is fast and simple.
½ cup quinoa
½ cup fresh mint, chopped
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup cucumber, diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
Sea salt to taste
Rinse quinoa thoroughly and place in bowl with enough water to cover. Allow quinoa to absorb water (about four hours). If it feels dry in the meantime, add more water. Once water is absorbed, place quinoa in straining basket, rinse and leave on counter. Rinse two more times during the day. Quinoa will sprout/germinate within 24 hours.
In large bowl, combine sprouted quinoa with remaining ingredients. Season to taste with sea salt and served chilled or at room temperature. Serves 6.
A final note: Mateljan tells us, “Processed foods often have nutrient losses in the 50 to 80 percent range … with very precise and short cooking times, you're likely to get nutrient losses in the five to 15 percent range.” Yet one more reason to learn to cook—but not too much.
About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, fitness trainer and author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004). For more information, http:russklettke.com.