Living Foods Getting a Raw Deal?
foodists are passionate about their beliefs. Jane Liaw
wonders if we should all join the raw foods movementor if
the raw foods movement should join the real world. Illustrated by
Tell me what
you eat. Ill tell you who you are.
Vie is not overtly Zen-like. This popular restaurant in Santa
Cruz is no oasis of pan flute music or trickling water. Instead,
blenders at the bar and in the kitchen create a symphony of industrial
noise. The only Oasis here is the band of that name playing on the radio;
above the music I hear the chefs joyous and delicate yawling along
to one of the bands songs.
is surprisingly lively for a place that specializes in raw, or
living, foods. Raw
food is uncooked vegan food, with menus that include juices and
creative raw versions of noodles, cheese, and chocolate cake. I
had learned about raw foods a few years ago when celebrities like
Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson embraced the diet. I had an image
of people in the raw foods world as otherworldly advocates of
spiritualism. And some are; I met a few. Yet raw foodists, like
any group of human beings, defy stereotype. Each one is drawn to
the lifestyle for a specific reason.
looking for a socially responsible mission, says the owner of La
Vie, Yeyen Gunawan. Im in it to make the world a better place, at
least to eat.
People who follow a raw foods
diet dont do it just because they think vegetables are tasty. They
believe the foods have enzymes that aid digestion and promote health.
Heating above 112F (or 108F or 116F, depending on the information
source), they say, destroys the enzymes and the foods lose their
nutritional value. Cooked foods are toxic and lead to obesity and
chronic diseases, according to their claims. Instead, they eat
unheated and unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains.
The last three items are often soaked in water for 24 hours so they
sprout and come alive.
scientists dispute the purported benefits of eating raw foods. Its
a bunch of crap, says nutritionist and toxicologist Sharon Fleming of UC Berkeley.
Theres virtually no scientific evidence for it and, in fact, theres
evidence against it.
views baffled me, much as the raw foods movement itself did when I
first read about it. I have thought an inordinate amount about the
foods I eat since my elementary school days, when I set up a trading
post to share the contents of my Tupperware with two friends every
lunch recess. Having grown up on Chinese and Southeast Asian
cuisine, I am not afraid of dishes that use weird animal parts. I
eat widely and I try to eat well. The notion of purposefully
restricting ones diet to raw vegetables and grains bewilders and
fascinates me. What leads people down this path I would never
choose for myself?
Not just garden salads
Raw foods advocates started pushing their diets
as early as the mid-19th century, when Presbyterian minister Sylvester
Grahamcreator of the Graham crackerclaimed uncooked food would
prevent illness. Recently, people in the western world have become
more concerned about where their food comes from and how it affects
their health. The raw foods movement is an extreme example of a
response to our processed diets.
cuisine is much more than salads. Preparing it is a prime playground
for people interested in experimenting with the science of food.
Meals take a great deal of finesse and can be expensive. Raw
foodists brew tea using the suns heat and they cold-press coffee,
leaving the beans to soak in cold purified water overnight.
Dehydrating food takes eight to 36 hours. Indeed, people who follow
this diet must have certain equipment at home, such as a dehydrator,
a juicer, and a blender. The Vita-Mix blender is often recommended
for its power. It also comes with a powerful pricetag of several
While the foods arent
technically cooked, they arent in natural raw forms, either. Some
scientists say this isnt surprising, as people are not biologically
adapted to eat purely raw foods (see sidebar).
Public health educator and licensed dietitian
Suzanne Havala Hobbs of the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill reviewed academic studies conducted of raw
food diets. Of the 24 studies she found, only a few were from the
United States, while most were European. The studies focused on
different health outcomes. Four found that subjects lost substantial
weight. Uncooked vegan diets apparently led to fewer symptoms of
fibromyalgia in two cases, as well as decreased cholesterol levels
in a single study. Four studies highlighted changes in fecal
bacteria, such as a decrease in certain toxic products, which could
lower the risks of colon cancer and ease the symptoms of rheumatoid
arthritis. On the other hand, two studies indicated that raw
foodists lacked enough vitamin B12. Shortfalls of calcium and
protein are a concern as well, Hobbs adds.
thinks theres nothing wrong with eating predominantly raw foods,
as long as one gets enough nutrients. That said, she doesnt foresee
hordes of people taking up raw foods diets. A diet of 85 percent
raw food is ambitious, she says. Even the raw foods leaders I
talked to conceded it was hard to follow that diet all the time,
says Hobbs. Some raw foodists I interviewed mentioned how tough
it is to stick to this diet in social settings, as well as the
nagging temptation to eat cooked foodsespecially during winter.
Instead, average Americans could benefit
from boosting their raw fruit and vegetable intake to 25 percent
of their diets, she says. Because of their high water and fiber
content, fruits and vegetables can help reduce gastrointestinal
problems, constipation, and hemorrhoids, and perhaps help people
lose weight safely, Hobbs believes. Theres enough background in
science to explain why [raw foodists] are seeing some of these
benefits, she says.
Hobbs herself is
vegetarian and has tried eating raw foods for short periods. I
felt fantastic, she says. I was intrigued by how well I felt.
Hobbs also conducted the only academic survey
on the practices and beliefs of raw foods leaders. Many of them
reported feeling more alert, energetic, and lighter when eating raw
foods. Some findings Hobbs expected, such as better digestion and
fewer allergies. Some findings surprised her: subjects reported
needing less sleep and healing faster. One even found it harder
to get sunburns. Without controlled studies, Hobbs can only guess
that beta-carotene may play a role.
In keeping with raw foodist beliefs,
the chefs at La Vie do not heat food past 112F. This, they say,
protects the living enzymes. Enzymes in your body are responsible
for many things, like blinking your eyes and digestion, Gunawan
says. You lose enzymes as you get older, and your eyes get smaller.
Your bones shrink.
The importance of keeping
enzymes alive in food is a common refrain among raw foodists, but
Sharon Fleming disagrees. Theres no evidence that any enzyme we
consume survives the low pH [acidity] of the gastrointestinal tract
to be utilized elsewhere, she says. Theres no evidence that enzyme
activity goes down as we age, except in the very senescent period.
Even in old age, she says, Theres no data to suggest that theres a
decrease in the absorption of nutrients except for [vitamin] B12.
Not only that, studies show that numerous
proteins in foods protect the food from microbes and insects, Fleming
says. Heat or acid must deactivate these proteins to make them
safe to consume. Fleming raises the example of trypsin inhibitorsproteins that exist in a wide range
of plants, from soybean to sweet potato. If trypsin inhibitors are
not inactivated, they bind to the trypsin enzyme found in the
gastrointestinal tract and prevent it from breaking down other
proteins in food. Our bodies would absorb far fewer nutrients as
a result, she says.
Also, Fleming says,
there is evidence that harmful bacteria can exist in foods even
when they are handled carefully. Heat and acids can neutralize
these bacteria and reduce the risk of food poisoning.
Hobbs agrees that the living enzyme theory held
by raw foods advocates has no scientific basis. However, she still
believes raw foods bear closer scrutiny. Many bench scientists,
she suspects, take a reductionist view of nutrition. They focus
on one isolated component, such as trypsin inhibitors, and its
interaction with other components. Especially for people with no
cultural context outside of the American diet, its hard to break
out of the paradigm most of us were trained in, Hobbs explains.
The carnivorous raw foods chef
Raw food is growing more popular, though its still
unusual enough that just 3 percent of even La Vies customers claim
they eat only raw foods, says Gunawan. The rest are health-conscious
organic supporters, she says. And only part of La Vies menu is
raw; the balance consists of hearty cooked vegetarian dishes such
as chili and curry.
Head chef Chris Howe
came to La Vie from England, armed with training in classical French
cuisine. The 27-year-old has worked in kitchens since he was eleven.
Along the way, hes passed through restaurants big and small, including
one that served so many customers that soup was made in tubs and
stirred with rowing oars.
Most people in
the raw food world, theyre coming to it from being vegetarian cooks
and vegan chefs, Howe says. They dont necessarily have the experience
and background that Ive got.
Is Howe a vegan
or raw foodist? No, he laughs. Im a staunch meat-eater.
|Slideshow: Author Jane Liaw asks chef Chris Howe
to show off his creations at La Vie. (Click
image to launch show.) |
It was a tough
culture to get his head around, Howe says, but hes used the science
behind his classical training as a basis to fuel his creations.
With French cuisine, youve got the better part of 150 years of
science and experiments going, and raw food is still very young.
Its reasonably basic when it comes to what you can do with it, he
Once Howe figured out how the
equipment worked and how foods reacted after processingfor instance,
what happens when water is extracted from flaxseed or nuts are
soaked to make them softerhe found the cooking simple.
I watch as Howe puts together a raw sampler plate,
including a caprese with a cashew-based topping. Blended cashew
is commonly used in raw foods dishes, often as a substitute for
cream or cheese. The caprese cracker in this sampler is pulp left
over from juicing and dried in the dehydrator. Its a creative and
flavorful recycling job.
Did Howes crash
course in raw foods convince him to become a raw foodist himself?
Just the opposite, actually, he says. The characters I meet that
are raw foodiststhose on a 100 percent raw foods diettend to be a
little out of it, distant and spaced out when Howe talks to them.
Maybe they are just super chilled all the time? he wonders.
La Vie owner Gunawan does not follow a strict
raw foods diet either, though every year she undergoes a 30-day raw
foods cleanse. The rest of the year, she eats healthily, but allows
herself almost anything. I want to enjoy life and not get too
stressed about eating, she says. The marketplace seems to bear
this out: Even in the food-liberal Bay Area, only a handful of raw
foods restaurants exist, such as La Vie and
Alive! in San Francisco.
a tiny space on Lombard Street, to which I bring two friends. They
are impressed by the taste of the raw dishes. The raw seaweed salad
we order is a particular hitvinegary and light, one can almost feel
the Health go down with each swallow. We top dinner off with a
cheesecake of blended cashew and fresh strawberry sauce. We agree
that dessert is a success. Then we bid the Alive! staff farewell
and end the night over a big plate of greasy fries in New Chinatown.
Eating for balance
their bodies in an acid-alkaline balance is another tenet of raw
foodists. Alissa Cohen, a well-known raw foods figure, provides
her perspectives on the health benefits of a raw foods diet on her
website. An overly acidic body leads to various illnesses
such as arthritis, depression, and constipation, according to Cohen.
More seriously, an acidic environment promotes cancer cell growth,
say some raw foodists. According to their beliefs, meat, fish,
dairy, and just about everything else found in the average Western
diet are all acid-forming. Cooking food also increases its acidity,
Not so, says Fleming. The human
body has a pH of 7.2 or 7.3, slightly on the alkaline side.
Protein-rich foods such as meat are alkaline. Theres no evidence
bodies are acidic, Fleming says. The body has lots of redundant
mechanisms to carefully regulate pH. Theres no situation where a
body can get out of whack just from diet. You wouldnt be alive.
When Hobbs surveyed raw foods leaders, none of
them mentioned acid-alkaline balance. After speaking with many raw
foodists, I get the sense that every adherent derives what he or
she needs from the movements tenets. No two followers care about
exactly the same things.
Tell me what you
eat. . .
Raw food proponents have made
some grand claims about what their diet can accomplish, some of
which do not seem backed by science.
the high one gets from doing something perceived as good for ones
health and soul cannot be discounted. People following the raw
foods diet often report feeling newly energized. Hobbs acknowledges
that some benefits, such as feeling lighter, might be psychological
or secondary to actual health effects. Also, many studies show
vegetarian diets improve health, while severe calorie restriction
increases longevity in laboratory animals. These related aspects
of the diet may influence the health of followers, more so than the
act of eating raw.
Hobbs thinks researchers
should carry out more large-scale studies of diets that contain
bushels of produce, such as vegan and raw foods diets. Shes
especially keen to know if theres a percentage of raw foods in the
diet at which nutritional needs are met, yet health advantages
maximized. Itll be interesting to see where to draw that line, she
Even with their limited menu, many
raw foodists say they feel satisfied. But in a land of plenty,
food means more than sustenance. We seek comfort, identity and
connection through food. The raw foods lifestyle continues to
entice a growing flock of disciples, all drawn for their own reasons.
I will not join their ranks, but having peeked into their world and
eaten their foods, I now have an inkling of who they are.
Sidebar: Our Iron Chef
of raw foodism is the belief that our ancestors, the early humans,
ate a raw diet. Man therefore is not built to eat cooked food and
should follow the raw diets of our forebears.
Scientists who study early human diets disagree.
I think theyre wrong because theres some lovely evidence that the
human body has biologically adapted and evolved to eat cooked food,
says Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard
Humans fare poorly on the
energy we get from raw food, Wrangham says. The more raw food we
eat, the thinner we get, even when we are eating high quality,
domesticated plant foods. We are also not well designed for eating
raw foods, with our small teeth and digestive systems. Our teeth
are good for the soft foods that cooking produces, but not for
tough, fibrous raw foods; our digestive systems are the smallest
among primates, particularly in the sections where primates hold
food for fermentation. This makes us poorly adapted to digesting
raw foods, Wrangham maintains.
points out that raw foodists process their food through blenders
and dehydrators. That, in a mild form, is cooking, and I dont blame
them, but it means the food isnt strictly raw in the way an animal
would eat it.
Cooking had a tremendous
effect on evolution, Wrangham says. He believes cooking began with
the origin of true humans, Homo erectus, two million years ago. At
that point, our ancestors teeth became smaller and their ribs flared
less, in line with a newly adopted cooked diet.
UC Santa Cruz anthropologist Nathaniel Dominy agrees that cooking played a
large part in human evolution. Cooking expanded the total range
of what was edible, Dominy says. This fueled population growth and
allowed humans to radiate from Africa to China and beyond, research
Both anthropologists noted that
all human cultures, with very different diets, cook their food.
Everybody expects a cooked evening meal, Wrangham says.
Wrangham sees beyond mere negatives when examining
the raw foods diet. I dont think raw food is bad for you; I think
its extremely good for you, he says. But we are not well-adapted
to eat it.
B.S. (Earth systems) Stanford University
M.P.H. (environmental health sciences) University of California,
Internship: Sacramento Bee (Kaiser Family
Foundation health reporting internship)
love a good mystery, and every science question is at heart a mystery
waiting to be unraveled. I also love stories of human drama. As
a public-health researcher, I have often written about the numbers
of people affected by health crises, and Ive longed to delve into
the lives behind the numbers. I have heard many anecdotes of tragedy
and triumph in epidemiology, but these will never make it into any
journal publication. I want to write articles that get readers as
excited as I am to explore the mysterious unknowns of human health.
I plan to present my subjects as people with stories worth telling,
people to whom attention must be paid.
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B.A. (history) Western
I received the
Ronald Reagan physical fitness award in 1985 at age 11. Since
then I have nurtured an addiction to bike travel with my enabler,
Christine. I am currently donating my art and time to the California
Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, while simultaneously planning
the layout of large paintings of spiders. Contact me.