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Are Living Foods Getting a Raw Deal?

Raw 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 Marlin Petersen.

Illustration: Marlin Petersen

Tell me what you eat. Ill tell you who you are.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

La 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.

La Vie 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.

I was 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.

However, some 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.

These polar-opposite 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.

Raw food 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 hundred dollars.

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.

Hobbs 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.

Killer heat

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 says.

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.

Alive! occupies 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

Keeping 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, they claim.

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.

However, 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 says.

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 Ancestors

One tenet 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 University.

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.

He also 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 suggests.

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.

Story 2008, Jane Liaw. For reproduction requests, contact the Science Communication Program office for author's email address.



Jane Liaw
B.S. (Earth systems) Stanford University
M.P.H. (environmental health sciences) University of California, Berkeley
Internship: Sacramento Bee (Kaiser Family Foundation health reporting internship)

I 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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Marlin Peterson
B.A. (history) Western Washington University

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.






Our Iron Chef Ancestors