Monday, June 8, 2009

Raw Foods Reviewed

An interest in raw food diets is sprouting up across the country (pun intended). Raw milk and almonds have been the topic of debate for regulators on the basis of food safety and freedom of choice on the part of 'raw foodists'. My interest in raw foods began in college and is fueled by health conscious friends who have embraced the diet. My recent review of Dr. Colin Campbell's China Study has me reexamining cultural diets.

Raw food diets are based on the principle that the cooking process strips vital nutrients from natural foods and that eating your food raw not only retains all the minerals and nutrients of fresh foods, but it makes it easier to digest and can help detoxify your system.

According to Cathy Wong at AltMedicine, the diet typically consists of unprocessed, preferably organic, whole foods such as: fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, grains, legumes, dried fruit, seaweed, unprocessed organic or natural foods, freshly juiced fruit and vegetables, purified water, and young coconut milk. At least 75% of food consumed should not be heated over 116 degrees F.

Specific preparation techniques aimed at making food more digestible and to add variety are: sprouting seeds, grains, and beans, juicing fruit and vegetables, soaking nuts and dried fruit, blending, and dehydrating food. Raw foodists have kitchen equipment consisting of a food dehydrator in place the microwave, a juicer, a blender or food processor, and seed sprouting containers.

Critics of the diet warn of nutrient deficiencies, specifically in calcium, iron, B12, protein and calories. They also say that the body produces the enzymes it needs to digest foods. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham recently released his provocative new book, CATCHING FIRE: How Cooking Made Us Human, which was recently reviewed by the New York Times.

As an RD, I thought I'd hop over to to see what the American Dietetic Association Public Relations Team had to say:
The premise of the raw food diet is to cook foods below 160 degrees Fahrenheit to keep food enzymes intact so that the body can better absorb nutrients in the food. The problem with this theory is that the body already makes the enzymes needed to digest and absorb foods.

The raw foods diet encourages you to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a definite nutritional plus. But there are real food safety risks. The diet calls for eating a variety of sprouts, many of which grow in environments that can promote harmful bacterial growth. And cooking foods below 160 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to foodborne illness.

As with any diet, when evaluating the “raw foods” approach, ask questions. If you think “This sounds too good to be true,” it probably is.
The diet contains fewer trans fats and saturated fat than the typical Western diet. It is also low in sodium and high in potassium, magnesium, folate, fiber and health-promoting plant chemicals called phytochemicals.

These properties are associated with a reduced risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. For example, a study by Koebnick et. al. published in the Journal of Nutrition found that consumption of a raw food diet lowered plasma total cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations; however, they also found increased levels of homocysteine and lowered HDL cholesterol. An observational study by Donaldson et. al.. published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2001 found fibromyalgia syndrome improved using a mostly raw vegetarian diet. Since the literature is sparse, I recommend a some peer reviewed studies like this:

Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is an independent documentary film that chronicles six Americans with 'incurable' diabetes switching their diet and getting off insulin.

Maybe a complete raw food diet isn't ideal, but neither is the Standard American Diet (SAD) where "everything fits." A recent trip to the first raw food restaurant in Portland, Maine furthered my interest in the cuisine. GRO (Grassroots Organic) Juicebar/Cafe/Chocolatier was a rewarding meal that left me awestruck. The food was moderately priced, packed with flavor, and left me with a strange food high. We feasted on:
  • Sea Veggie Shitake Collard Rolls- Wilde Main sea-veggies, marinated shitakes, sprouts and choice veggies wrapped in a live collard green with almond-lime sauce and served with sesame-ginger dipping sauce
  • Nori Dumplings- A creamy blend of cashew, pine nut, garlic and seasoning with shitake and spinach folded with love into a nori triangle and served with Tamari (glueten free) and Nama Shoyu (raw soy with gluten)
  • Sesame Spicy Cold Noodles- Fresh Zucchini noodles tossed with crunchy vegetables and an awesome almond lime sauce
  • Sin-Free Apple 3.14- A fresh and crisp apple pie with a cashew and brasil nut crust and topped with macademia sauce.
Our guide and owner Igor Rakuz fed us tons of raw chocolate made in house with raw cocao butter, coconut oil, maca, and agave nectar. We sipped on Kava tea, known for its ability to promote relaxation and talked about his vision for the restaurant, which has come to be a community epicenter based on food sovereignty and health. The days following city council members were meeting to discuss the removal of fluoride from the city's water.

The restaurant also impressed me in its sustainability methods. The back room was sprouting much of its own food and an in house humidifier where they grew their own mushrooms. They were also composting, recycling, reusing and reducing their impact in a variety of ways. The only use local spring water that the employees must fetch daily. The restaurant was donned with literature and books for customers to educate themselves on wondrous super foods as they waited for the friendly crew to loving prepare the meal. On the wall was the quote: "Food Sovereignty: the ability of any group of people to define, create and distribute their food and water independently."


Julie Mac said...

Very interesting post! I'm definitely going to check out that Diabetes documentary.

The China Study is an amazing book. It was a true page-turner for me - moreso than any mystery novel. Dr. Campbell is a large part of the reason I'm so interested in nutrition.

Nathalie Lussier said...

What an amazing and comprehensive post about raw food and vegan diets.

I am such a huge fan of The China Study. I've been to China and it's sad for me to see how their diet is changing more toward our Standard American Diet here.

I have family members with diabetes and heart conditions, so for me raw is a way of life. It's all about prevention and taking good care of each other, not about restriction.

Like you said, the food is tasty and fresh! Who can beat that? ;)

Ashley said...

Julie Mac- Thanks for your comment. The documentary is crazy and it has Woody Harrelson, a long time raw foodist in it. Too bad they didn't have a professional research team to document and write up the results.

Nathalie- Sadly the Western diet is spreading. One of the fundamental issues with this is that much of the world desires to have the luxuries of the west. While we are seeing the ramifications of a consumer based convenience culture, what right do we have to manage the rest of the world and warn them of our quandaries?