The Raw Deal

The Raw Deal(cont.)

WEIRD SCIENCE

Raw foodists talk about how they don’t need sleep. They feel light. They glow. They heal themselves from fatal illnesses. Ann Wigmore wrote about successfully treating her colon cancer by eating weeds she’d foraged in a vacant lot.

Unlike vegetarianism or even veganism, raw foodism has a halo effect that often feels divorced from a scientific understanding of nutrition. Sarma Melngailis, who owns New York’s Pure Food


Raw desserts at Café Gratitude

and Wine, described the feeling of going raw on her blog as “like being on E.”

Raw foodists claim that when plants are cooked, their enzymes are broken down so that the body must use its own enzymes to digest the food. This, raw foodists say, overtaxes the body. But scientists have not found this to be true.

“This is nonsense,” says David A. Levinsky, professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University. “One of the first things our body does when a particular food is ingested is break the proteins down anyway, so we can absorb them.” The body produces more than enough enzymes, say scientists, to digest food without the help of the plants’ enzymes.

Though some vitamins and minerals—folic acid, for instance—are sensitive to heat and can be destroyed by cooking, studies have shown that letting vegetables sit for a week or two in your fridge before eating them will cause them to lose more nutritional value than steaming or lightly sautéing them.

“If you boil vegetables to death, you’ll lose some of the vitamins, but most people don’t do it this way,” says Bruce N. Ames, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California–Berkeley.

However the persistence of this belief about cooking and enzymes serves the gourmet raw foods movement well. Like the label organic, the term raw has begun to stretch to include not just caloric restaurant food but also packaged energy bars, granola, candy, and other questionably healthy items.

The same old rules apply to raw foods as they do to any kind of diet: Fats, sugars, and even protein should be consumed in extreme moderation, and one should eat as many water- and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables as possible. But the consumer can justify eating a candy bar, and even think it’s healthy, because it hasn’t been cooked and therefore contains magical, life-giving enzymes.

Rick Dina, a Northern California chiropractor and raw foods educator who teaches at Living Light, has an office close to where Roxanne’s restaurant was. “My wife and I would meet [fans of the restaurant] who said, ‘I went on a raw food diet, and I gained weight!’” says Dina. “Well, they went on a gourmet raw food diet, which is rich, creamy, and dehydrated. They kind of defeated the purpose.”

Dina is one of the purists: For breakfast he has a few cantaloupes; for lunch, salad; for dinner, salad. But he thinks eating lots of vegetables, even if you’re also eating cooked grains and the occasional piece of meat, is better than eating a bunch of sweet, processed foods that just happen to be raw. He jokingly calls people who go raw, only to eat packaged foods and restaurant dishes, productarians.

Purist Douglas Graham authored a book called The 80/10/10 Diet, which refers to the percentage of carbohydrates to fat to protein he believes should comprise one’s daily caloric intake. A typical breakfast consists of eight peaches. Lunch or dinner might be a bowl of soup made from three tomatoes blended up with two cucumbers.

“So far, at least in the last 20 years that I have been talking about 80/10/10, nobody has wanted to follow suit,” says Graham, referring to the world of raw foods cookbook authors, chefs, and entrepreneurs. “There’s no product associated with it. Nothing to sell. People can do it on their own.”

And therein lies the conundrum for the raw foods movement. How do you commercialize vegetable matter in its natural state? How do you sell a diet that’s founded on the idea that you can do nothing better for your health than picking and eating weeds from a vacant lot? The answer is, you can’t.

Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.