To cook or not to cook: is raw food the way forward?
Proponents of the diet believe it can lead to a healthier lifestyle, as well as helping the body fight disease. What's the science behind it?
I ALWAYS find the idea of a raw food diet to be rather extreme, scary and forbidding. I know there are people out there that swear by it, and fair play to them, but it always sounds to me like something that no sensible person would really ever contemplate.
A raw food diet is typically made up of fruit, vegetables, grains, seeds, nuts, and beans – the vast majority of which (over 80pc or more) are consumed raw.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the majority of raw foodists are also vegan, opting not to consume foods that have an animal origin. Some raw foodists consume raw eggs and cheese made from raw (unpasteurised) milk.
There are some rather extreme folk called 'raw carnivores' who consume raw meat, but that's rare (gotta love that pun).
So are raw food diets healthy? Well, the scientific verdict seems to be rather mixed.
Proponents of raw foodism claim that the higher the proportion of raw foods in our diet, the healthier we will be. They also believe that eating raw food enhances your body's ability to prevent and fight diseases, especially chronic diseases.
The main reason for this is the claim that cooking (above a temperature of 47C) destroys the enzymes in our food. According to raw foodists, enzymes are the life-force of our food, part of a very special mixture of ingredients that nature 'inserts' into food for maximum nutrition.
The enzymes allow us to digest and extract the nutrition from the food without using our own bodily enzymes. So, if we cook the food and destroy its enzymes, our body has to work harder to take on board the nutrients.
Cooking, they say, can also destroy essential minerals and vitamins, and at higher temperatures can create carcinogens – so you have a sort of triple whammy of lost enzymes, depleted vitamins and increased carcinogens.
There is evidence to suggest this is indeed the case with some vegetables.
One study showed that eating raw, cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale) may reduce the risk of bladder cancer – and that cooking the same vegetables robs them of their ability to alter the proteins in cancer cells. According to WebMD, another study showed that eating raw vegetables helps reduce the risk of oral and gastric cancers.
But raw food diets have their opponents too. The American Dietetic Association says that although it's true that cooking can deplete enzymes in food, the acid in our stomach does exactly the same thing.
In some cases, cooking actually releases the nutrients in some foods with the heat making them more accessible to the human body. Tomatoes, for example, do not release lycopene, a substance that appears to prevent diseases including cancer, unless cooked. The same applies with carrots and their carotene.
There's also a food safety issue. Cooking kills most of the potentially dangerous bacteria and other nasties that can lurk in food.
There's an added psychological benefit to cooked food that is often omitted from the discussion (depressingly, most latter-day discussions on food centre on a rather narrow measurement of nutrient and vitamin levels and ignore other factors).
There is, quite simply, something magically warming about cooked food. On a cold winter's evening, the idea of a cold, raw food salad makes you feel shivery while a bowl of homely, hot soup feels like a warm duvet.
Some nutritionists argue that the reason raw foodists are so healthy (and the health benefit claims do sound miraculous – less disease, weight loss, clearer skin, improved mood and energy, walking on water) is that they are simply eating lots of plants.
I think that any honest assessment of the issue would have to contend that, from a scientific perspective at least, the jury is still out.
So, as is often the case, the best approach is to be sensible about these things. What is clear is that there's now a pretty compelling body of evidence that many chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes can be significantly reduced or completely eliminated by a plant-based diet.
So get as many fruit and vegetables as you can, all the better if some of them are raw. Cook at lower temperatures (stew, steam, etc), rather than frying or barbecuing.
Remember also that raw food doesn't have to be scary. Many of us are probably eating far more raw food than we realise.
If I said I was going to serve you up a raw food meal of raw cabbage, raw carrot and raw beetroot, you might get a little freaked. But by shredding all the ingredients and turning them into a coleslaw, you suddenly have a delicious and nutritious, tri-colour, super-foods meal that's not scary at all.
It will be even healthier if you ditch the mayo and replace it with a simple oil/vinegar dressing. Check out the recipe overleaf – you won't be disappointed.
* Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.