In the raw

Interest in foods that are not cooked is 'sprouting up'

Interest in foods that are not cooked is 'sprouting up'

February 25, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Country music legend Hank Williams had a No. 1 hit with a song that asked the question:

"Hey, Hey, Good Lookin', whatcha got cookin?"

If he were singing to a "raw foodist" - a person who advocates and eats raw or so-called "living" food - the answer would be "Nothing" or "Not much."

Raw food, of course, is food that is not cooked. Proponents of eating raw food claim that cooking food - above 116 degrees - causes it to lose vitamins, nutrients and enzymes that help the body's immune system, according to an examination of the principles of a raw food diet by Claudia M. Gonzlez, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Al Tillman, a vegetarian for eight years, says he's "transitioning" to a diet composed of 75 percent raw foods. Currently, more than half of the food he eats is raw.


Tillman is director of operations for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based EatRaw, an online source of live organic food and lifestyle information at

EatRaw ships products, including raw banana nut brittle, raw Mexican organic flax crackers, raw organic Greek kalamata olives and Goji berries from Tibet, to Europe and other parts of the world. EatRaw also sells cookies made from ingredients which include soaked almonds, cashews, raw coconut, raw honey and vanilla. They're called Raweos - a little wordplay on the name of the popular, cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookies.

The raw foods market is growing fast, Tillman says. Raw foods restaurants are "sprouting up" around the country, he adds.

There are several versions of a raw food diet, but they share basic principles, Gonzlez says.

A raw food diet includes:

  • Fruits and/or vegetables picked ripe from the tree, garden or vine. Some include dried fruits, but most prefer fruits that contain as much water as possible.

  • Sprouts - They still are growing when you eat them.

  • Fruits, including pepper, tomato, cucumber - although they're popularly called vegetables.

  • Vegetables. Some raw foodists include "sea vegetables" or seaweed. Others say it is not natural to eat them, Gonzlez says.

  • Nuts and seeds, raw and sometimes sprouted.

The benefits of such foods are not disputed. But not everyone agrees that foods are better eaten raw.

"Wild claims made about raw foods - that they're somehow miraculous foods to eat - are clearly overstated," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the PubIic Interest. The Washington, D.C.- based consumer advocacy organization conducts research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, according to its Web site at

Generally, people who eat raw foods are eating healthful foods, Schardt says. He acknowledges that some nutritional benefit can be lost to cooking - particularly in cooking with water. But cooking food doesn't necessarily destroy healthfulness; it may improve it in some respects - that is, within limits, if you don't cook it too much.

Schardt also says there are benefits to cooking food. Some raw foods, soybeans, for example, are indigestible. If you were to eat soybeans raw, you would vomit them up, he says.

Some raw foods also contain anti-nutrients - qualities that cause them to interfere with digestion.

Carrots provide more nutrition when cooked, Schardt says. He's not saying that raw carrots are not good for you, but cooking makes their full benefit easier to get. There is not enough time for enzymes in your digestive tract to break down the raw carrot's fibrous walls, he explains. If cooked, the cell walls are softened, providing the body better access to the nutrients.

Another benefit of cooking is that it can destroy harmful bacteria that can cause illness.

Remember last fall's hepatitis A outbreak from green onions at a restaurant chain?

Pathogens are not unique to meat. Vegetables need to be carefully washed, Schardt says.

Schardt has another consideration - the question of taste. Some foods taste better cooked, Schardt says. He doesn't know if raw foods advocates eat raw potatoes, but to him, a cooked potato tastes better than a raw potato.

As for the enzymes in food touted by raw foodists as beneficial, Schardt says there is no evidence that they do any good. Most are destroyed - rendered inactive - by the digestive process in the body's intestinal tract.

Lisa McCoy, a registered dietitian at the Washington County Health Department, is skeptical of claims made by raw foodists. Raw foods have no magical properties, she says.

Honey is not different from table sugar when broken down in digestion, and the theory that honey is better is a myth, McCoy says. Both are made up of fructose and sucrose, she says. The body can't tell the difference.

Variety is the real big key in a healthful diet, McCoy says.

Gonzlez agrees, acknowledging that the raw foods menu is very rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals - except for vitamins B12 and D. It also is low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories, but it restricts some foods - such as lean meats and cooked soy products, making it challenging to get some nutrients the body needs, she says.

Being a raw foodist - finding foods with required nutrients - requires more time, Schardt says.

McCoy has concerns about how difficult these foods are to find and how expensive raw foods are. Is eating raw worth the cost and effort?

Tillman estimates the costs at about 5 percent above the cost of organic fruits and vegetables.

His question is "What is your health worth?"

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