Barbara vs. The Raw Food Fad

I love vegetables.

In fact, I was just now, not five minutes ago, merrily munching on some raw carrots.

But, the fact is, I cannot stand raw food faddists, or the spurious health claims that they make.

Why is this?

Well, I’ll tell you.

I have some experience in raw foods, because when I was a personal chef, a pair of my clients were raw food faddists. And if I had known when they called me up to hire me, how flaky their nutritional ideals and beliefs were, I would never have worked for them.

Because, when they hired me, they told me they were vegans.

Vegans! Great. I love vegans. Vegans are generally very nice people who like tofu and beans and grains and all of those lovely foods that I know how to cook. Vegans, I know from.

But, I should have known, because when the lady called me up for a consultation, she said, “Can you do juicing? We drink a lot of juice.”

I had never touched a juicer in my life, but I figured, “How hard can it be to drive one of those bad boys?”

So, I said, “Sure.”

The lady paused and then said, “Can you make us raw foods? We are trying to eat a lot of raw foods in our diet, you know they are healthy.”

I was a naive little personal chef. I had visions of vegan Vietnamese spring rolls and salads. I love to make salads and wonderful dressings based on pureed fruits. So, I said, “Oh, of course.”

I didn’t know that what she meant by “We are trying to eat a lot of raw foods,” was, “We are True Believers in the Anti-Aging Effects of the One True Faith of Raw Foodism.”

You know, if she had spelled it out to me clearly, I would have started babbling in a different language and claim that she had the wrong number and then just never answer the phone when she inevitably called back.

Because losing a client, even a potentially well-paying one, was preferable to my descent into the “Hell of the Wide-Eyed, Unsupported, Unscientific Health Claims of the Flaky Raw Foodists.”

It started slowly, innocuously. I started with cooking them fairly standard vegan foods, which they lapped up with great glee. I stir fried tempeh with ginger, garlic and tamari, I made brown basmati pillau, and even vegan lasagne with faux bechamel–though it was ruined by that wretched tofu-cheez nastiness.

I even made vegan sushi. And vegan Vietnamese spring rolls.

And I learned how to drive not one, but two models of juicers, and life was pretty good for a while.

Until the “cookbooks” appeared.

I say “cookbooks,” because they all featured uncooked recipes.

And they all featured pictures of the widely-smiling, emaciated authors, on the front or back covers.

And most of the recipes sounded, frankly, vile.

But, they were my clients, and I was infected with the American saying, “The customer is always right.”

So, I started “cooking” raw foods for them.

I learned to sprout lentils, wheat and barley.

I ground up perfectly good nuts, seeds and dried fruits into splicky purees.

I used their oven on low to dehydrate various mysterious glops and pastes into faux “baked goods.”

I made ersatz “pasta” out of strands of summer sqash that I employed a spiral cutter to create, then dressed it with a sauce made from raw tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic with a healthy handful of chopped fresh basil.

I made “raw” soups out of winter squashes that tasted like melons, and almond “cheese” dumplings that tasted like neither almonds, nor cheese, nor even dumplings, but they looked okay floating in the orange “soup.”

I even made a dessert that still gives me nightmares–raw “brownies.”

These consisted of pureed dates and bananas, mixed with shredded fresh coconut meat, carob powder and chopped walnuts. This brown, slimy goop was then shaped into vaguely rectangular form, (they were more like flattened ovoid logs) and put into a very low oven to dry for oh, about twelve hours.

They were among the most unappetizing things I have ever made in my life. They tasted–slithery, and oddly too sweet, and they looked like nothing other than something that an unlucky jogger might step on in the park.

I still get queasy when I think about them, nearly five years later.

I put my foot down, however, when it came to the “raw pizza.” The recipe directed me to take wheat and barley, both of which are high protein items, sprout them, then grind them into yet another unappealing paste, then spread it into thin sheets and dry it in a 110 degree oven for over twelve hours.

I refused.

Proteinous foods like grain mush are perfect hiding places for food-borne bacteria. Bacteria need several things to survive, thrive and breed like mad. Food, moisture and a habitable temperature, preferably between 40 and 140 degrees, are all that bacteria really need to move in and take over.

That crust recipe was a disaster waiting to happen.

So, I explained the reason why I wouldn’t make it, and my clients backed down, thankfully, though after that discussion, I found myself on the receiving end of lectures on nutrition, enzymes and raw-foodist philosophy. My employer took on my eating and cooking habits with missionary zeal, and she claimed that cooked food was poison, and that if you cooked foods you destroyed the natural enzymes that were in them, and so our bodies had to use our own enzymes to digest food, and that led to depletion of our life force, disease and old age.

I looked at her.

She was on the far side of middle age, and her face lifts were no longer helping.

She used to be a glamorous woman, but had gained weight, and now was unhappy with her appearance.

And she was entering the twilight of her life, her path leading inexorably towards death.

And she looked to the miracles of raw foods, enzymes and vegetative life force to save her.

At that moment, I pitied her greatly, and hated those smiling scrawny bastards who had written those books and suckered her in with lies, pseudo-science and hype, just so they could play cult-leader and make money off of poor souls like her.

She was afraid of growing old, getting ugly and dying.

And instead of seeing that we all age, true beauty comes from within, and death is a natural endpoint to a life well lived, she retreated from logic and sense, and fell into the waiting arms of true-believing food-faddist predators who just love to soothe the fears of the gullible, while lining their own pockets with money fleeced from their frightened followers.

I ground my teeth in frustration, and the next time she started her preaching to me, I tried a gentle application of logic, sound nutrition and scientific evidence.

To utterly no avail.

I explained to her my credientials. Not only had I been trained in culinary school, and knew a great deal about food in general and cooking in specific, I had taken many nutrition classes as electives. In addition, when I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I was for a time a pre-med major, as I wanted to pursue training as a veterinarian, and thus had taken microbiology, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology classes.

I then explained that the enzymes in food are all destroyed by the acidic environment in our stomachs before they can get to the small intestine where digestion takes place. I told her that our body makes our own enzymes out of the food we eat through chemical synthesis, and that so long as we eat a nutritionally sound diet, we will not run out of enzymes. I explained that cooking does destroy some vitamins, but it also makes the proteins and complex carbohydrates in foods more digestible, and that some phytochemicals, such as the cancer-fighting lycopene in tomatoes, was more fully released after cooking.

Her eyes glazed over, and I saw the haze of disbelief pass like a curtain across her mind.

In the end, I was glad that we moved back to Ohio, and I couldn’t work for my client anymore.

I just couldn’t bear one more moment of fanatical spouting of unscientific, nutritionally unsound claptrap from a woman I had come to care about to the point that I was actually worried for her health. I couldn’t bear watching her turn herself into a vegetable-sucking zombie–a woman who had a brain, but refused to use it to test the claims of her raw-foodist gurus.

So there it is–that is why I hate the raw food fad.

Generally, I will cater to whatever diet a person favors–the decision of what to eat and how to eat it is a highly personal one, and I have no business telling other people that they need to eat something else because their diet offends me.

However, I do despise people who promulgate unsupportable, wildly-unbelievable unscientific beliefs such as “cooked food is poison,” and “raw is law.”

I just want to bonk these numbnuts in the head with fully cooked bone-in leg of lamb and scream, “Human beings have been cooking foods for over 10,000 years! If cooked food were poisonous, we would not be alive to have this stupid conversation you blithering imbecile!” (Of course after bonking them over the head with the lamb, I’d want to then lecture them on food-borne bacteria and how cooking food tends to prevent our ingesting of these nasty bugs and -dying-.)

I cannot abide people who claim that raw food is -the- original, natural human diet–the one our paleolithic ancestors ate, because I know better.

In order to eat these raw diets, one has to use a dehydrator, a food processor, a juicer and various other smaller bits of equipment in order to pre-digest some of the food so it will not just go straight through the gut unabsorbed.

The fact is–if early humans (who, as far as we know, lacked electricity to run their Cuisinarts and VitaMixes) had tried to eat that way, they would have died from caloric deficit. The amount of energy put into preparing a raw food meal without electrical kitchen appliances, with its emphasis on ground up sprouted grains, lentils and nuts, is way more than caloric gain one would get from eating it.

That said, I do not doubt that people should eat some more raw vegetables and fruits, and that some raw food dishes are clever, interesting and tasty. In fact, I learned one stuffed mushroom recipe that utilized soaked, ground barley, that was very tasty.

But there is a difference between making flavorful, healthy food that enhances a varied, balanced diet, and promoting a dogmatic unscientific belief that smacks of dietary religion.

I mistrust fundamentalist behavior and beliefs wherever I find them.

Even in the kitchen.

13 Comments

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  1. And I agree!

    Comment by Ilva-Lucullian delights — December 1, 2005 #

  2. I’m curious: is there nothing redeeming about raw foods? I’d love to see you take the other side of the argument … and what about ‘occasional’ raw food, just like ‘occasional’ vegetarian meals vs the lifestyle?

    Comment by AK — December 1, 2005 #

  3. There is nothing wrong with eating some raw foods. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say so, as I love salads and eat a large amount of different kinds of vegetables, fruits, fish and even, now and then, beef, raw.

    And there are undeniable benefits to eating many foods raw–some vegetables lose a good deal of their vitamins when cooked, as many vitamins are water soluable.

    However, what I am railing against is the pseudo-scientific, fundamentalist beliefs that surround much of the raw foods fad–the idea that “cooked food is poison,” that cooked food is the root cause of all illness, that a person will stop getting sick if they eat only raw foods, and that raw foods will stop aging.

    All of that is blatant crap, and -that- is what bothers me about the whole raw foods phenominon.

    If people want to eat mostly raw foods, that is their own decision. I think that unless they are very careful and use some vitamin supplements, they risk malnutrition, often from lack of sufficient protein or B vitamins, and if asked my opinion I will say so, but I won’t tell people not to eat raw foods.

    What upsets me about raw foods is the mythos that surrounds it–the extremely illogical, nearly religious zeal that many faddists have for the diet, most of which is based completely on belief, not fact.

    And–there is of course, the fact that quite a few people make money off of this new-agey fad–just as there is a lot of money being made off of every other new-agey fad by the flim-flam artists who sucker gullible people in, while lining their own pockets.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — December 1, 2005 #

  4. Any of these food bandwagons drive me mad. The low-carb one seems to be fading (I’m SO glad – although one downside is that the price of dried pasta is going up.)

    I’m happy to say that I haven’t met any of the raw food faddists. But the description reminds me of that “Fit for Life” diet that claimed it was unsafe to eat fruit with anything else and one could NEVER eat a non fruit directly after eating fruit.

    And I as I vaguely recall, there was some nonsense about never combining starch with protein, as well as further nonsense about the stomach being unable to digest the wrong combinations because they became too acidic? As if digestive fluids in the stomach aren’t just one big bowl of acid already. (I just googled and see that there is even more ludicrous stuff about ‘live’ and ‘dead’ foods – ‘live’ food is salads and ‘dead’ food is protein or starch… the page I looked at didn’t say what kind of food fruit is….)

    Personally, I’ve always preferred the “everything (within reason) in moderation” diet.

    Comment by ejm — December 1, 2005 #

  5. Food fads are always “unbalanced.” If there was a single diet that always worked, the proof would be easily seen in the health records and appearance of the practitioners of that diet. I agree that most of us need more raw foods; I can eat raw broccoli easily as a salad. Add tomatos, raw peppers, a bit of onion and dressing and yum! However, the rigorous self-denial that some people practice is, in my view, self-hatred. Love yourself. Eat that occasional bowl of ice cream (but make it GOOD ice cream–Haagen Daz) So long as you eat a balanced diet the rest of the time, indulgence isn’t going to do you any harm. One of the worst things health food addicts try to do is tell you that carob is a substitute for choclate. UGH. There IS no substitute for chocolate!

    Comment by yourauntjudy — December 1, 2005 #

  6. Yeah, you tellem’. And there’s no GRAVY !!! Even vegans have veggie stock. mMmMmm, stock.

    Comment by drbiggles — December 1, 2005 #

  7. Yep, I am an everything in moderation person, too, Elizabeth.

    Eat some of this, some of that and some of that other thing. Cook some things (like rhubarb–if you eat it raw, it is poisonous), leave some raw, and be happy. And if you eat too much, go take a walk and burn off some of the calories.

    That is it. Simple.

    Hey, Aunt Judy! I do love raw vegetables and fruits, too. I don’t know if you remember, but when I was a kid, I used to refuse to eat turnips cooked, and would only eat them raw. Same with carrots. In fact, anything that grew in Grandma’s garden, I would cheerfully eat raw. Corn on the cob–tastes just fine the way the raccoons eat it. Green beans–lovely straight from the vine. Pea pods–you know, the part normal people throw away–tasted sweet as candy.

    Grandma always called me her little rabbit.

    And I still like all of that stuff.

    What I don’t like is grinding up things that are better cooked, like grains and lentils, into weird glops and then calling them things that they most certainly are not.

    And again–I don’t like the mythology that the raw foodists subscribe too.

    Hey, Dr. Biggles–I am with you.

    No gravy.

    That says it all.

    How can one live without gravy. Pha!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — December 1, 2005 #

  8. First, meat is perfectly edible raw and humans have done so for hundred of thousand of years before they mastered fire, and many societies have done so until very recently (such as the eskimos, which name mean: these who eat it raw). Eskimos have done very well on raw meat, fermented meat (which is raw) and slightly cooked meat.

    Second, humans did not eat crap like grains and lentils, as these are not edible unless cooked. Most traditional diets that include grains have special ways to prepare them that neutralize the toxins, special ways which we do not do anymore most of the time. Bread used to be flour fermented for many days, not quickly fermented with one single species of yeast.

    By the way, a dehydrator does not cook food. All it does is remove water, and thus remove the possibility for pathogens to grow (within certain limits).

    The problem is rarely too much stomach acid, rather it is a lack of stomach acid which cause maldigestion of proteins and a disruption of the pH in the intestines, making it a favorable milieu for many pathogens. Many factors are involved in this lack of stomach acid. A lack of stomach acid also cause malfunction of the stomach valves, which will cause some of the not-enough-acidic-but-still-acidic-enough to-cause-pain stomach content to move up in the oesophagus.

    Enzymes are not denatured in the stomach. Read the studies done with bromelain and antibiotics. It is shown that a bromelain supplement will increase the absorption and effectiveness of antibiotics. There is also a ton of testimonials of people who benefits digestion-wise from supplements of enzymes.

    Traditional diets that include a lot of cooked food will often include fermented food as side dish, which contain a lot of enzymes. These fermented food are often changed nowadays for crappy food with vinegar, such as most condiments, some sauerkraut, pickled ginger, etc. Fermented daikon radish is very right in starch digesting enzymes.

    Comment by Max Thunder — August 9, 2006 #

  9. You sound like a five year old who refuses to touch anything that looks different. I pity types like you, you are missing out. Cant you just take what you like and leave the rest. I have personally witness people heal themselves through a living foods lifestyle. Mny of those that teach it have been on the road of healing foods for many years many have not. Was Anne Wigmore a fadist? I dont see how testimonial after testimonial can be wrong. I personaly feel better when I eat this way, but I’m not everyone. Why do you care anyway? Let them eat the way they like and reap the benifits while you reap your benefits of what ever way you eat.

    Comment by Bina — March 31, 2009 #

  10. I feel sorry for people like you, Bina, who are too uneducated to understand science.

    If that makes me like a five year old, so be it. Why can’t you just eat your diet and not give a damned what I think about it? You want to eat that way, fine by me, but don’t spout unsupportable, pseudoscientific “facts” to prove that your diet is better than any other.

    Comment by Barbara — March 31, 2009 #

  11. Barbara, you know, I think you’re being a bit hard on Bina.
    I’m Kitty, I am fourteen years old, and I have been eating completely raw and vegan for the past half month. My mother agreed to support me with this as long as I did not get sick, and I’ve never felt better. She is even considering going completely raw, too.
    Eating all raw food is not some sort of cult. For me, it’s a way to enjoy the foods I like without pigging out of carbohydrates. I don’t spout unsupportable, pseudoscientific facts, and I think it’s awfully judgmental of you to state that all raw foodists are unscientific, uneducated, or otherwise lacking in academia. I want to publish books, get a PhD in math and physics, and do something meaningful with my life. I’ve researched being raw and vegan both online and in books, and although there are certain drawbacks like vitamin B12 deficiency, I feel better than ever before.
    I’m not saying that your opinion on nutrition is wrong or anything, I’m just think that not all raw foodists are as insane as you describe. You can eat all raw food without believing all the crap people say about it, and still feel healthier than when eating fast food. I’m happy with my–well, it’s a lifestyle, not a diet–and I have absolutely no intention on going back to cooked foods. Thank you for expressing your opinion in this, but please, try not to plaster one impression of a raw foodist onto all of us who like to eat naturally.

    Comment by Kitty — February 14, 2010 #

  12. Lol, well, raw foods are not for everyone. :)

    Comment by Laura-Jane — October 22, 2010 #

  13. Kitty, you do not eat naturally.

    Comment by Dan — February 16, 2012 #

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