Eating in the Raw: Are Raw Food Devotees Right or at Risk?

John Watson

Disclosures

November 15, 2018

In This Article

As global rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses skyrocket, many have naturally begun to question where the human relationship with food took a wrong turn. Was it the invention of high-fructose corn syrup that got us here? Is the switch from using sugar as an occasional sweetener to a foundational ingredient to blame? Are Ronald McDonald and his fast-food peers the face of our crisis?

For adherents of raw foodism, these potential causes probably seem laughably short-sighted. Instead, they identify manmade culinary interventions—from first putting food over a fire to the advent of milk pasteurization—as the missteps that rendered us less healthy. By returning to diets composed primarily of uncooked and unprocessed foods and beverages, they propose that we can restore what was lost.

Yet there is growing concern that by emulating what they believe to be ancient dietary practices, raw food adherents may be making themselves sick.

Going Raw, Then and Now

Raw foodism (also referred to as the raw food movement) can largely be traced to the Swiss nutritionist and physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867-1939). In a bit of intellectual cross-pollination, Bircher-Benner took the second rule of thermodynamics, which states that energy inevitably decreases as it is transferred or transformed, and applied it to cooked foods, which he reasoned would have less energy and nutrients than in their raw state.[1]

Skip the cooking and reap the benefits. The idea had a persuasive simplicity that would ensure that, however much its popularity waxed and waned over the intervening decades, raw foodism never entirely disappeared. As technological advances created foods unimaginable in Bircher-Benner's day (one would like to have seen his reaction to a can of SPAM®), raw foodism identified other culprits to avoid, such as pasteurization and food processing.

Raw foodism currently takes various forms, with some abstaining from all animal products and others regularly consuming unpasteurized dairy. It also no longer shuns all technological advances. Dehydrators are now commonly used to add flavor and texture. However, many raw food adherents believe that if anything is cooked above a certain temperature (usually 104° -118°F) it will lose the natural enzymes that enable improved digestion. In reality, food enzymes are inactivated in the stomach, which comes equipped with its own enzymes for digesting and absorbing food.[2]

This undisputable anatomical fact did not impede the reemergence of raw foodism at the start of the 21st century, which now boasts additional claims of being "cleansing" and helping to avoid "toxins." Celebrity endorsements helped hasten their further adoption, perhaps most prominently by Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle blog Goop, fast earning a reputation as ground zero of scientifically dubious dietary trends. Last year, high-profile publications like Food & Wine[3] and Harper's Bazaar[4] noted that Goop's dietary advice "may be dangerous" and "could kill you."

As unfair as it may be to lay the blame for centuries-old dietary advice at the feet of one advocate, the criticism is not without merit. The raw food movement poses a real health threat through two main mechanisms: by denying the additional nutrition of cooked foods to its adherents and leaving them vulnerable to foodborne pathogens.

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