Archive for January, 2011

Raw Veganism

January 28, 2011

One of the most popular food fads among vegans these days is Raw Veganism. Raw restaurants are all the rage and various raw brands and products are hitting the store shelves. More and more it’s being touted as a “natural” and ideally healthy diet and the next step in dietary evolution. Fairly simple and straight forward, it consists of a vegan diet of mainly or only uncooked foods, particularly nothing heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Proponents of such a diet promote it for various health, environmental, and philosophical or spiritual reasons.

The health arguments generally rest on the claims that cooking destroys nutrient content and dentures necessary enzymes (which they claim contains the “life energy”) leading to enzyme deficiency. But plant enzymes are not used by the human body, they are broken down in the stomach acid whether the food is raw or not. Rawists attempt to counter by citing holistic practitioner Viktorus Kulvinskas who claims that “stomach acid merely deactivates food enzymes. The enzymes are then reactivated in the more alkaline small intestine.” But by all appearances this is not based on any actual published research, the claim is just laid out there with no supporting evidence or reference and is not recognized by the mainstream medical community.

The issue of cooking destroying nutrients its a bit more complex, and varies according to food, cooking time, and temperature. While vitamin C is degraded by heat, as potentially are folate, thiamine, and niacin, this nutrient loss is not complete and is often fairly modest, with around 5-70% of a particular nutrient lost. But this loss may be more than compensated for by making other nutrients, such as beta-carotene and other carotenoids more available through cooking. The reason for this is that plant cell walls are made of cellulose, a tough material that humans lack the ability to break down well. Cooking breaks the cell wall down making nutrients more available. Cooked foods are also much more digestible and provide more calories while processing and cooking also increase nutritive value by reducing antinutrients that interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients. Rawist often care not to make much distinction between types of cooking either but there are some very real reasons to prefer some methods over others. Frying and char grilling are the most potentially problematic health-wise and are generally recommend to be used sparingly. While boiling and steaming appear to be the best methods for releasing and preserving nutrients. It should also be noted that soaking, chopping, dehydration, and other raw-friendly forms of processing also positively and negatively affect nutrient content through leeching and oxidation or aiding in digestion. There are good reasons to incorporate more raw foods into our diets, but there is no nutritional necessity for a strictly raw diet and the restrictive nature of the diet can more easily result in nutritional deficiencies than a more varied diet including both cooked and raw foods.

One worrying potential negative health impact of a strict raw diet is the disruption or elimination of the menstruation cycle know as amenorrhea. As concerning a medical issue this is it appears that some folks promote this as an actual benefit and sign that the body no longer has a need to shed “toxins” monthly. There is not much I can say about this except that anyone experiencing such symptoms needs to see a unbiased MD immediately.

The environmental arguments tend to rest on the issues of resources burned for cooking and the impact of modern agriculture in general. While cooking does use resources, it can preserve food and provide more calories per acre. Raw “uncook books” are also often filled with recipes calling for juicers, food processors, dehydrators, and of course refrigeration. Raw diets that are high in processed or commercial products or in tropical fruits and nuts may not be as low impact as proponents might want to believe. Though building a bicycle powered blender could reduce electricity usage and be a fun project. You could also build a solar dehydrator or better yet a solar oven capable of baking an apple pie, but solar cooking is still limited in when and where it can be used. A raw diet is also just as dependent on modern agriculture as any other, the majority of the crops eaten by rawists are the products of modern agriculture, I don’t see many rawists munching wild bananas (see below). Reducing ones impact on the environment is a noble goal, but the factors involved are so complex and interwoven that there are always trade offs and multiple ways to go about it.

I cant really speak to the spiritual arguments as they are too numerous and often too vague. However, the main philosophical argument revolves around the idea that rawism is more “natural” than cooking. To argue that either rawism or veganism are “natural” and therefor good is committing the naturalistic fallacy. We should also be wary of committing the naturalistic fallacy by asserting the opposite, that because humans ate meat in the past it is impossible to live without it today or that raw diets are impossible because cooking played a role in human development. That being said, the idea that rawism is natural and ideal results from a simplistic or incorrect understanding of human evolution and diet. Humans physiology is well suited for cooking which began at least 250,000 years ago, though researchers are looking for earlier evidence from as much as 2 million years ago, contending that not only are we well adapted to cooked foods but that cooking is obligatory in the long-term and that the advent of cooking may have driven our evolution by providing the needed calories for our larger brains. Cooking made a myriad of foods more palatable and opened up new territory and opportunities for early humans and since then every human group know has adopted cooking for its obvious benefits as there are no known examples of native peoples living on entirely raw diets. Similar issues arise with the vegan aspect of raw veganism, veganism isn’t a natural diet by evolutionary standards. Our ancestors did eat meat but modern science has shown us we can have a full and healthy life on a vegan diet while the science on a strict raw vegan diet is a little less favorable or just not there yet. Modern nutritional science and the ethics of anti-speciesism rather than musing on the noble savage should inform the basis of our dietary habits.

Simply put, a varied vegan diet of both cooked and raw foods is as healthy if not more so than a strict raw vegan diet, there are more ways than just rawism to be “green”, and the diets of our ancestors cant always dictate what our modern diets should or could be.

My central problem with raw foodism is that not only does it not serve to promote ethical veganism, it is counter-productive to this goal. As aptly noted by Ginny Messina, The VeganRD, “Advocating diets that incorporate unnecessary nutrition-related restrictions makes it harder for people to go vegan. That goes for fat-free, soy-free, and raw foods diets. Sometimes these variations on veganism are perceived as steps in the same dietary evolution. They aren’t. Veganism is an ethical choice and it’s a diet that is healthful and appropriate at all stages of the lifecycle. Raw foodism is a fad diet that is appropriate only for adults and is based on shaky scientific principles at best.”

Further reading: Simply Raw: Making overcooked claims about raw food diets

Biodynamic farming

January 20, 2011

Today I want to address something troubling me. Lately I’ve been seeing the words “vegan” and “biodynamic” paired up more and more often. If you are even familiar with the latter term you probably associate it with fancy wine. It is also becoming a popular growing method for the veggies served in numerous vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but if told the things biodynamics actually involves many vegans would do a spit-take.

Biodynamics was developed by Rudolf Steiner, also founder of the spiritual philosophy Anthroposophy, in a 1924 series of lectures to farmers concerned about soil and crop degradation. While it shares some principles (and controversy) in common with organic farming, Steiner said there were “spiritual shortcomings in the whole chemical approach to farming”, it goes far beyond it. I mean it’s really way out there.

In those lectures Steiner describes a system of agriculture involving potions, rituals, and various spiritual ideas. As described biodynamic farming involves two sets of “preparations” or magical potions composing a total of nine preparations (labeled 500-508), the first two are the “field preparations” to be sprayed in near homeopathic dilutions (one teaspoon to 40–60 liters of water) over the entire field. The method for preparing these concoctions is as follows.

* 500: (horn-manure) a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure and burying it in the ground (40–60 cm below the surface) in the autumn. It is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring.
* 501: Crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried into the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. It can be mixed with 500 but usually prepared on its own (mixture of 1 tablespoon of quartz powder to 250 liters of water)

…oh, and when mixing the preparations in water don’t forget whirling it in different directions every second minute. You may as well throw in some eye of newt and wool of bat for good measure.

The next seven are the “compost preparations” with some particularly objectionable ingredients.

* 502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
* 503: Chamomile blossoms (Matricaria recutita) are stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
* 504: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) plants in full bloom are stuffed together underground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.
* 505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a place where lots of rain water runs past.
* 506: Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) is stuffed into the peritoneum of cattle and buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
* 507: Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis) are extracted into water.
* 508: Horsetail (Equisetum)
One to three grams (a teaspoon) of each preparation is added to a dung heap by digging 50 cm deep holes with a distance of 2 meters from each other, except for the 507 preparation, which is stirred into 5 liters of water and sprayed over the entire compost surface.

I’m not making this up. People really do this and really think it makes for a better crop. The justifications are quite vague and magical statements about “life forces” and the whole farm being one organism. Steiner explains the prominence of cow horns in the preparations saying, “The cow has horns in order to reflect inwards the astral and etheric formative forces, which then penetrate right into the metabolic system so that increased activity in the digestive organism arises by reason of this radiation from horns and hoofs.” Maybe it lost something in translation but I don’t know what the heck he is talking about.

Biodynamic farmers also have wonderfully holistic ways to deal with “pests” such as field mice. First you skin some mice and burn the skin, then sprinkle the resulting ash across your land as it contains “the corresponding negative force as against the reproductive power of the field-mouse.” This, of course, must be done when Venus is in Scorpio, but I think that’s just obvious. There exist similar rituals for both weeds and insects too, along with an astrological calendar dictating the best times for sowing and reaping. Some farms even practice what is know as geo-acupuncture. Again, Im not making this up.

Beyond the outright weirdness of it all, there are some strong criticisms of biodynamics in that it does not lead to more efficient or sustainable agriculture, is near impossible to test scientifically, has failed the scientific tests that have been performed, and that it clearly involves animal slaughter for entirely magical reasons. I think Ben, a commenter on a sfist article summed up my feelings in a pithy manner, “Not sure that “biodynamic” is compatible with veganism, involving as it does burying cow heads on alternate Tuesdays while praying to Ishtar or whatever.”
So what do you think?


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