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.”