What’s the buzz about raw foods?
By Susun Weed
Which is better: cooked food or raw? Taking nothing for granted or gospel, I set out to find out for myself the answer to this important question.
First, I asked what is meant by "raw food" and what is meant by "cooked food?" One cannot simply say that raw is uncooked, for there are raw food "cookbooks." Nor is cooking simply the application of heat through boiling, baking or frying, as I soon discovered. Ripening itself is one form of natural cooking; others are described later.
Second, I wondered, what did my ancestors eat? And was it raw or cooked?
Third, I questioned, how do enzymes in foods affect digestion and health?
And fourth, I attempted to sum it up: Is there an advantage to cooking?
The answers weren't as simple as one might suspect, however. The answers to these questions combine in interesting ways and open up other questions in their answering.
What have people traditionally eaten?
To begin with the second question: Our most primitive ancestors, those who lived several million years ago, most likely ate raw food. The majority of what they ate was animal protein: muscle meats, organ meats, eggs and insects.
Present day examples of peoples who primarily eat raw animal protein include the Inuit of the far North and the Masai of Africa, known for their health and freedom from disease.
Research done by Dr. Pottenger in the mid-20th century revealed that raw meat and milk contained enzymes necessary for digestion. He showed that heat deactivated their enzymes www.westonaprice.org. His conclusion was that raw meat, fish, milk and eggs provide more nutrients and are more easily digested.
This is not true of plant foods, however. Vegetables and fruits do contain enzymes, if picked fully ripe, but their enzymes have no function in their own digestion (although papaya, pineapple and kiwi fruit contain enzymes that digest meat. An interesting aside: These tropical fruits help digest and destroy, in the digestive systems of people and animals, the parasites that are found in those regions and only incidentally digest other kinds of meat.) Many plant enzymes interfere with digestion, so our bodies destroy them.
Cooked food was the preference of most of our ancestors. Archaeologists have found evidence of fire in sites occupied by hominids as far back as a million years ago but cannot say exactly when we began to use fire to cook food.
Certainly by about 10,000 years ago, when cultivation of grains and beans — hard foods which absolutely require cooking — became widespread, our ancestors were regularly and routinely cooking their food. Most current aboriginal people also cook their food; in New Zealand, for instance, I found the Maori jealously guarding natural hot pools used to cook their food.
Meat: cooked vs. raw
Is there an advantage to cooking? It depends on how we cook — or more basically, how we define cooking – and whether we are eating animals or plants. Animal cells are surrounded by a membrane. This thin membrane is easily dissolved by digestive juices, releasing the nutrients stored in the cell. Fast, high-heat cooking will toughen these membranes, thus slowing digestion and impairing nutrient uptake.
For an illustration of this, think of how tough an overcooked piece of meat can become; chewing, an important part of digestion, is much more difficult. Slow, low-heat cooking dissolves the membrane, making digestion and nutrient uptake much easier. If the idea of raw meat turns your stomach, eat soups and stews instead.
Should you cook plant foods?
Plant cells are surrounded by a wall. This wall is designed to resist breakage and to protect the stored nutrition in plant cells. Digestive juices act on the cell walls of plants little, if at all; take a look in the toilet the day after next time you eat corn on the cob to see how true this is. Cooking, which can be expanded to include her sisters freezing, drying, sprouting, fermenting and preserving in oil, breaks the cell wall and is necessary to liberate nutrients from plant cells.
Cooked vegetables and fruits, grains and beans provide more nutrients and are more easily digested than raw ones.
A Haiku-like verse that could sum this up is:
Chewing what is raw,
how can one smile?
Muscles of the jaw too tense.
The cooked advantage
A macrobiotic diet, the only vegetarian diet shown to put cancer in remission, consists of cooked food exclusively. Around the world, well-cooked meat broths — think chicken soup — are the food of choice for convalescents.
Cooked plants are far more nourishing than raw plants, whether we look at vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains or pulses (beans). Cooking not only breaks the cell wall, liberating minerals to our bodies, but it actually enhances and activates many vitamins. This is true especially of the carotenes, used to make vitamin A, and other antioxidants in plants. Research found that the longer the corn is cooked and the hotter the temperature, the greater the amount of antioxidants in the corn.
This also applies to vitamin C. A baked potato contains far more vitamin C than a raw potato. And sauerkraut (cabbage cooked by fermentation) contains up to 10 times as much vitamin C as raw cabbage.
When cooking means lost vitamins
Some vitamins do leach into cooking water. Cooking with little or no water (for instance, steaming or braising) reduces vitamin loss in vegetables such as broccoli from 97% to 11%. Note, however, that the vitamins aren't lost or destroyed, but merely transferred to the cooking water. Using that water for soup stock or drinking it ensures that you ingest all the nutrients in a highly absorbable form.
Transferring nutrients into water, such as by making nourishing herbal infusions and healing soups, and then ingesting them is far more effective, in my experience, than drinking wheat grass juice, green drinks or any kind of nutritional supplement. It is, in fact, one of the best ways to optimally nourish oneself that I have found in three decades of paying attention to health.
Even if some vitamins are lost in cooking, people absorb more of what is there from cooked foods. Several recent studies measured vitamin levels in the blood after eating raw and cooked vegetables. "Subjects who ate cooked veggies absorbed four to five times more nutrients than those who ate raw ones," reported researchers at the Institute of Food Research in 2003.
Raw or cooked?
There is no simple answer to the question "raw or cooked?" But for simplicity’s sake, I say, eat your food cooked. This is especially the case if you choose to eat a diet high in whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and fruit. That's the way I eat, so I cook most of my food. But I keep a herd of dairy goats so I can have raw milk, raw milk cheese and raw milk yogurt. I do enjoy raw meat and raw fish on occasion but more often slow cook my goat into barbeque, a special kind of healing "soup" I learned to make in Texas.
© Susun Weed
Susun Weed has been living the simple life for more than 30 years as an herbalist, goat keeper, author, homesteader and feminist. See Susun's complete Wise Women Herbal Series books. Visit www.susunweed.com and www.ashtreepublishing.com.
Aiello, L.C.; Wheeler, P. "The expensive tissue hypothesis: the brain and the digestive system in human and primate evolution." Current Anthropology. 36:199-221, 1995
Alvi, Shahnaz; Khan, K.M.; Sheikh, Munir A.; Shahid, Muhammad. “Effect of Peeling and Cooking on Nutrients in Vegetables.” Pakistan Journal of Nutrition 2 (3): 189-191, 2003
Blumenschine, Robert. "Hominid carnivory and foraging strategies, and the socio-economic function of early archaeological sites," pp. 51-61. In: Whiten, A.;
Widdowson, E.M. (eds.) Foraging Strategies and Natural Diet of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. 1992
Bower, Bruce. “Ancient Origins of Fire Use.” Science News. 157(18): 287, April 29, 2000
Cobb, Kristin. “Processing Corn Boosts Antioxidants.” Science News. 162(9): 141, Aug. 31, 2002
Davidson; Noble "When did language begin?" p. 46. In: Burenhult, Goran (ed.) The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C. New York, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers. 1993
de Pee, S.; West, C.; Muhlilal, D.; Hautvast, J. "Lack of improvement in vitamin A status with increased consumption of dark-green leafy vegetables." Lancet. 346:75-81, 1995
Foley, Robert. Humans Before Humanity. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers. 1995
Groves. "Our earliest ancestors," pp. 33-40, 42-45, 47-52. In: Burenhult, Goran (ed.) The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C. New York, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers. 1993
James, Steven. "Hominid use of fire in the lower and middle Pleistocene. A review of the evidence." Current Anthropology. 30:1-26, 1990
Megarry, Tim. Society in Prehistory: The Origins of Human Culture. New York, NY: New York University Press. 1995
Oste, R.E. “Digestibility of Processed Food Protein.” Adv Exp Med Biol. 289: 371-88, 1991
Parker, R.S. "Absorption, metabolism, and transport of carotenoids." The FASEB Journal. 10:542-551, 1996
Preet, K.; Punia, D. “Antinutrients and Digestibility (in vitro) of Soaked, Dehulled and Germinated Cowpeas. Nutr Health. 14 (2): 109-117, 2000
Rukang, Ru; Shenglong, Lin. "Peking man." Scientific American. 248(6): 86-94, June 1983.
Sillen, A. “Strontium-calcium (Sr/Ca) ratios of Australopithecus robustus and associated fauna from Swartkrans." Journal of Human Evolution. 23:495-516, 1992
Sussman, R.W. "Species-specific dietary patterns in primates and human dietary adaptations," pp. 151-179. In: Spuhler, J.N. (ed.) The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models. State University of New York Press. 1987
Tortora, G..J.; Anagnostakos, N.P. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, New York, NY: Harper and Row. 1981
Walker, Alan; Shipman, Pat. The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1996
Young, V.; Pellett, P. "Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 59:1203S-1212S, 1996