In case you haven’t heard, cooking food is bad–at least according to the raw food movement. This movement has developed over the last 5-10 years, and is still fairly fringe, but fad diets, restaurants, stores, and websites devoted to raw foods are flourishing. Let’s see what they’re up to.
According to one popular website, we should begin our story by thinking about a few questions:
What other animal on earth denatures its food by cooking?
What other animal on earth suffers from all the health challenges that we face?
What did people eat before there was fire?? They ate it RAW!
This is as good a place as any to start. The answer to question one is simple…none! To quote Sandy Templeton, my pathology professor, “Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or doesn’t it much matter?” I’ll report, you decide. Let’s add to that question–what other animal uses tools extensively to modify its environment? Uses medicines? Lives past its “natural” life span? Avoids disease through public health measures? Reads and writes books? None! Woo-hoo! We are actually different than other animals!
Question two, “health challenges”. OK, anyone out there grow up on a farm, or see any wild animals up close? Or read a biology book even? Animals are constantly battling disease. Humans are not unique in our “suffering”, although each species has its own health demons. Animals have parasites–lots of ’em. Animals suffer from horrible viral, bacterial, and prion diseases; animals starve in times of famine. They don’t usually, as far as we know, survive strokes and heart attacks–field mice don’t send a lot of their brethren to medical school.
Question three answers itself, so I guess I’m off the hook.
According to the rawbies, the magic of raw foods lies in the unaltered enzymes they contain. Hold on while I grab my biochem text–
Ah, good, here it is: “An enzyme is a type of protein molecule specifically adapted to catalyze biochemical reactions, such as those occurring in metabolism.”
Let me ‘splain–no there is too much, let me sum up: many of the chemical reactions that cause us to live and breathe would, in a test tube, take a very, very long time. Enzymes “catalyze”, or speed up these reactions. Enzymes are proteins, and each functions in a very narrow range of temperature and pH (acidity). They are adapted for specific functions in specific environments. We sometimes take advantage of these enzymes culinarily, for instance, in meat tenderizers–but they are not magical. They are, though, remarkable. Our body runs like a bloody machine–block certain enzymatic reactions by, for instance, ingesting cyanide–and you die.
So, how do the rawbies define enzyme? Let’s see: “Enzymes assist in the digestion of foods. They are known to be the “Life-Force” and or “energy” of food.”
Um, not very scientific. Some enzymes do assist in digestion. We make those all by ourselves, and they are adapted to the specific environment in which they operate. They are not “known to be the life-force or energy of food.” I don’t know what a “life force” is, but I do know what energy is. Energy in food is stored in the building blocks of the food itself…carbohydrates such as sugars are the easiest to work with, but we also obtain energy from the digestion of proteins and fats.
But raw food is more natural, isn’t it?
I don’t know if it’s more natural. Humans harnessed fire a very long time ago. At any rate, is natural better? Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. If you don’t cook your food, you certainly need to be more careful about food poisoning–cooking and pasteurization is what has saved us from much of that. But, a careful shopper and food-preparer can do a pretty good job (but not a perfect job). Salmonella is natural. So is botulism, tape worms, etc. But there is no question that humans can survive on a raw food diet. The question is, do we need to?
I’m confused and I like hamburgers
Consider your confusion at an end. Read some Michael Pollan. Humans are remarkable omnivores. Eat what you wish. We seem to do best on a diet of less meat and more plants, and, especially, fewer calories. You will not suffer any major nutritional deficiencies from cooking most of your food. Salads are great for you, and don’t taste very good if you boil them. Eat less, enjoy more, and stay away from food woo.