I’ve always thought the raw food movement was a crock of hooey, a kooky offshoot of vegetarianism in which followers believe heat (above 108 F or 112 F or 116 F, depending on the source) “kills” the nutrients in food.
Okaayyy…of course, once a plant is harvested–pulled from the ground, cut off from its root system–it is no longer living. It is in the process of decaying, in other words. It is not “living.”
So I read an article in the current issue of The Economist with particular interest. It details Harvard anthropology professor Richard Wrangham’s theory that cooking is humanity’s killer app. In other words, cooking makes us human. A few years ago, I caught Dr. Wrangham’s keynote address on the same topic at the annual meeting of the International Society of Culinary Professionals. He noted that humans have big brains that require lots of calories. Heat renders otherwise inedible foods digestible–and palatable–which greatly expands our range of things to eat. And even foods that don’t have to be cooked–calorie-dense meat, for example–are more easily digested when cooked. Cooking makes some nutrients–lycopene and iron, for instance–more bioavailable and therefore more nutritious. Heat also kills bacteria, making many foods safer to consume.
And then there’s the social aspect of cooking. As people gathered around the fire to share a meal, relationships and society blossomed. That’s not a small thing.
Some raw foodists claim their way is more “natural.” I’m not sure what this means. Humans have been cooking–i.e., applying heat to food–since the Neanderthals, so one could claim cooking is part of humanity’s evolution. In any case, raw cuisine certainly entails processing food as ingredients are dehydrated, blended, juiced, and soaked. (I’m sorry, but cold-pressed coffee beans, really? Yuck.) It requires finesse and skill. In that respect, raw foodism is a culinary cousin of molecular gastronomy.
The science behind raw food diets is sketchy at best–raw food adherents don’t typically have weight problems, but they can be low on vitamin B12, calcium, and protein. Longtime followers can have low bone mass, which leaves them vulnerable to osteoporosis.
I have nothing against raw food, per se. I love the crunch of a great salad. But I think it’s even nicer paired to a bowl of hot (not tepid) soup.