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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

The Science Behind Raw Food

Virginia Culler

In the past few years, a new dietary trend has become popular. Raw foodism has hit the US, with a strong base and an ever-growing popularity. Raw foodists claim that a raw-food diet (which some define as as low as 70% uncooked foods, while others are exclusively [100%] raw) can boost overall health, increase energy, ameliorate disposition and physical appearance, and even cure many (sometimes terminal) diseases and ailments. However, the scientific community outside of the raw food community doesn't seem to see this diet in the same light as its followers. What is the science behind the raw food diet, and how much of what its advocates believe is true?


Raw foodists base their practices on the theory that cooking food kills it, destroying its nutritional value (one source quotes that cooking destroys between 30 and 85% of food's nutritional values, (9)) and making it unhealthy and less easy to metabolize. Some raw foodists claim that all raw foods have large counts of enzymes, which are fundamental to human health and digestion and metabolization of food, and which are destroyed when food is heated to above 116 degrees Fahrenheit (8). One article even claims that cancer, heart disease and diabetes are all directly linked to the consumption of cooked foods (6). Another more specifically targets a chemical called acrylamide, which is found in plastics and is known to be carcinogenic, and was recently discovered to be present in high levels in many baked and fried foods (7), while raw (and boiled) foods showed no traces of the chemical. Yet another article goes further and points out that, aside from the dangers of acrylamide in many cooked starchy foods, it has been shown that meat cooked at high temperatures is contaminated by heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which are also known to be carcinogenic. All in all, the raw food community online has provided many links to scientific articles backing up their theories and practices.


Given all of these interesting scientific pro-raw foodism stances, I am still somewhat skeptical in my research. This is in part due to the fact that, when I was not navigating specifically from pro-raw foodism sites, I was unable to find many articles in favor of raw foodism, and none which were in specifically scientific publications. This fact makes me question the credibility of these sources, simply in that the scientific community at large seemed more skeptical and disapproving than anything else of the raw food movement. However, the reasoning behind anti-raw foodism was not always any more convincing than the pro case.


The majority of the scientific articles stating that raw foods are dangerous are referring to animal-borne diseases, such as e-coli and salmonella. Since most raw foodists are also vegetarians (or even vegans) this tends not to apply. However, vegetarian foods such as unpasteurized milk and juice can harbor harmful bacteria (3), (4). Furthermore, studies have shown that even raw salad greens such as lettuce and spinach can harbor harmful bacteria due to irrigation and fertilization (2). Therefore, there is clearly a safety issue surrounding these raw foods, in that they must be free of harmful bacteria that typical sterilizing processes such as cooking would normally kill. One site in favor of raw foodism includes the caveat that "The only concern here is if you are eating traditionally raised meat which is frequently contaminated with bacteria. You will want to make sure you cook that food." Therefore, we can see that despite the pro-raw stance, there are exceptions made in order to facilitate overall dietary healthiness.


Overall, I simply did not find any current articles praising the raw-foodism diet, outside of that community itself. This selective pro-raw foodism made me believe that, despite the diet's possible benefits, there couldn't be such a strong difference if no one in the scientific community at large has noticed the effects. It may be that there are serious scientific articles out there by non-members of the raw food community, and that I was simply unsuccessful in finding them. However, I searched through every seemingly relevant biology database of journal articles, magazines and studies that I could get my hands on, and the results were consistently 0 articles found for the search "raw food." The only remotely "hard science" type article I found was, while good, only linked to by one particular raw food website (5).


This makes me think that, since the larger scientific community has not yet got wind of this trend, it can't possibly be as big of a deal as its advocates claim. Until the raw food movement goes under serious critical and objective analysis, I am reluctant to believe that the many claims that the body metabolizes raw foods faster/better, or that raw foods can cure diseases, are more than mere speculations and ideals of the pro-raw foodism movement. One site even claims that "a raw food diet creates major improvements [sic] in health. The reasons are not known, but the experience is unmistakable" (10) This very claim, that 'the reasons are not known,' is what I suspect to be the case behind most of the raw foodism claims. However, this is not to say that said claims are definitely false, only that they should undergo more rigorous scientific investigation.


References

1)NY Times Online

2)Bugs Dress Salad, an article from the online journal nature.com

3)Eating Well: Food Safety, an article from the AARP's online index of articles

4)Labeling Raw and Undercooked Foods, an article on public health from King County, WA

5)Raw Foods vs. Cooked Foods Looking at the Science, a good scientific article that I found on beyondveg.com

6)Raw Food Q & A, from the rawfoodlife.com website

7)Could these foods be giving us cancer?, from The Guardian

8)The Living and Raw Foods FAQ, from Living and Raw Foods website

9)Healing Powers of Raw Food and Juice part 1, from Shirley's Wellness Caf website

10)A Raw Food Diet, from Nov55 website, a "science and science criticism" site




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