Eat it raw! It’s…magic!

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.

Continued below…

Magical Enzymes

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.


  1. #1 Adam
    March 31, 2008

    While I’m certainly not a raw foodist (or whatever the name is), there are aspects of the concept I can appreciate. Cooking plants certainly alters them chemically, for both good and bad. You can pull a lot more calories out of cooked potatoes, for example. Boiling some types of vegetables tends to leech out some nutrients.

    My general rule of thumb is that I should eat what my body has evolved for. Typically that means a lot of vegetables, grains, and the like. While humans can certainly eat a wide variety of foods, we don’t do so well with high fructose corn syrup and lots of red meat.

  2. #2 ericb
    March 31, 2008

    So do these people eat raw grain? That must be brutal on the molars.

  3. #3 R N B
    March 31, 2008

    A very good answer.
    But surely there is a more simple one.
    “the magic of raw foods lies in the unaltered enzymes they contain”
    Yes, but doesn’t our digestive system need to break down down all proteins (including enzymes) into constituent parts before they can be absorbed?
    I am going to fail high school biology if I’ve got this wrong.

  4. #4 T. Bruce McNeely
    March 31, 2008

    R N B – you are correct, of course. But facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good sales pitch.
    As far as nutrition goes, it’s my understanding that cooking allows access to more nutrients in food. At least, that’s what my ex told me when she boiled vegetables to moosh.

  5. #5 Bill
    March 31, 2008

    Never heard of Michael Pollan, but he makes a lot of sense. Good article.

    It seems my mother had it right all along. Eat your vegetables, don’t snack between meals and get out of the house. Go play in the yard.

  6. #6 andrea
    March 31, 2008

    Other animals may not cook their food, but that doesn’t prevent carnivores and detritivores from eating other animals that underwent incomplete rapid oxidation in landscape fires!

    Insects will do food processing, such as the nectar –> honey transformation in bee guts. Some ants farm fungi on partially-digested plant material. Doubtless other examples exist that are not coming to mind right now (still slurping coffee).


  7. #7 thadd
    March 31, 2008

    A couple of points I feel I should add. This is also in response to comment #1.

    First, as Alton Brown discussed during one episode of good eats (I think it was the one on beets), cooking foods and vegetables does do some damage. This might destroy some of the nutrients etc. However, without cooking them, we cannot break down the cell walls, and will actually get fewer nutrients than through cooking. The fact is that we would not be able to eat nearly as diverse an array of foods if we didn’t cook.

    As for cooking and evolution, humans have evolved to cook, that is the simple and accurate answer. There is some evidence that H. erectus used fire. Certainly H. sapiens sapiens has been using fire for almost its entire span of existence. To consider cooked food something unnatural or that humans didn’t evolve with is just over simplification of the natural human condition.

    I must go a bit further here and also comment on what foods themselves are natural and what we evolved to eat. Certainly meat, including red meat was an extremely important and long term necessity of human subsistence. There are some decent theories that this is why humans are obligate bipeds (hunting over long distances or scouting carcasses). Humans likely subsisted heavily on meat, though they did add fruits and vegetables to round out their diets.

    What about grains? Well these are a relatively recent addition to the human diet, at least as a staple. Domestication of grains didn’t occur until the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (likely around the middle of the PPNB). This is really very recent in human history. Before this, humans did eat grains but in relatively low amounts, as evident in the lower level of grinding stones. This is of course only the earliest domestication, it happened later at other places in the world. The idea that these are natural or evolved food choices is depended on the view that humans evolved to match a system of eating that developed within the last 10,000 years and is largely a cultural adaptation.

    As for the foods we eat themselves, they are anything but natural. Humans have put their marks on the genes of almost all food sources now exploited by humans. This is especially true of staple groups, and almost all the food we eat on a daily basis. Cereals, vegetables, fruits, domestic animals, and even wild animals are genetically different because of humans and their actions. Most of these have been similarly restricted to the last 10,000 years or so (quite a few less in some areas). There is absolutely no way that these can be considered natural food sources or evolved means of eating (except in the respect that our use of tools and the changing of our environment is an evolved ability of exploitation).

    Finally, many of the foods we eat today are only as nutritious as they are because they are unnatural. Especially in the last 50-100 years we have been genetically altering our food to better suit our needs.
    Ever wonder why pork gets so dry now? That’s because we have bred out much of the fat. But that’s actually ok, because you can generally cook it to a lower level now, since unnatural science has taken care of most of the problem with trichinosis across the western world.
    Ever wonder why we can eat so many grains? Well because they have been made more nutritious and because genetic modification has allowed them to be more disease resistant and grow in more environments. The yield on grains would be so low without human developed grains that it would be a very hard to get commodity in today’s world otherwise. I am not only talking modern developments either. The development of the earliest grains made them much easier to harvest, since before the domestic varieties, the ripe grains would drop their seeds to easily for harvesting to be effective.
    Ever wonder why we can farm almost all over the world? Because we developed irrigation for agriculture (in the neolithic at absolute earliest).
    Heck, many vegetables are so highly developed that they look nothing like their ancestors. We don’t even know where corn actually came from (though there are some good theories), and broccoli and cauliflower are human developed members of the lettuce family.

    In short, the use of heat to cook food is absolutely natural, and probably something humans have evolved with for a very very long time. On the other hand, many of the foods we eat are absolutely not natural and not things we have evolved with. This goes doubly true for most of the foods supported by the raw food movement.

  8. #8 thadd
    March 31, 2008

    I should also note that some human populations rely almost solely on cooked meat. A good example would be the Inuit. Fatty meat is about as essential as it can get, and they don’t do too well with annual lettuce harvest up their.

  9. #9 Todd
    March 31, 2008

    Generally speaking, I always seem to get confused over the word natural and how the woos us it. If whatever we do to our food obeys the laws of physics, then it is natural. The alternative is what? Manna from heaven?

  10. #10 PalMD
    March 31, 2008


  11. #11 dzd
    March 31, 2008

    It’s amazing how much of this tripe has come down, nearly unaltered, from the health faddists of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Your average raw food cultist would be quite at home in the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

  12. #12 Martin
    March 31, 2008

    Coincidentally I wrote a vaguely related post last night that you might want to check out:

    You Say Organic Potato, I Say Poisonous Lump of Neurotoxins –

    I was talking about natural toxins in common food, in an attempt to tackle some common arguments from organic-proponents and vaccine-denialists, but what I was saying could be applied just as well to the raw food movement who forget that for all the healthy stuff in vegetables, there’s a lot of potential badness too that cooking removes.

  13. #13 DVMKurmes
    March 31, 2008

    People promote raw diets for pets too, with some of the same arguments. It is amusing to see them claim that wild animals live longer than pets, and don’t get cancer, etc. All these claims are ridiculous and unsubstantiated of course, but some people love the idea and sometimes I have to spend an inordinate amount of time telling people about some of the problems with raw meat diets. (salmonella, klebsiella, etc.) In addition to the fact that manny of these diets are deficient in calcium and other nutrients as prepared by pet owners.

  14. #14 Bill the Cat
    March 31, 2008

    Rephrase the question: Are there any predators that don’t eat their prey raw?


    Crocodiles like to lodge their kills underwater where they will ripen and become much tastier and easier to eat. Leopards like to lodge their kills in trees where they will ripen and become much tastier and easier to eat.

    Starting to see a pattern here?

    To quote a Rolling Stones song, “The meat I eat for dinner must be hung up for a week.”

    Lots of meat-eaters, both carnivores and omnivores, prefer their meat not raw.

    Aging meat at the butcher’s raises the cost, and price, and desirability.

    Cooking meat is like artificially ripening it, doing in minutes or hours what would take days in nature. Cooking is flat-out nasty to parasites in all stages, which is an added nicety.

  15. #15 David Marjanovi?
    March 31, 2008

    Salads are great for you

    Have been described as having “the nutritional value of a handkerchief with a glass of water”. (Plus vinegar.) Why anyone eats them anyway is that they contain opioids or something. Like fresh bread crust.

    Boiling some types of vegetables tends to leech out some nutrients.

    Witness the existence of vegetable soup… it’s a bug, not a feature :-)

    My general rule of thumb is that I should eat what my body has evolved for. Typically that means a lot of vegetables, grains, and the like.

    Vegetables, yes. Grains, no. We have a pretty hard time dealing with grass seeds. They contain lectins that actively prevent us from taking up vitamins…

    don’t snack between meals

    Nonsense. “Grazing” is good. Having just a few big meals in a day is a very recent invention.

    Before this, humans did eat grains but in relatively low amounts, as evident in the lower level of grinding stones.

    …which seem to have been used to grind acorns, not grain. If you wash acorn flour to get the cyanide out, you can eat it as a staple diet…

    We don’t even know where corn actually came from


    Which looks so different that its relation to maize was doubted for decades.

  16. #16 Jim RL
    March 31, 2008

    I think the myth that animals are somehow healthier than people arises from the fact that sick animals in the wild generally just die. You don’t see geriatric squirrels running around battling arthritis because they are all dead.

    We pay attention to and try to alleviate the suffering of other humans. This necessarily makes us more aware of the afflications that strike us. The whole thing just isn’t very thought out.

  17. #17 Dianne
    March 31, 2008

    It is amusing to see them claim that wild animals live longer than pets, and don’t get cancer, etc. All these claims are ridiculous and unsubstantiated of course,

    Not just unsubstantiated but actually falsified. I can think of one example right off: tasmanian devils are dying off in the wild of a transmissible cancer.

  18. #18 thadd
    March 31, 2008

    ” Before this, humans did eat grains but in relatively low amounts, as evident in the lower level of grinding stones.

    …which seem to have been used to grind acorns, not grain. If you wash acorn flour to get the cyanide out, you can eat it as a staple diet…”

    No debate on eating acorns, they probably did. However, there is ample evidence for grain use before domestication, and associated grinding. Heck, the fact that grains got domesticated speaks heavily to their being harvested before domestication. (additionally, there is plenty of archaeobotanical evidence in seed remains etc).

    We don’t even know where corn actually came from


    Which looks so different that its relation to maize was doubted for decades.”
    Corn is absolutely related to Teosinte, genetic data has shown this. However, the methods of domestication are still quite hotly debated because of the extreme differences between the two.

  19. #19 natural cynic
    March 31, 2008

    [Salads h]ave been described as having “the nutritional value of a handkerchief with a glass of water”.

    If you eat iceberg lettuce and celery. You get a lot more micronutrients using dark-colored leaves like spinach, red leaf lettuce and others.

  20. #20 gmcfly
    March 31, 2008

    I’d like to challenge the idea of “doing what our bodies were evolved for.” It’s as though, at some idyllic (Edenic?) time/place, people were completely free of disease because of the way they lived. But even in the past people were changing and adapting their behaviors to (many different) new environments, all over the world.

    Think of the various cultural approaches to food, from the Mediterranean to the Okinawan to the Chinese. Food is not a math problem with a single ideal solution. It is more like an engineering challenge, where many teams have found their own ingenious and elegant solutions.

  21. #21 daedalus2u
    March 31, 2008

    Humans cannot survive in good health without cooking, even when “hunting and gathering” from a supermarket.

    There is no report of any human society existing without cooking. Fire dates to about 750,000 years ago, long before the emergence of modern humans.

  22. #22 Foxjwill
    March 31, 2008

    Let me ‘splain–no there is too much, let me sum up

    Nice reference to Princess Bride–I love that movie.

  23. #23 Brian
    March 31, 2008

    It was really nice of those plants to make all these life-force enzymes to allow us to eat them.

    If they’re so concerned about what fire’s doing to these magical enzymes, I wonder what the raw foodies think the acid is doing in our stomach. Yes! Denaturing proteins! Exactly like what heat does!

    Oh, but wait… I bet those happy little plants evolved low-pH life force enzymes just to make it even easier for us to eat them. Plants are awesome.

  24. #24 Alex
    April 1, 2008

    There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable, and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.

    Anyway nice post about Health Challenges 😀

    “We’ve got a blog about nutrition, healthy eating, and health food too. It includes summaries of articles in the news, lists healthy
    recipes, offers tips and personal feedback on healthy eating, and reports on nutritional research.”

  25. #25 Liesele
    April 1, 2008

    Just when did Inigo Montoya get his medical degree? On the other hand, he had at least a modicum of common sense, which is more than we can say for some Life-force obsessed rawbies.

  26. #26 Liesele
    April 1, 2008

    I’ve wondered–why don’t predators get E.coli infections from eating their prey raw? Or do they? The answer is probably obvious but somehow I’m missing it.

  27. #27 David Group
    April 1, 2008

    I was going to make some comments, but thadd beat me to it. As for cooking vegetables, you retain much more of the vitamin content if you steam them than if you boil them to a mush.

  28. #28 Kristen's Raw
    April 1, 2008

    I enjoyed your post very much :)

    I’m a vegan for ethical reasons first and health reasons second. I eat a fairly high raw diet because I’m happy with the results of the energy increase I have and I was finally able to kick the caffeine habit.

    That being said, I think a key to longevity could be reduction in calories (and many can achieve this with Raw foods, although be careful because nuts and seeds are high in calories).

    Bottom line…we could all use some more fresh fruits and veggies in our diets because of the phyto-nutrients. The new trend of Raw as a cuisine now offers people exciting ways to prepare plain fruits and veggies, making them more appealing and exciting. :)

  29. #29 PalMD
    April 1, 2008

    There is evidence that fewer calories = longer life, however it probably doesn’t matter whether or not it’s cooked.

  30. #30 Anonymous
    April 1, 2008

    “That being said, I think a key to longevity could be reduction in calories”

    As a tiny, skinny American who eats a massive amount of food, I just need to say: Just say NO to starvation-caused fainting. It is un-fun. And I’ve been there. It only takes a few days for me to drop the five or so pounds that mean that if I skip a meal I hit the floor. So every time I’m sick, or stressed, I have to be very careful to eat enough.

    I suppose I could have this properly treated with drugs and join the rest of America in their obsession with health food fads, but my physician is of the opinion that as long as my 2000 or so calorie a day diet comes primarily from places other than fast food and I get the recommended amounts of fruits and veggies in there somewhere, the rest can come from whatever I feel like, whether that’s a plate full of pasta covered in cheese or a pork loin roasted with carrots and fennel (mmm, fennel).

    And the food faddists can kindly stop glaring at me for the stuff I put in my grocery cart, thanks.

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