Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is raw food the way to go?

Raw food has become a bit of a thing lately. You can’t turn around online without finding recipes for ‘raw carrot cake’ and ‘raw power salad’. There are raw food cafes and even in regular cafes, raw sweet treats are popping up in cabinets everywhere. So what’s the story with raw food from a nutritional point of view? Is a raw carrot cake really any better than a cooked one?

For a start, some raw food is really good for us. A big salad full of raw leafy greens and other crunchy, colourful vegetables is not only delicious, it’s also satisfying to eat and full of nutrients. Fruit is the same – often the best and healthiest way to eat it is in its natural state. It’s a great idea to include some raw veges and fruit in your day.

On the other hand, some foods are actually better for us when they are cooked. Tomatoes are an often-used example; the antioxidant compounds they contain, especially lycopene, are more easily absorbed in cooked tomato products than from raw. The same is true of the beta-carotene in carrots and pumpkin. And some foods really can’t be eaten without cooking; think of chicken, red meat, potatoes and most grains.

People eating a strictly raw diet don’t eat anything that’s been heated beyond about 46 degrees. That rules out most meats, anything baked, cheese, coffee and tea. Strictly speaking it rules out anything pasteurised too, such as milk, yoghurt and other dairy products, which have been heated as part of their processing. Raw foodists claim that cooking destroys nutrients and enzymes in food. While this is true, it’s questionable how much impact this has on our overall health. Eating lots of vegetables is a good idea, and whether they’re cooked or raw you’re still going to get lots of goodness from them.

So what about those sweet treats? Many of the slices, cakes and ‘cheesecakes’ in raw food cooking are made from combinations of nuts, dried fruit, coconut and coconut fat, along with fruits and honey. Although they have a lot of good things going for them – they’re often high in fibre, for example – raw sweet treats are often just as energy-dense as their cooked counterparts, if not more so. A recent recipe I saw for a raw strawberry cake had more calories per slice than an average main course. So just because they’re raw, doesn’t make them diet food. If you’re eating an exclusively raw diet, there’s probably room for a high-energy sweet treat. If you’re just popping into a raw café every day, it could be worth limiting the treats.

The other thing to note is that for people prone to IBS, concentrated amounts of coconut, dried fruit such as dates or sultanas, and nuts – especially cashews and almonds – may cause unwelcome problems. That’s because they’re high in FODMAPs – types of sugars which are poorly absorbed by some people. For you, a raw treat could be more trouble than tonic. 

First published in the Sunday Star Times, 28 September. 

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