Some thoughts on the relative benefits of raw and cooked food from our founder, Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.:
Raw food is all the rage these days. The diet is based on unprocessed and uncooked plant foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, sprouts, seeds, nuts, grains, beans, dried fruit, and seaweed. From what I’ve seen, there is a huge amount of work required to follow this diet, as there is much chopping, blending, dehydrating, juicing, and so on. Often, food is made to look like something it’s not – squash “spaghetti” or “mashed potatoes” made with raw cauliflower.
As it turns out, there has been a fair amount of anthropological research done in the field of raw and cooked food. Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, is the author of a recent book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human (Basic Books, 2009). When he was studying gorillas and chimps in the African wild, he decided to eat what they ate, as that seemed easier and made sense. After all, we are descendants of these animals! However, he found that eating the monkeys’ grub, roots, leaves, berries, and the like, was not enough; he felt ravenously hungry when he returned to camp. He yearned for a plate of hot mashed potatoes. It turns out that chimps and gorillas spend about six hours per day chewing their raw vegetable diet!
The discovery of fire, and the cooking of food, made a huge difference in how apes fed. Cooking, grinding, mashing, and breaking up food all help make it softer, and so aid greatly in digestion and absorption of nutrients because these techniques allow the digestive juices to extract more nutrients from both plant and animal foods. Professor Wrangham posits that cooking made the evolutionary difference between apes and humans.
Most interesting is the extensive research that shows that a cooked, soft diet increases absorption of both nutrients and calories. The calories from cooked food are more bio-available than those of raw food, and Professor Wrangham cautions that the calories counted by the thermodynamic paradigm (which ignores the effects of cooking) should not be considered the same as the energy obtained from cooked food.
Today’s movement emphasizing consumption of raw foods considers them more “natural.” That may be true. However, I believe that we should not quickly assume that “natural” is always good. Poisonous mushrooms are natural too, but I don’t see anyone eating them knowingly. Nor is there a “right” way for humans to eat. Most human societies eat local and seasonal foodstuffs, which vary greatly according to region.
Also, we are not like the apes: we read books, ride bicycles, build skyscrapers, fly planes. And we cook. Every single group of humans anthropology studies has the use of fire. So I would like to think that when food is hard to get and we need every bit of nutrition we can get our hands on, cooking our food is the ideal way to prepare it for consumption.
However, in our times we have gone to the other extreme: In the last 75-100 years, with the advent of commercially processed foods, we have gotten used to a very soft, finely ground diet – chopped meat, white bread, cakes, cookies, ice cream – and this diet over many years has brought with it numerous health problems and obesity. A raw-food diet, then, can be a very healthy and helpful approach to counterbalance the unhealthy effects of our long-term processed food diet.
This balance may be temporary. The pendulum swings. If one embarks on a raw-food diet, it’s important to pay attention to see if at any time the body says, “Enough!” It may be a month, a year, or seven, but a moment may come when a bowl of hot soup and some flavorful rice and beans suddenly feel just wonderful again.
Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.