Your Food, in the Raw

March 31, 2010 in Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Maybe it’s because people know that I was a bit of an earth mother in the early seventies, or maybe it’s just that raw diets are getting so popular. I’ve been asked a number of times in the past few months about my opinion about raw foods. As it turns out, the question is really about eating everything raw. People want to know my opinion about eating one of the new ‘eat everything raw diets.’ I have scientific concerns, a little praise, and big question marks.

First, why are people deciding to switch to raw foods? As it turns out, part of the reason is that some people believe that raw foods are “living foods.” Some proponents of raw food believe that the enzymes in raw foods are a ‘life force’ of the food. I’ll address the enzyme issue below and show that this is a misunderstanding of how the body absorbs enzymes.

There are quite a large variety of different ‘raw foods’ diets/eating styles. It seems that the majority of raw food advocates, eat exclusively uncooked, unprocessed organic plant foods. Often they are strict vegans (vegetarians who do not eat any eggs, milk, fish, or any animal products). Some advocates of the raw foods, do eat raw eggs, unpasteurized dairy foods, meat and fish. Most do not eat refined sugar, coffee, tea, soy products, vegetable oils, dried herbs, alcohol and vinegar. Some call themselves ‘fruitarians’ – they eat mostly fruits. Others call themselves ‘sproutarians’ – they eat mostly sprouts. And still others call themselves ‘juicearians’.

I wonder if some of the proponents of raw food diets and eating styles decided to make the change, by learning about the adulterated and impoverished processed foods. Maybe they were thinking that no one could put ‘junk’ in, or remove good nutrients from their foods, if they eat it raw, straight from nature. But as with many things in life, a decision to ‘go all the way to raw’ may not be necessary. The question is raised, ‘is eating everything raw necessary?’

I’m not too worried about eating many well-washed vegetables and fruits raw. Most fruits and vegetables are very low in the undesirable components of processed foods – things that many of us are trying to reduce in our diet – simple sugars, sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol, caffeine, supplemental nutrients, food-like substances, artificial colors and flavors, and additives that you would never add in your own kitchen, and maybe some pesticides.

There are definitely some benefits of eating a vegetarian diet; vegetarians are less likely to be overweight, and have a lower risk of heart disease. They would, of course, consume more of some of the phytonutrients and vitamins, because cooking reduces some nutrients. The key is, ‘reduces some nutrients’ – cooking doesn’t eliminate all nutrients.

On the other hand, some nutrients are made to be more available to the body by cooking. For example, when you cook tomatoes, more lycopene is released and thereby, made available to be absorbed by the body.

Dehydrating foods (one of the ways that raw foodists prepare food) can expose the food to air for fairly long periods of time and the resulting oxidation can cause a loss of nutrients; again this is not all the nutrients.

I do not advocate eating raw milk or milk products (unpasteurized). Some people are at an especially high risk of serious health problems (even death), if they are exposed to food pathogens – cooking and pasteurization destroys many food pathogens. The elderly, children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to serious outcomes from food poisoning.

I think that it could be a real benefit to go to a Registered Dietitian who has a positive attitude toward vegetarianism and have at least one session with her, before beginning a vegetarian diet. I recommend this because there are some nutrients that are very difficult to get on a strict vegetarian diet – vitamin B12 is one of those nutrients. It is not an insignificant problem, if a person becomes deficient in vitamin B12, after a long-term vegan diet – it can result in serious permanent disability/death. The B12 issue can be managed, along with other nutrients that are more challenging on a vegan diet; the point is that it’s best to learn about the issues when you begin, if possible.

Some proponents of raw food believe that enzymes are destroyed when food is cooked; and in order to not destroy enzymes they don’t cook food. About enzymes – enzymes are proteins. They are right about the effect of cooking on most enzymes. When you cook protein – (think of an egg) you put the raw egg into boiling water to make a poached egg, it’s runny and soft. After it is cooked it is firm. The word that science uses to describe the egg protein after it is cooked is denatured. Enzymes/proteins are made of amino acids. It’s somewhat like a bunch of pearls that are ‘hooked’ together in a specific design. When you cook the ‘pearls’ some of them break apart. All the amino acids (the building blocks of the enzymes/proteins) are still there – they are just not in the same design. If you eat an enzyme or protein, even if it’s raw, the acid in your stomach does the same thing to the protein – it breaks it apart – denatures it. Fortunately, in every single cell of your body you have DNA and RNA. So long as you have a full complement of the healthy cells you need, these cells take the amino acids that are absorbed into the blood and make the enzymes and proteins that your body needs. Even if you eat raw vegetables, the enzymes/proteins are not absorbed and used whole by the body (they are denatured by the acid in your stomach). You can’t absorb whole enzymes or proteins.

Did you ever wonder why people with type-1 diabetes, have to give themselves insulin injections? Why not just give them insulin in pills? Some of you are saying right now, I know someone who takes insulin pills. But those are not insulin pills. Those pills are medications that stimulate a person’s pancreas to make more insulin. But if you have type-1 diabetes, the pancreas just can’t be stimulated, because the cells that once produced insulin have been destroyed. If you took a pill containing insulin (a hormone, a protein) you would digest the insulin, like you do all proteins. Your stomach acid would take it apart into small pieces. That’s the way our bodies work – actually it’s quite fascinating, efficient and wonderful. If you have a disease, like diabetes, you have to get the protein into your blood (past the stomach) to do the necessary job that insulin does. We make hormones (like insulin), enzymes, and proteins to do the many thousands of functions and make the many different tissues that the body is made of, all from the amino acids that it gets by denaturing proteins during digestion.

Cooking not only makes many nutrients available for absorption, but it also makes food taste lovely. A Dutch proverb “Hunger gives a relish even to raw beans,” tells part of the story. If we’re hungry enough, we can relish even raw beans. But in a land of plenty, existing on raw foods would take away one of the basic and simple pleasures of life.  One of the aspects of the Mediterranean-style of eating is the joy of eating – enjoying a wonderful pleasure of life. I personally would be less fulfilled if I had to eat the vegetables that I had for dinner this evening (Roasted Yams and Beets) raw. Caramelized and warm roasted vegetables are certainly tied to the pleasure center of my brain.

Fresh raw salads frequently grace our table, with a large variety of raw vegetables. Our dressing is often humus (the beans are cooked and crushed, to make the creamy texture.) Salads are enjoyable and refreshing – it’s all about moderation and variety.

John Gerard was an English herbalist famous for his herb garden and for the books he wrote about rare plants, descriptions of plants and folklore.  In the 1630’s he wrote this:

“The onion being eaten, yea though it be boyled, causeth head-ache, hurteth the eyes, and maketh a man dimme sighted, dulleth the senses, ingendreth windinesse, and provoketh overmuch sleepe, especially being eaten raw.”

The translation is: Unless an onion is boiled (cooked), it can cause headache, hurt eyes, dim-sighted, dull senses, flatulence (gas), and sleepiness. Note to self: I’m glad I didn’t have to eat raw onions, rather than the extremely tasty onions that were mixed and roasted with the beets and yams. (See recipe below.)

"God gave man the challenge of raw materials -- not the ease of finished things. he left the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that man might know the joys and glories of creation." Unknown source. I’m definitely one who takes pleasure in creating and enjoying the glories of cooked recipes that delight my family and my guests.  Oops! I almost forgot the delight of eating the recipes myself.

While it’s true that I believe and recommend that we eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and limited amounts of animal products – I’m definitely a proponent of cooking, and pasteurizing. Raw foods are a very nice addition to the diet – they offer a nice variety. But there is no reason to deny yourself tasty, nutritious cooked foods either. There’s no evidence that eating an all-raw food diet is healthier than eating cooked foods.

You don’t need to be searching for a vegetable dish for Passover to enjoy this colorful sweet parve vegetable dish. If you want to take something to a Passover Seder, this is easy and perfect for those striving to eat Mediterranean-style meals. This recipe takes about an hour and 15 minutes to roast, but the prep time is not too time-consuming. It is an extraordinarily delicious dish.

Roasted Yams and Beets


5 – 6 beets, peeled and cut into fairly large chunks

¼ cup (4 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

4 cups Red garnet yams, cut into fairly large chunks

1 ½ cup sliced yellow onion


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Toss the beets with 2 tablespoons of oil. Spread on a baking sheet. Bake the beets for 25 minutes.

Mix 2 tablespoons oil with garlic, salt, pepper, yams, and onions.

Remove the baking pan with the beets, and add the yam mixture and stir. Return to the oven and bake for about 45 – 50 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Stir the vegetables after about 25 minutes and continue roasting.

Peel the beets.

Peel the beets.

Toss the beet chunks with the oil.

Toss the beet chunks with the oil.

Place the beet chunks on a baking sheet.

Place the beet chunks on a baking sheet.

While the beets are baking, peel the yams and cut into chunks.

While the beets are baking, peel the yams and cut into chunks.

Toss the yams, onions and seasonings with oil to coat.

Toss the yams, onions and seasonings with oil to coat.

Remove the partially roasted beets from the oven.

Remove the partially roasted beets from the oven.

Mix the onion/yam mixture in with the partially roasted beets.

Mix the onion/yam mixture in with the partially roasted beets.

When the roasted vegetables are tender and caramelized, remove from the oven.

When the roasted vegetables are tender and caramelized, remove from the oven.

Serve your delicious for a holiday or an any day.

Serve your delicious roasted vegetables for a holiday or an 'any day' meal.