Raw vs Cooked
The raw food movement contends that heating food destroys its nutrients and enzymes, essentially "killing" the food. They believe we need to eat plants in their raw state to absorb all that they have to offer. I believe eating raw food is nutritionally amazing and we should look for raw foods every day; however, I have two points of contention with the purely raw food lifestyle.
What about raw meat, dairy and seafood?
Most raw foodies are strict vegetarians, even vegans. If we are really going to talk about the nutrients available in raw foods, we cannot ignore that raw fish, raw grass-fed lamb or beef, raw liver and raw milk have more nutrients and enzymes than some vegetables.
Meat, even raw meat, has been eaten for thousands of years by our ancestors. Please take note: I am not advising you start eating raw, conventional meat from your local grocery store. This meat is often so contaminated with hormones, antibiotics, and disease that you would be putting your health at risk.
Raw food can be quite rewarding if you are willing to focus on finding only the best quality, humanely processed dairy, meat and seafood.
If you look carefully you will find some remarkable heritage food artisans in your local region. Look for Edible magazines in your region as they have many top tier vendors listed. My family gets raw milk from pastured cows from the realfoodbayarea.com, an amazing CSA that delivers fresh, local products to the Bay Area.
Raw milk has lactase enzymes intact to digest the lactose sugars and I find my family has less ear infections, sinus infections, and overall healthier immune systems since we switched over to raw milk. It is chock full of the vitamins A, D, E and K which only reside in the fat. Raw milk is a complete protein and will satiate you quicker so you can moderate your portion control.
We drink way less whole raw milk which is nice on the pocketbook. When I followed the ridiculous advice of my previous pediatrician to drink skimmed milk, my two year old daughter could drink a gallon a week. Now my family of four goes through one liter a week of whole fat raw milk and I never have to be the portion control police. I serve a 1950's sized 4 oz drinking glass and the kids are satisfied.
Raw eggs briefly enjoyed the limelight when Orange Julius sat in the corner of every mall in America. The owners realized that orange juice did not hurt their bellies as much when they added the healthy fat of egg yolks to their juices. Unfortunately, Americans did a back flip and started chanting egg yolks condemned you to high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease. We started to eat egg white omelets and low fat cereals instead. Now the American population is in a severe state of essential fatty acid deficiency, we have high rates of vitamin D deficiency, higher cholesterol and a wide range of problems with our digestive systems. Maybe we should have kept the eggs and dropped the 16oz of orange juice now served with breakfasts in diners across America.
In my home, we love our eggs, the whites cooked, but the yolks sunny side up. Again, please do not try this with a conventional store-bought egg from a chicken kept in a cage and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. That type of toxic load could make your liver increase your cholesterol.
Chickens that eat their natural diet of foraged bugs and greens have less cholesterol in their bodies. Instead of cholesterol that is formed when a body is stressed, healthy chickens on pasture produce eggs with higher concentrations of nutrients. I like to put it in these terms: our ancestors often ate insects and were really healthy, so you can either eat your bugs, or eat the eggs from the chickens that eat the bugs for you. I may be an adventurous eater, but I will choose eggs every time.
Ask my kids what their favorite food is and they will most likely reply, sushi. Raw fish is a staple in the Japanese diet and if you have tried it, you know why. Sushi and sashimi are delicious! If you are new to raw fish, try a ceviche recipe where you use a South American style of "cooking" the fish in lemon or lime juice which will not "kill" the nutrients and enzymes in the food, but will not feel raw to you either. Another slightly cooked taste, but still raw form of eating fish, is in smoked salmon or lox. Since my family doesn't eat bagels, I serve my lox on fresh cucumber slices with a dollop of cream and raw fish eggs, aka caviar.
If you were brave enough to try a raw shrimp cocktail in the 90's, then you may enjoy this Vietnamese inspired dish that the kids can make themselves. With the exception of the vermicelli rice noodles that are steeped, like a tea in hot water, these shrimp rice wraps are totally raw. And if you really want to be exotic and have super thyroid stimulating nutrients, go for the raw oysters. Sea salt minerals and iodine can boost a sluggish thyroid and we in the bay area are close to some really tasty morsels. The more north you go, the colder the water, the better the oyster.
I was very close to a Polish family in my early 20's. They taught me many of the techniques I still use in food preparation today. Unfortunately, I was a vegetarian at the time and I missed out on so many nutrient dense, heritage recipes. This one for raw ground beef really stood out in my mind. Layered like a parfait with raw onions and a raw egg yolk on top, this dish appeared on the table like a slap in the face to a "veg-head." I regret never accepting the invitation to taste such a delicacy. It is really just another presentation of steak tartare which is on the menu of many five star restaurants and one of my new favorite delights.
If you are nervous about raw beef, you should be. Here in America, we have lowered the art of animal dressing to the most barbaric states. Feeding cows GMO grains that they cannot digest, while locked inside small animal feed lots standing in their own feces, is not the recipe for health. Much like the chicken's cholesterol levels, cows produce higher cholesterol when there bodies are stressed with disease. These stresses occur from inhumane living quarters, an improper diet, hormones to bulk up quickly, and antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to slaughter. I would never recommend you buy conventional beef from the local store and eat it raw. Honestly, I am afraid to eat the spinach raw in some stores.
However, if you meet your local ranchers and see how they raise their cattle, you will find a harmonious relationship between the animals, the land, and the people. The meat will have more nutrients, vitamins, and healthy fats and you can be sure it will be safer to eat. I bought my beef this year from Julie Morris at Morris Beef and I highly recommend you check out their website. Even though I do not prepare raw beef dishes, I allow my begging 8 year old daughter to lick her fingers after forming meatballs. She eats raw beef only from Morris Beef after I have frozen the meat for 14 days. I attribute her amazing immune system to it.
Some Vegetables Should Be Cooked!
My second point of contention is that some vegetables are easier to digest when cooked or broken down. Cooking breaks down the cellular wall of the plant which better prepares some of the nutrients within the cells to be absorbed. This is important when digestion involves the absorption of nutrients.
Lycopene is found in red pigment plants, like tomatoes, red cabbage, and red peppers and has been linked to lower risk of cancer and heart disease. This antioxidant is even more potent when cooked, increasing the levels by 30%. I am not saying ditch the raw tomatoes and peppers completely because they contain vitamin C. Vitamin C is fragile and levels of this particular nutrient diminish when cooked. What I am saying is have a healthy balance of both cooked and raw tomatoes to absorb the widest variety of nutrients.
Carrots are another example of foods that benefit from lightly cooking or steaming. The levels of beta-carotene, the orange pigment that is converted to vitamin A in the body, are absorbed better when the carrot is lightly cooked and the tough cellular wall is broken down. Beta-carotene supports the immune system, serves as an antioxidant and promotes healthy vision. We like to say carrots give you "Spiderman Eyes."
Cruciferous vegetables, sometimes called brassicas, like broccoli, kale, collards and cabbages should be steamed or cooked for at least 3 minutes to break down the goitrogenic substances. Goitrogens can interfere with the absorption of iodine, block the production of thyroid hormone, and can lead to a sluggish thyroid.
Strong leafy greens such as spinach, chard and beet greens also contain oxalic acid which prevents the absorption of minerals like iron and calcium. If you really want to boost your intake of iron and calcium make sure to steam those greens for at least 3 minutes and then smother them in butter. You had to know that was coming, the Food Foundation guru never misses a chance to save the world one stick of butter at a time.
On a serious note, the healthy fat of real butter will slow down the absorption of the carbs in the vegetables and allow you to absorb the nutrients they contain. I recommend using grass fed butter because as we previously discussed, we benefit from the health of the cows that forage their natural diet.
I cannot point to a winner of the raw versus cooked debate; I honestly think they are both important sources of essential nutrients. My goal is not to convince you to avoid either cooked or raw foods, but to try them in both capacities. If you are in the process of building your own food foundation, I recommend exploring a healthy mix of both raw and cooked foods from both the animal and the plant kingdoms.