By Tegan Osborne
These days every hipster cafe has a glass cabinet full of “raw food treats” — typically packed with dates, cacao nibs and other mysterious ingredients designed to take the edge off the guilty feelings typically accompanying a coffee and cake combo.
But what exactly is the raw food diet and where did it (and its delicious snacks) spring from?
As the name suggests, raw food enthusiasts espouse a diet comprised completely, or at least substantially, of uncooked foods.
Some raw foodies include uncooked meat, eggs and/or milk in their diet. But for the most part, the raw movement is led by vegans, who eat only raw fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
The history of the movement can be traced back as far as the 1850s, when Presbyterian minister and promoter of dietary reform Sylvester Graham started the American Vegetarian Society. But Sydney nutritionist and blogger Catherine Saxelby said the raw food diet really came to prominence about 30 years ago.
“Eating raw has been a big part of the alternative health movement. It was big in the 1980s with Leslie Kenton, a UK naturopath [who] started this ‘raw energy’ movement. And it’s kind of back in trend again now,” she said.
Some nutrients damaged, others enhanced.
The thinking behind the diet is that cooking above 40 degrees Celsius (just above the normal temperature of the human body) destroys important nutrients and enzymes in our food, and can also form harmful chemicals.
But Ms Saxelby said that was only true to a certain extent.
Cooking does destroy some heat-sensitive vitamins, such as vitamin C and folate.
There is also evidence that eating excessive amounts of browned or roasted food, which contain high levels of compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), could lead to an increased risk of developing age-related diseases such as cataracts, Alzheimer’s Disease, heart disease and stroke.
Similarly, eating too much burnt, barbecued and char-grilled food has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, because of the formation of carcinogenic substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
But research has shown that while some nutrients are lost through cooking, most vegetables retain substantial concentrations of their vitamins and minerals, particularly if you use a wide variety of different cooking techniques — including steaming, blanching, simmering and stir frying — and avoid overcooking them in big pots of water.
And in some cases, cooking fruit and vegetables actually makes it easier for the body to absorb the nutrients they contain.
“Cooking doesn’t kill all nutrients, and it actually increases bio-availability of others,” Ms Saxelby said.