Raw food, oldest cuisine catching on; its health benefits debated
Monday, August 30th 2004, 12:56 pm
By: News On 6
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. (AP) _ Lunch crush is coming and the deli crew is busy making burgers, lime tarts and pizza dough. Things are really cooking _ at least figuratively.
In fact, none of the food being prepared at In The Raw will touch a flame or a griddle. None of it will encounter a temperature higher than a sweltering summer day. All of it, from the vegan cakes to vegan burgers, is served raw.
``No ovens,'' said owner Barbara Banfield. ``Just dehydration. No flames.''
The recently opened organic vegetarian deli and juice bar in this artsy tourist town is another outpost marking the mainstreaming of raw food diets.
So-called raw foodists can make vegetarians look like slackers. Devoted followers are vegans, meaning they eschew animal and dairy products. Just as importantly, they believe that heating food above the 110-115 degree range destroys enzymes in food and diminishes nutritional value. Healthy food is ``living food,'' they say, organic, unprocessed and uncooked.
Eating raw food is nothing new _ it's basically humanity's oldest cuisine. But interest in raw food diets has been sprouting recently beyond the usual fad cradles like Manhattan and southern California.
A number of (un)cookbooks have been published recently offering recipes for ``raw pot pie'' and ``lemony tofu pate.'' High-profile adherents like actor Woody Harrelson and model Carol Alt have added to the buzz. Author and raw food evangelist David ``Avocado'' Wolfe said he now speaks to packed houses in places like Coldwater, Mich., and Wichita, Kan.
When Wolfe started speaking tours seven years ago, he knew of two raw restaurants nationwide. The Web site www.rawfoodinfo.com now lists more than 60. Raw restaurants range from smoothie stands to fine dining establishments with wine lists and dishes like dim sum and ``pasta'' made from zucchini.
People who have gone raw tend to be zealous converts, ready to gleefully testify about impressive weight loss and energy gains. Wolfe says he sleeps five hours a night and his immune system is so strong now ``it's basically impossible for me to get sick.''
Banfield's former chef at In The Raw, Dominic Guerra, said the switch to raw cleared up his asthma, allergies and anxiety. He suffers relapses when he sneaks bites of processed foods.
``I had a bagel with cream cheese and it made me feel like I had a filmy curtain in front of my eyes,'' Guerra said. ``And I thought 'This is the state that people walk around in all the time!'''
Claims like that can raise eyebrows. While nutritionists have little problem with people eating raw nuts and vegetables (as long as they're clean), many are dubious about basing an entire diet on the concept.
It's true that some enzymes are inactivated when food is heated, but that's not important because the body relies on its own enzymes for digestion, said Dennis Miller, a professor of food and nutrition at Cornell University. Certain foods, like beans, become more nutritious after cooking, he said.
``The claim that somehow raw foods give you better energy, are more healthful, improve your immune system and all of that is simply not substantiated,'' Miller said. ``And moreover, it's not biologically plausible.''
If raw food really does boost energy, it can come in handy for making uncooked meals. Baking on a sun-soaked rock or simulating spaghetti strands with squash takes time. Banfield's corn chips can take three days to prepare once dehydrating time is figured in _ it's the antithesis of microwave cooking.
Then there's the ingenuity factor. Many raw dishes are essentially reverse engineered to approximate the taste and texture of well-known foods. It requires blenders, food processors and a bit of culinary prestidigitation.
On a recent day at In the Raw, workers moved in the cramped spaces between celery colored walls, busily blending seeds and thwacking open coconuts. Workers constructed raw burger patties made of flax meal, almonds, sunflower seeds celery, carrots, herbs and spices.
Seeds and nuts are crucial to many raw food creations, they add heft, texture and protein. Coconuts figure in a lot too; Banfield's restaurant goes through about 180 a week.
With these raw bases, Banfield can approximate all sorts of popular foods. Tuna salad? Did it. Chili? Ditto.
Of course, even an inept gourmand with a blindfold could tell a raw burger patty from McDonald's (one big tip-off: Banfield sandwiches her patties in butter lettuce instead of a bun). Raw restaurants seem to borrow the names of familiar foods to help people choose. The raw knockoffs can taste like their namesakes, but there are differences.
``You play a lot with the texture,'' Banfield said. ``It plays with the mind.''
So while Banfield's raw, almond-flour dough lacks the airy texture of risen bread, it has a solid feel that's, well, doughy. Banfield's shakes have a different sort of thickness on the tongue thanks to processed nuts and coconuts. Wolfe claims to make a killer chocolate-chip mint ice cream with all-organic ingredients like coconuts, hemp seed and agave nectar.
``It just blows people's minds where the sophistication is at now with raw food,'' he said.