Slammin’ oversimplification, Part Two; Raw food and enzymes.
A fellow nutritiono-curious classmate of mine today brought up the subject of raw foods. Specifically, enzymes. For, as raw-some, raw-dical, (raw-diculous?) raw foodies like to scream over the whirring of their juicers (you know, the kind that tickle the liquid out of the carrot after gaining it’s consent)…cooked food is poison!
The theory goes that we should eat an all raw diet, with nothing heated above 115 degrees farenheight. Foods are ‘living’ in this state, with all enzymes intact, high vitamin and mineral contents, and imbued with a life-force that will keep us vital and glowing for millenia. Whilst we sit cross-legged under an elm, starving our withered bollocks off.
Now, I should be less facetious and more diplomatic seeing as I was once too an avid convert to the principles of rawfoodism. Apologies for the unbridled salad bashing! Let me least build an intelligent argument on which to base my sledging.
As a precursor, what are the principles espoused by raw foodists?
- The preservation of enzymes in food is paramount; by ingesting intact plant enzymes, we digest more efficiently, do not draw on our own enzymatic reserves and take a load off the pancreas.
- Keeping vitamin and mineral loss to a minimum; heat and cooking methods can reduce the content of certain nutritional compounds in foods.
- Avoiding the formation of toxic compounds such as Maillard molecules, HCA’s and AGEs.
- A raw diet is a natural diet.
Let me don my naturopathic detective cap (which is black, pointy, with a faint air of vetiver) and dig a little deeper.
It seems that, as always, the whole dealio deserves some more subtlety…io.
Let’s go back to kindergarten and employ rainbow graphics, to seize the basics. Colours tend to keep me interested.
What is an enzyme?
(source) 1000 tangled telephone cords – remember those?
An enzyme is a protein that speeds up a chemical reaction. It is the ‘facilitator’, if you will, the Danoz Direct revolutionary appliance that guarantees warp-speed results with minimal effort and application. We have gazillions of ‘em; ones for digesting, ones for brain function, saucy ones for unzipping the pants of our DNA.
Needless to say, they’re pretty gosh darn integral to our existence. And whilst it’s true that enzymes are present in raw foods, does it follow that their ingestion will benefit us? Will the very enzymes that are unique to the plant and help it do it’s whole living bit, turn into raging, mutant, zombie-zymes and help cannibalise their own kind once safely inside our own bellies?
It seems that that assertion, at least, may be more whimsical than biological. For all my trawling through the literature and online resources, I found little to definitively prove that the enzymes in raw food act any differently than other proteins we ingest. Uncoiled by stomach acids, shipped off as individual aminos. Our own digestive enzymes command the starring role on stomach-stage, treating all grub as equal. Furthermore, the current understanding is that up to 90% of the nutrients in food are absorbed in the small intestine, where bile and pancreatic enzymes do their thang. By the time that big-hunk-o-goo (formerly your breakfast) enters the intestines, stomach acid has wrecked corrosive havoc and any enzymes present from food would probably have been long since dismembered.
Verdict? Not sold on the whole enzyme theory. I never thought i’d make such a dry demand, but show me the science!
Next is the claim that virtually all nutrients are lost during cooking. Again, a conveniently one-dimensional accusation. Firstly, multiple factors come into play when accounting for vitamin and mineral loss; how the food has been stored and for how long, exposure to UV light, exposure to oxygen and so on. ‘Cooking’ is also a term with varying definitions. Do you mean steaming broccolini gently in an organic bamboo cradle or brutally cremating it over fire and brimstone?
Fact: Vitamins such as C and most of the B’s are quite sensitive to heat, and water – the combination of which (such as boiling for hours in a witchy cauldron) would definitely lead to significant losses of content. No argument here. The caveat! Other compounds in vegetables that may exert negative effects in the body, such as goitrogens in the brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts) are also significantly reduced during cooking. Goitrogenic foods increase the body’s requirements for iodine and in large amounts, can inhibit thyroid function.
Yet more nutrients such as lycopene and some carotenoids are actually rendered more bioavailable after cooking.
And! As mentioned, the real nitty gritty of vitamin and mineral loss lies in the method of cooking. Steaming appears to gently caress the vegetables, minimising losses and sealing in the goodness. Boiling, microwaving and frying fare comparatively poorly.
Well, well, well. It seems that there is yet another beautifully balanced, context-driven, nuanced and nerdy answer on the vitamin and mineral loss subject. It depends! It depends! It always bloody depends.
Next up, formation of deadly toxins whilst cooking. Sounds like a nutritional horror story.
It was a dark and stormy night, and Bill was blackening his steak over a naked flame…
We know that we’re conducting a wicked science experiment each time things go brown in the pan. Formally known as the Maillard reaction, ‘browning’ is a process in which sugars bind to amino acids and undergo glycation. Other related nasties such as AGEs and HCAs (post to follow) render proteins fairly useless and increase the oxidative load in the body, age us, and have undisputed carcinogenic tendencies. Thus, avoiding the creation of these delightful chemical characters is an obviously beneficial pursuit.
But. Yet another, glorious, but.
Maillard molecules are not actually that unnatural. In fact, they can form in foods sitting around at room temperature and more interestingly, are also products of our own metabolic processes. So whether or not we are eating an all cooked or all raw diet, there is no escaping the omnipresent MM’s. Minimising their creation by adopting a low sugar diet, not forgetting about our sausages as they sizzle on the barbie and turning our noses up at stale crackers, is however, a nice way to ensure we are not exposing ourself to more bombastic oxidative terrorists than our bodies can cope with.
So the argument that the production of toxic Maillard molecules proves the superiority of a raw diet is only half-baked (dehydrated at approx 80 degrees to be precise!). Because whether or not we are cooking, we can still encounter them, and better yet, a high-sugar fruitarian diet that some raw proponents embrace may induce the body to produce YET MORE due to high blood glucose levels (studies show diabetics experiencing dysregulated blood sugar levels produce more Maillard molecules as metabolic by-products).
As mentioned, our bodies have the facilities to deal with and detoxify a level of ingested nastiness.
We don’t necessarily have to swaddle ourselves in organic hemp to ward off every last toxin, cos let’s face it, even in the most natural of foods, chemicals and inhibitors and anti-nutrients abound. That’s just the grim reality of EVERY PLANT FOR ITSELF! So the whole notion of a raw diet being a pristine, toxin-free, smugly squeaky exercise in poison-avoidance is simply batty.
Most plants don’t want to be uprooted and eaten alive; they want to continue their funky-little-botanical existence, taking their offspring to seed-ergarten, enjoying a ginger beer with the neighbourhood earthworm, rooting (sorry, Dad joke alert!). This is why Lima Beans and Cassava have cyanogenic glycosides (which release cyanide whilst undergoing digestion), Parsnips have toxic psoralens, Potatoes have solanine, grains have phytic acid, the list goes on. The point? These compounds serve the purposes of the plant, but we can’t go nuts fretting over every gram of them that we ingest. Our livers can cope (to a point), and the nutritional trade-off is mostly tilted in our favour, meaning we reap more benefit from the cumulative nutrition of the item than we experience deleterious effects from the individual constituents. However, my long-winded, poorly executed point is that even a ‘natural’ diet is not free from the presence of toxins; naturally occurring or otherwise.
Let’s wrap it up (like a raw collard leaf pseudo-tortilla):
- The ‘enzyme theory’ of why raw food diets are optimal does not really hold H2O. I’m not entirely convinced that plant enzymes work for us during digestion; I think our own digestive enzymes work for us. Cos we’re the boss.
- Water and heat sensitive nutrients may be lost during cooking, but the digestive-potential of other constituents can also increase. Starches break down so we can actually utilise the calories, goitrogenic compounds are neutralised (to a degree) so they don’t wreak havoc with our collective thyroids, some pigmented carotenoids (such as lycopene) are more available to us. You get the picture; balance. That and cooking with a bit of sense; slow-cooking, steaming, retaining the liquid, all decrease nutrient losses.
- Some toxic compounds can be formed while cooking, but once again, it does not follow that we’re all burning our bacon and blackening our beef. These molecules are also formed during metabolic reactions, thus our bodies are equipped to wrangle and neutralise them.
- Raw foodists cannot escape the irksome interference of toxins; they are ubiquitous in our diets, from even the most innocent of earthy foodstuffs (not so cute NOW potato).
What’s my stance then, after all this cynicism and smack-talk?
As always, that painfully impractical notion of balance remains. I am irritated by dogmatism in general, but none more so than misguided dogmatism. For it’s true that a large percentage of our diet should probably come from fresh, raw foods. However some things need adequate preparation to render them digestible, some are more palatable, some individuals require a greater calorific pay-off for a lesser quantity of produce (raw fruitarian-ism literally crippled my budget. That and there wasn’t enough space on my bench top to accommodate 10 kilos of bananas, 50 apples and a one tonne watermelon. All in a day’s chowing). The practicalities of consumption dictate that we eat nutrient dense, calorific food if we want to have a life that does not revolve around masticating endless containers of greens and celery to attain baseline energy intake for the day. And people who are already weak and depleted who just need a 48-hour bone broth stew for Vishnu’s sake, do not need to hear from a raw vegan ‘authority’ that they’re simply not doing it right! Not trying hard enough! More dehydrated flax crackers (with totally bio-unavailable/convertible omega 3-s and oxidised fatty acids) and sprouted seeds is the key to immortality! Totally, no.
In saying that, I think there’s a lot to be said for taking care in your food preparation, not frying the hell out of every dinner and supplementing your meals with a hefty portion of local, seasonal, fresh, rawtastic produce. I’m not denying that. I just think, like everything in life, it pays to be a questioning little shit. Investigate; discern what is sensical and what is bollocks. What sits well with your own philosophy and constitutional needs.
And in the meantime, tell me what you reckon. I’d say that there are some interesting opinions out there, and I’d love to hear ‘em!
Interesting links (that I failed to reference properly in text):