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Slammin’ oversimplification, Part Two; Raw food and enzymes.

June 11, 2012

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.
  • raw diet is a natural diet.
I want to sift through all the grubby, organic dirt surrounding these claims. For, as a general rule, it peeves me the way in which black and white, good vs evil, over-simplified dietary shenanigans take on a life of their own, captivating those individuals so desperate to effect healthful dietary change via the next miraculous craze. (Again, I am struggling to mask my blatant cynicism. Will have words with inner passive-aggressive hell-raiser and report back in 5).

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):

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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):

Effects of different cooking methods on Broccoli

Natural toxins in food chart

Pretty comprehensive overview of the whole debate

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    June 11, 2012 8:41 am

    A great post as usual. Well balanced. You are the only blogger I read. Thank you, Catie.

  2. June 11, 2012 9:09 am

    Wow, you sure convinced me!! Love your post, as always, very informative and so entertaining. xo

  3. Catie permalink*
    June 11, 2012 9:15 am

    Thanks guys, always appreciate your feedback! x

  4. Vanessa Voss permalink
    June 11, 2012 9:16 am

    Great post, Catie. A lot of good points. I was discussing the issue with enzymes in food and stomach acid with Melissa a few weeks ago after unsuccessfully getting my point across in a class last term.

    An old friend of mine hosted a raw food event a couple of weeks ago, which I went to. Apart from catching up with her, I wanted to get a sense of what the whole raw food movement was like and I was also curious about the food. The food was incredible and so creative, but the information on nutrition was very biased and inaccurate and I was biting my tongue most of the night. And the stalls at the event were selling mostly supplements (algae, protein powders), and desserts full of agave syrup (eek) and oxidised polyunsaturated fats.

    There was a presentation by Dr. Marilyn Golden which had me squirming in my seat as she was going on an on about The China Study by T.Colin Campbell and trying to convince everyone (preaching to the choir) that animal based foods are evil. There was no credible science, of course. I read The China Study in 2005 and have also read Denise Minger’s critiques of the book, as well as Chris Masterjohn’s, and (although a lot still goes right over my head… argh statistics!) I know which makes more sense to me.

    All Dr. Golden was doing throughout her presentation was putting down other diets rather than educating on the benefits of eating raw. Is that really all the raw food movement has got? They have to spread untruths and scare people into eating a raw vegan diet. And don’t get me started on the movie we had to watch, ‘Food Matters’. The movie does talk about some important stuff but there is also a lot of ridiculousness in that movie too. Here they are talking about the dangers of pharmaceutical drugs and the next minute they are advising taking LARGE doses of vitamins as therapy, even long-term therapy. How is that natural? and how is that not harmful? And David Wolfe? A bit dodgy if you ask me.

    Just before the presentation started, a guy next to me turned to me and goes “Hey… you a raw foodie?” and I said “Uh, no” and then he goes “Well I take it a step further… I’m a fruitarian”. I was actually quite excited because I’d never met a fruitarian before lol I wanted to ask him all these questions about his diet but then the lights went down for the presentation.

    I am interested in the raw foods way of life (but definitely not the fruitarian way!). I do feel better myself when I include more raw foods in my diet, but like you said, raw foodists can’t escape those toxins (and unknowingly consume a fair bit) and certain cooked foods are actually more beneficial. BALANCE! :)

    • Catie permalink*
      June 11, 2012 9:27 am

      Wonderful perspective Vanessa! As always. I become suspicious when certain dietary movements assure followers that they can ‘eat as much as they want!’ ‘such and such-a fructose-laden pseudo treat is healthy!’ and ‘this will cure ALL your diseases!’. After attending a David Wolfe seminar myself last year, I marvelled at his enthusiasm, whilst simultaneously feeling like he was a hyperactive used car dealer trying to sell me something. I think we are inherently underwhelmed by the idea of a balanced, traditional, achingly simple answer to our dietary woes (aka. traditional diets, primal, however you like to name it). So much so that we seek an exuberant, fanatical guru to offer us something ‘better’. Truth is, I think we all have this innate knowledge regardless, just buried within a trans-fat laden cell somewhere deep in our thigh. Hard to unlock, but it’s there.
      Thank you again for such an insightful comment. x

  5. June 12, 2012 12:43 am

    GREAT post. Well both you and I have been down that misguided path but thankfully hard science pulled us out of it! I can’t believe I used to slurp green juice all morning and freeze my butt off eating raw salads on a cold winters night. Couldn’t be healthier and happier since adding all those beautiful animal foods and fats to my diet. Phew!
    I was gnashing my teeth at a certain lecturer who was going on and on about raw food desserts made from raw nuts and dried fruit being so incredibly full of enzymes and oh-so-so-healthy. Just think about that sugar + PUFA load… eek! Funnily enough, the raw foodists, vegans (and even vegetarians actually?) seemed to have dropped out from our course along the way… Maybe they encountered some science that contradicted their beliefs? Thanks for the awesome post! x

  6. Mike permalink
    June 12, 2012 5:26 am

    Raw foodism hinges on modern logistics and marketing. That means raw foodists are very vulnerable. Being left without imported fresh veggies and fruits, they would have to face Mother Nature (cold seasons, isolated places, etc) and start eating what nature offers them at this or that particular time and region. Raw foodists confuse a natural way of living, in phase with nature, with fresh fruit and vegetable consumption all year around. The latter is naturally possible only in countries with three harvests per year. In the rest of the world raw foodism is synthetic.

    Not mentioning the pros of cooked foods as was stated in the post of Catie.

  7. Carley permalink
    June 13, 2012 2:07 am

    LOVE reading your stuff. It’s always exactly what I need to hear when I’m stressing the f**k out over what the “right” way to eat is after reading stuff wrapped in convincing-colored bubble paper like Kimberly Snyder’s Beauty Detox Solution. Ever heard of it?

    I’d also like to know your thoughts on food for hormone-balancing. I’m 22 years old, 5’3″, 103 Lbs, workout most days for 30mins-60mins, eat mindfully, and I only get a period once every few months, if that, and have what seems to be a constant bloat pouch (uber cute). What gives? I was vegan for a little while and just reintroduced grass-fed meats and wild caught fish, and don’t do grains or beans – hoping for good things to happen. Thoughts?


    • Catie permalink*
      June 13, 2012 3:51 am

      Hi Carley,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yep, have heard of Ms Snyder and her beauty detox solution raw foods vegan shebang. Used to worship the green-tined pages of her blog; was right up my alley. Don’t know if she’s changed her tack at all, but from what I remember, don’t dig her diet recommendations at all. Dubious at best!

      Re. your hormonal issues, it’s impossible to say definitively from just a brief comment, and please do have a Naturopathic or Medical sesh if you’re concerned, but I can offer a couple of things. Your BMI is quite low – you may just be a ‘petite’ person, but keep in mind, women generally need a certain % body fat to attain a healthy, fertile state. More cushin’ for the lovin’!

      Also be aware that stress suppresses the correct functioning of the endocrine system; specifically the HPA/HPO axis (involving hypothalamus, pititary and adrenal/ovaries). Exercise, whilst a useful ‘hormetic’ stressor (ie. small doses of stimulation allowing our bodies to adapt and grow accordingly) can cross-over into harmful territory; too much of a good thing, that ole nut. Perhaps question your motivations for working out; are you fulfilling a practical/pleasurable purpose, or something else?

      Transitioning from a vegan diet to more paleo-style eating will also require some bodily adjustments! Your protein and fat intake whilst a veggie lover may have been markedly lower than what it is now; your digestive secretions, enzymes, acids, liver and gallbladder function may have to recalibrate to your new settings! The ‘bloat’ could be a side-effect from reducing carbohydrates – or a sign of something else. Improper gut flora, food intolerances, hormonal disturbance, emotional factors, yadda ya.

      Multifactorial my friend! Warranting a proper consult with someone, no doubt. That may give you a bit of a starting point however; all the best and congrats on the continued dietary improvements!


  8. June 13, 2012 3:16 am

    I’m not sure how to sum up my thoughts on the excellence of this blog post, so here is a picture: …Great post Catie!

    • Catie permalink*
      June 13, 2012 3:52 am

      I love it! Thanks Michelle! Big x

  9. Tony Collier permalink
    August 14, 2012 12:29 pm

    Becoming familiar with Dr. Edward Howell’s research on food enzymes may change your mind on the value of raw foods. Edward Howell M.D. Showed how food enzymes, or supplemental digestive enzymes, work in the upper portion of the stomach and will digest over 50% of the food we eat before our own digestive enzymes go to work. Consuming enzyme deficient cooked foods does not allow for this first stage of digestion and forces our digestive system to produce all the enzymes to digest our food. Dr. Howell did not believe we are made this way and consequentially we have many premature digestive and GI problems. Products for acid reflux sell billions of dollars worth every year. One of the most common reasons for doctor visits by children and adults are for stomach and GI problems. Could a cause for this be consuming enzyme deficient cooked foods, and not supplementing a digestive enzyme that works in the upper stomach, and not consuming enough enzyme complete raw foods?

    • Catie permalink*
      August 15, 2012 3:10 pm

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for your comment! I am familiar with the work of Dr. Howell, but was of the understanding that a lot of the science was outdated? That being said, I am definitely open to revision, and may have been trying to make a point (i.e question over-hyped health claims) at the expense of a more balanced summation. I will definitely look a little further into it and appreciate your advice!


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