The Natural Foods Merchandiser
Raw Food Diet Ignites Debate
by Laurie Budgar
The hottest food trend right now actually involves no heat at all. The raw food diet, espoused by celebrity chefs like Charlie Trotter and celebrity eaters like Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, is often described as an extreme vegan regimen.
At its core lies the principle that food should never be heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which enzymes are said to be destroyed. Living enzymes mean life-giving, healthful food; dead enzymes, dead, toxic food. Central to the raw, or living foods diet are sprouted, dehydrated and cultured foods.
At the periphery of the movement are raw-food restaurants. Nearly every major metropolitan area has at least one; California and New York have them in abundance. Rather than serving up a limited menu with a choice between salad and sushi, as one might imagine, raw food chefs get quite resourceful, offering up such creations as a tamale with queso amarillo, corn, chipotle vinaigrette, sour cream and molé sauce at the iconic Roxanne’s in Larkspur, Calif. Or how about Flax Jacks? Made from raw flaxseed and apples, these pancakes are topped with tahini, seasonal fruit, chopped almonds and date syrup at Minneapolis’ Ecopolitan restaurant and “eco-shop.”
While the corn in the tamale is indeed uncooked, and the pancakes are served cold, proponents of the raw food diet say it’s worth the effort involved in making such creations palatable, citing benefits ranging fron increased energy and clear skin to fantastically reduced rates of heart disease, stroke and cancer.
The reasons cited for such medical wonders range as widely. Advocates make the counterintuitive claim that raw foods are more easily digested, thanks to the “perfect” mix of enzymes present in each food. They believe drawing on our own reserves of enzymes is inadequate and depleting. Others mention the high water content of uncooked foods, or the chemical reaction in cooking that cause protein, vitamins and minerals to be destroyed, while pesticides are broken down into more toxic, more easily assimilated compounds in our bodies.
Some claim the heating process releases oxygen into food, allowing the production of free radicals. For others, raw food just goes organic products one better: It’s food in its simplest, most natural state.
With all its promises and trendiness, it can’t be long before hip and health-conscious consumers start seeking support for this diet at their local natural foods store. But where does a retailer find prepared raw meals at wholesale?
“We distribute our own products,” says Gideon Graff who, along with his wife, Jackie, owns Atlanta-based Sprout Raw Food Creations. The Graffs now sell their products to seven health-food stores in New York and one in New Jersey, as well as a handful of stores in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Atlanta and Florida. Others use more well established distribution channels, such as United Natural Foods Inc. and Tree of Life. Graff says he’s unaware of any major distributor that specializes in raw foods.
And, as Graff says, the raw food movement may be a small market, but it is growing all the time.
LaraBar, the energy bar made from only raw ingredients, is enjoying untold success, says its creator, Lara Merriken. “We’re in 19 states,” says Merriken, who launched the bar in natural food stores in Denver last April, and by September had her product in Kroger stores throughout Colorado.
Fundamental to Merriken’s mission was to make LaraBar appealing to people outside the raw food community, just as her first experience with raw food was. “I was so blown away by how incredible the food is. When people look at raw food, they think carrots and celery and fruit. I had this cuisine,” she says, “that was just so delicious and full of flavor.” As someone who once aspired to be a naturopathic physician, Merriken believes in the nutritional value of raw food, describing it as one of the many “tiers of better eating.”
The obstacle for many people, she admits, is the time and preparation raw foods require. Hiking one day, Merriken got the idea to make a raw food that’s accessible, creative and appealing.
She made it as appealing to retailers as it is to consumers. After months of studying various types of package design, she came up with a four-layer barrier packaging that keeps food fresh without using preservatives. “I wouldn’t budge on that,” she says noting that she had to convince retailers her product wouldn’t expire on the shelf. As a result, her raw and natural energy bar is slotted with their mainstream bars.
Despite the raw food diet’s apparent cachet, retailers may wonder whether it is actually healthy. Many nutritionists say the human body manufactures all the enzymes it needs. Besides, adds Jennifer Lovejoy, chair of nutrition at Bastyr University, the natural health training institute in Seattle, “When we eat food, whether it’s cooked or raw, a lot of the enzymes get broken down in the gut anyway. My opinion is that it’s standing on pretty shaky scientific ground.”
Others say the risk from foodborn pathogens such as E. coli and hepatitis in raw food is too great, and the nutrients too few. “When you only eat raw foods you’re pretty restricted in the variety of foods you can eat, and you may be missing important nutrients,” says Lovejoy. In fact, the protein profile in raw food diets is likely to be dangerously low, as are the levels of vitamins B-12 and D. Beyond the risk and the debatable science of raw food and enzymes, however, is the notion that cooking actually does good things for food. For example, lycopene and beta carotene are present in higher level in concentrated, cooked food.
While Lovejoy is quick to acknowledge the benefits of eating a lot of fruits and vegetables on a raw food diet, she thinks the most nutritious diet consists of a combination of raw and cooked foods. “In the extreme form I really question the safety and efficacy” of the raw food diet, she says.
Merriken agrees. Although she thinks that raw food is often better because it’s less processed, she knows that genetic makeup, stress, climate and myriad other factors determine the best diet for any individual. “I don’t think everybody needs to be a raw foodist,” she says. “You have to listen to your body.”