By Leigh Robertson
I once had a funny conversation with local actor and TV presenter Colin Moss while seated beside him at a trendy Cape Town bar which sells artisanal beer and charcuterie, both of which he was tucking into with gusto. We got talking about popular food-politics topics such as happy cows (pasture-fattened as opposed to the feedlot variety), vegetarianism versus pescetarianism (me being of the latter ilk), and the raw-food phenomenon. “I ate only raw for two years,” the good-looking, former raw-food faddist admitted, describing his glowing skin, flat stomach (still hard and flat as an ironing-board, it appeared), and the overall radiant health he experienced over that period. It all came to a sorry conclusion (not the good health, but the raw-food diet) one night when he drove past a McDonalds and found himself smashing a burger into his face with relief and untold glee. Or so he recalls it.
In Los Angeles, the breeding ground for pretty much every food, diet, and exercise fad known to contemporary humankind, raw food has been the big, hip thing for some years, a lifestyle choice sworn to by the likes of Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, and a wide, influential circle of stars boasting flawless complexions and taut, size zero (our size 28!) frames. Hollywood was home to the now defunct Oxygen Bar, which served a 100 per cent raw-food menu along with hits of pure, fresh oxygen, and which, when it closed, was quickly replaced by endless establishments offering power juices, superfood salads, and uncooked wheat-and-egg-free quiche.
Rather than the usual 10-day cleanser diet or weekend-long gut-busting fast, being a raw-foodist entails making a long-term switch to a plant-food-based diet where there is no cooking whatsoever. Most of the time, raw-foodists are vegan too, though there are certainly many who subsist on carpaccio, steak tartare, ceviche and sashimi along with their sprouted salads.
The premise behind the raw-food diet is that cooking food destroys nutrients, and the higher the temperature, the greater the damage. Well-known Port Elizabeth-based dietician René Smalberger agrees: “Depending on the method used, cooking often has an effect on the vitamin and mineral content of our fruit and veg.”
Raw-foodists have discarded their frying pans and even their once de rigueur bamboo steamers, and lightly heat their food rather than cook it—cooking means heating anything beyond 47ºC. They use methods such as low-temperature hydration to warm or dry their food—special dehydrators allow them to make ‘bread’ (it’s no ordinary loaf you’ll get from the bakery) and ‘pie’ bases, while dehydrated broccoli and aubergine make tasty ‘chips’ and ‘biltong’ respectively.
They invest in power blenders, sprouters, and clever appliances that allow them to make ‘noodles’ from raw courgettes and butternut. They drink chai instead of tea or coffee, and juice vast quantities of green vegetables, which they quaff by the gallon.
If ever there were a convincing advertisement for the physical effects of going raw, it has to be in the form of squeaky-clean South African couple Peter and Beryn Daniel, who got into it while working as chefs in London. Fresh-faced and bright-eyed, they actively live and embody what they preach in their cookbook and DVD series, Rawlicious. In the book they lecture about macronutrients and micronutrients, cleansing and detoxification, and direct readers to their online store selling supplements and “health-enhancing gadgets”.
They rave about how going raw eliminated his sinus problems and her bad eczema respectively, and exult about “skyrocketing energy levels”, having “a clearer mind”, and “renewed enthusiasm for life”. “When we eat what nature intended—natural whole foods in their original pristine state, untampered with by industry—our bodies heal themselves,” they say, describing getting away with “just four hours of sleep a night”. The results sound almost too good to be true, but then the Daniels have also eliminated meat, wheat, sugar, dairy and alcohol from their diets.
Of eating raw food, the Daniels write: “Only humans and domesticated animals eat cooked and processed foods. The cooking and processing of food has become so common that most of us do not even consider questioning it. Raw food is plant-based, uncooked food the way nature provides it to us.”
They may find it interesting to watch the BBC documentary Did Cooking Make Us Human? in which scientists conduct a series of experiments in an effort to determine the role of diet in the evolution of the human brain. Our ancestors’ “mastery of fire” is thought to have “prompted anatomical and neurological changes that resulted in taking us out of the trees and into the kitchen”. In one experiment, a scientist sets out to demonstrate that “eating cooked foods enables creatures to save energy”.
Like many raw-food devotees, the Daniels are unlikely to be convinced. As for adopting the raw-food lifestyle, they suggest starting by adding new raw foods to your diet rather than immediately eliminating all cooked food, such as half a litre of green veg juice before breakfast, and eating handfuls of goji berries as a snack between meals. Other superfoods to include are raw cacao, spirulina, barley and wheatgrass. Your salt will need to come from the Himalayas, your honey must be raw (obviously) and unheated, and preferably from a beehive in your own garden, and your water must come from a natural spring if it’s optimal health you’re after.
There’s a whole world of experimentalism that awaits the raw-food acolyte, and you may need to find a few extra hours in the day for all the preparation required. You’ll make ‘milk’ from blended almonds and water, ‘butter’ from whizzed Brazil nuts, cream ‘cheese’ from macadamias, and even ice cream from cashews. Your green juices comprising apples, cucumber and celery will soon advance to include kale leaves, fennel and pak choi.
Having your own kitchen garden helps and, anyway, it’s all the rage.
Raw soups are delicious in summer—the Spanish have been guzzling their cold tomato-y gazpacho for centuries, and there are all manner of exciting variations using produce such as pineapple and watermelon. You’ll be blending broccoli with avocado, leeks, pine nuts and cold-pressed olive oil, or raw butternut with carrot juice, cashews, ginger and cayenne pepper.
For something ‘meaty’, the Daniels have interesting ideas: marinate a big black mushroom overnight in soy sauce and olive oil, and then dehydrate for two hours for a surprisingly hearty ‘cooked’ result. Coleslaw with Mock Mayo (nuts, blended with vinegar and oil) will become a dinner staple, and you’ll be sprouting until the cows come home.
If the thought of missing out on fun pizza-and-wine nights with your friends fills you with dread, fear not. Specialist Cape Town health shop Earthshine sells raw organic pizzas, which you can pre-order. These are clearly not, as they say, “your regular dough ’n cheese offering” (they are generously drizzled with a mysterious rich, nutty paste). And you can serve your friends concoctions of beetroot, cucumber and apples instead of a glass of red.
Despite the dazzling testimonials from the raw-foodist camp, there are those in the medical profession who take a different view.
Dr Murray Rushmere, a Cape Town GP who incorporates holistic and homeopathic philosophies and treatments as part of his practice, believes it’s not for everyone. “A raw-food diet works for certain people only,” he says. Citing the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda, India’s traditional health science, Rushmere says there are some people who physiologically need more cooked food. “Raw food can aggravate rather than benefit them, which I have seen in some of my own patients.” He believes the digestive system works better with some cooked food (“but not over-cooked”). And while he also thinks a vegetarian diet is mostly healthy, Rushmere adds that some people become “really unhealthy” when quitting meat.
“There is some benefit to a raw-food diet, but only when aspects of it are incorporated into your diet rather than adopting it in a fanatical way,” he explains. “You shouldn’t have to change who you are; it’s not healthy to suppress part of yourself.”
Nor does he agree with “making a religion” out of your food. “It’s a form of extremism,” Rushmere adds.
While praising the inclusion of raw fruit and veg in any diet, René Smalberger is quick to point out that a plant-based diet does not allow for adequate amounts of omega-3 oils to be consumed. “For this you need fatty fish such as mackerel, herring and salmon. Omega 3 is important for brain development and memory, and has anti-inflammatory properties. While plants do contain omega-3 fats, the amount is not adequate at all.”
Smalberger advocates what most in her profession do: stick to a well-balanced diet. “Balance in nutrition is not found in gimmicks,” she says. “Balanced nutrition is a permanent lifestyle. Be sure to include enough grains and protein in your daily diet too.”
Cheers to good health.
Raw recipes for you to try:
Crunchy Salad with a Cool Yoghurt Dressing
Tuna Carpaccio with an Asian Dressing
Blushing Dessert Peach with Yoghurt & Raw Honey
Photography & Styling C&D Heierli, Recipe by Diane Heierli