From Scratch: Intro to a "Raw" Diet

June 7, 2012

veggie salad
Bagna Cauda Salad (photo by Sarah Shatz)

A raw food diet is so much more complex than the giant bowls of salad we might imagine (or the stream of seaweed shots and mushroom tea glamorized during Sex and the City’s season six raw food battle to win the heart of a cute waiter). The diet has a history dating back to the end of the 1800s, and has been used as a detoxifying and cleansing practice for generations. Raw food practitioners claim abundant energy, reduced reliance on medication, and clearer skin.

A raw diet relies on uncooked, unprocessed plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and sprouted seeds and beans. Keeping foods in a raw state is said to protect the natural enzymes and nutrients that are diminished in the cooking process, which is why this diet is sometimes referred to as the "living food" diet. These enzymes aid digestion, and the high nutrient and fiber content of raw foods is typically off-the-charts in comparison to its cooked couterparts.

Seeds, nuts, nut milks, sprouted grains, seaweeds, and fruit and vegetable juices all contribute to a raw food diet plan. Some fermented and processed foods can be included in a raw diet, as well. Raw soy sauce, kimchee, miso, raw nut butters, and cold-pressed raw oils are all fair game. The use of spices and salts are debated because of the heat used during processing, but their inclusion in recipes is common in less strict practices. For those not following a vegan or vegetarian path, the diet might also include raw eggs, fish, meat, and unpasteurized dairy products (which can, of course, increase the risk of food-borne illness).

To be considered raw, foods cannot be heated above 118°F. The only cooking done by practitioners of a raw food diet is in a dehydrator set at a very low temperature. The dehydrator is used to vary food texture and achieve the crisp mouthfeel usually associated with roasted or fried foods. The dehydrator comes in handy for "baking" raw cookies and breads, as well. Such treats can take up to several days to prepare, so plan ahead.

raspberries ginger
Smashing and straining raw raspberries (left); peeling ginger with a spoon before it hits the juicer. Photos by Jennifer Causey (left) and Sarah Shatz

It can be tricky sorting through the accepted and rejected food categories and ingredients for a raw food diet. Some ingredients are cooked during processing, so careful label reading is critical. Rolled oats are typically steamed during processing -- look for rolled oats specifically labeled as raw. Seek out cold-pressed nut, seed, and olive oils. Chocolate, cocoa powder, and nuts should also be labeled "raw" as these products are typically roasted during processing. Vinegars and foods cured or packaged in vinegars are acceptable and can add levity to raw preparations. Unprocessed olives and sun-dried tomatoes can be consumed, but some dried foods are cooked beyond the 118°F limit. Hunt down trustworthy sources for sun-dried products. Maple syrup (though this is debated because of processing), agave nectar, and raw honeys are good options for sweeteners.

Eating a strict diet of raw foods comes with its own set of pitfalls. Any raw animal products must be carefully vetted and sourced to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. Raw kidney, fava, soybeans, cassava, taro, and parsnips can be toxic without a heated preparation, and should not be consumed raw. Vitamin B12 deficiency is commonly seen in raw food devotees as this vitamin is found primarily in animal-derived foods -- a supplement can be a healthful addition.

To successfully follow a raw food diet, several pieces of equipment are essential. A high-quality professional blender will get a major workout, and a food processor will cut preparation time in half with its slicing and chopping attachments. A juicer and dehydrator will help to expand the textural range and recipe options. Knives and mandolines will be constant companions, as well.

mandolin shaving asparagus
Slicing butternut squash with a mandoline (left); shaving asparagus with a peeler (photos by Sarah Shatz)

Recipes

Raw Apple and Pear Crisp
Watermelon-Tomato Gazpacho
Raw Cashew Milk
Breakfast Chia Seed Pudding [FOOD52]
Vitality Juice [FOOD52]
Raw Basil Guacamole [FOOD52]

Have you ever followed a raw diet? If so, what advice do you have for people considering making the dietary shift to raw foods? Share your tips in the comments section below.

Like this post? See last week's From Scratch topic: How to Cook in a Water Bath.

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