Raw food diets first garnered mass media attention as long ago as the 1970s, but today’s celebrity culture is fast reviving the notion that vegetables are better eaten in their natural state, rather than cooked. Produce Business UK questions whether we should chuck out our pots and pans
As a default, all diets promise a path to a healthier and more energised state of being, but raw food devotees go further, claiming that eating food in its natural state will stave off depression and disease such as cancer.
American actress Demi Moore attributes her youthful appearance to her raw food diet, which advocates that foods should not be heated beyond 40o Celsius, for fear that the nutrients and enzymes will be destroyed.
The trend for raw food diets was first popularised in 1975 with a book by Viktoras Kulvinskas, titled Survival into the 21st Century. Kulvinskas, a former computer consultant for MIT (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology), claimed that not only could raw diets, or living foods as he described them, ease ailments, they could also extend one’s life-span.
However, it’s only in recent years that the movement has gained significant ground in the UK, with bloggers such as Deliciously Ella and sisters Hemsley & Hemsley extolling its virtues, alongside the flurry of new London restaurants offering the cuisine.
Mandy Saven, head of food, beverage and hospitality at trends research consultancy Stylus, says the increase of raw food restaurants in London such as Nama in Notting Hill and Vantra Vitao on Oxford Street, is reflective of “a greater need to eat clean, pure food made using authentic ingredients”.
“I know a lot of people who are choosing to eat raw some days of the week and then indulge themselves the remainder of the time. This reflects a wider save/splurge approach to food that we have been tracking for some time,” she explains.
“Thanks to many of these new establishments, which are serving up truly delicious and adventurous fare, perceptions around raw food are changing. It’s no longer solely about restraint and virtue. The enjoyment factor is also paramount.”
Supermarket chain Waitrose has also noted the trend for raw food, also referred to as ‘clean eating’. In January this year, the retailer’s sales of avocados were up 19%, with the nutrient-rich fruit used as an alternative to cream in many raw food recipes.
Waitrose executive chef, Jonathan Moore, says what was once seen as a niche way of eating is now gaining mass attention. “Interest in food and drink that’s good for you has officially hit the mainstream, thanks to great-tasting alternatives and inspiration from a new generation of foodies who are changing the way we eat,” he explains.
“It’s great to see customers increasingly enjoying foods that we’ve known for some time are good for you and using them in different ways – we can only see this as a trend that’s set to continue.”
Raw food is often misrepresented as being plain, without flavour, but head chef at the Brighton vegetarian restaurant Terre à Terre, Matty Bowling, disagrees, explaining that there are many ways to work with raw produce to enhance the natural flavours.
“You can get amazing flavours from vegetables already, but if you want to enhance a raw dish you can use a little vinegar, or miso – it’s all about seasoning,” says the New Zealand-born chef. “I’m really loving lotus root at the moment because there’s so much crunch to it.”
Although Terre à Terre is not an exclusively raw food restaurant, it incorporates raw elements into dishes, and Bowling says this offers him another creative outlet with fresh produce such as fermentation. “We get a lot of meat eaters coming to the restaurant, and maybe they are dragged along, but they end up really enjoying the food,” he notes.
It is not just supermarkets and restaurants that are benefiting from increased awareness of raw food cuisine either. Raw food catering is also in demand, with Lewes-based vegetarian, vegan and raw food caterers Cashew Catering saying business in the last year has picked up significantly.
Founder and owner John Bayley reveals that the firm is also in negotiations to provide raw food catering for two new wellness retreats opening in the south of England. “I think people are finding out about raw food through social media [which is] making it more commonplace and accessible,” he says.
“Although there is an element of buzz words around it, there’s a lot of talk about super foods and a carrot is a super food to a degree. I think it’s great that people are blown away by the wide variety and flavour of produce, but they can forget the basics.”
As to whether raw food is a healthier diet than roasting or steaming vegetables, there are many who would argue not. Chinese medicine, for instance, often suggests avoiding raw, or cold, vegetables, as apparently they are hard to digest.
The noted US nutritionist Dr Joel Fuhrman has also written extensively on the subject and says while there are benefits to consuming plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, he does not believe there are advantages to eating a diet comprising solely raw foods that excludes all cooked foods.
“In fact, eating an exclusively raw-food diet is a disadvantage,” he comments in a blog post that discusses the issue. “To exclude all steamed vegetables and vegetable soups from your diet narrows the nutrient diversity of your diet and has a tendency to reduce the percentage of calories from vegetables, in favour of nuts and fruit, which are lower in nutrients per calorie.”
While The Vegan Society does not have an official view on raw food, it’s media manager Jimmy Pierce says personally he follows a mixed diet of both raw and cooked food to ensure he has the optimum amount of nutrients and minerals needed when eating a primarily plant-based diet.
Whether consumers go completely raw, or mix into their diet regular cooking of healthy foods, it can only be to the fresh produce industry’s benefit to have more people exploring the fresh fruit and vegetables available today, raw or otherwise.