Raw foodists like to brag that they never have greasy pots and pans to scour, and they don't generate as much trash. Their garbage is mostly compost fodder. Human waste, however, is an issue they must sit down and resolve three or four times a day.

"Pooping once every three days has almost become a norm, and people think because it's normal, it's OK," says Gramlich, who used to work as a public-health nurse. "But it's not OK because we're eating meat and bread, and nothing will clog you up faster."

"Humans have only had fire and the ability to cook food for a small percentage of time that we have existed on Earth," writes Wendy Rudell in The Raw Transformation, a book promoting a raw-foods diet. "The human digestive system is designed to eat the raw foods that nature provides."

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Richard Wrangham, a Harvard professor of biological anthropology, begs to differ. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, published earlier this year, he argues that "humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows are adapted to eating grass."

Wrangham says some of our apelike ancestors made a pivotal move between 1.8 and 1.9 million years ago. They started cooking. The ones that didn't eventually died out, and the ones that did enjoyed a diet that was softer, more energy-dense and easier to digest. This enabled a tradeoff, the professor claims. With time and energy freed up, their brains grew more active and social ties more complex.

Raw foodists indeed flourish today, Wrangham suggests, but not because their bodies are built for it. Rather, they take advantage of kitchen appliances and enjoy less strenuous lifestyles and more nutritious produce than our foraging ancestors did. "I spent quite a long time really looking for any evidence of anyone that ever lived in the wild on raw food," Wrangham adds. "I was intrigued to find that none had."

Wrangham admits great admiration for raw foodists, who he says sustain a diet that's inappropriate for a body shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of cooking. "But the rest of us are fighting against evolution, too," he says, "because our evolutionary propensities are pushing us toward eating more cooked food than necessary."

Raw-diet proponents, for the most part, insist cooked food is "poison." One of the first was vegetarian Dr. Edward Howell, who postulated back in 1946 that plants possess "living" enzymes that aid our bodily processes. Cooking at temperatures exceeding 118 degrees, he wrote, kills the "life force" of the enzymes.

"Nutrition scientists don't recognize a 'life force' that is transmitted to humans," says Suzanne Hobbs, the University of North Carolina dietician. "And enzymes that may be present in foods would be deactivated once they went into your digestive system."

Cooking, explains the New York Times monthly food columnist Harold McGee, is "a mixed bag." His 900-page tome, On Food and Cooking, is considered a masterpiece in molecular gastronomy, or, as he once described it, "the scientific study of deliciousness."

When you cook, says McGee, "you lose some things and gain others." For example, if you eat a cooked tomato, you'll get less vitamin C but will absorb more of the fruit's lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.

Hobbs says the raw diet clearly has benefits. It will supply one with nutrients that are otherwise in short supply, such as fiber, vitamins A and C, and other antioxidants. Herself a vegetarian, Hobbs has flirted from time to time with going raw. "After three days," she recalls, "I felt fantastic."

However, she says, the claims of raw foodists that they don't sunburn as easily, need less sleep and have more energy are "not supported by any scientific data" that she's aware of.

Professor Wrangham believes scientists should take a closer look at the diet. "I'm constantly amazed that this sort of stuff hasn't been done," says Wrangham, who plans to conduct a study at Harvard on people shifting from a standard diet to a raw one. "This field is wide open for researchers."

A Google search of "raw food" reveals a burgeoning network of outspoken gurus, all of them jockeying to carve out a niche.

Dr. Douglas Graham promotes what he calls the "80/10/10" diet, a low-fat regimen that approaches "fruitarianism." Graham believes 80 percent of one's calories should come from simple carbohydrates such as sweet fruits.

David Wolfe, meanwhile, trumpets the virtues of "superfoods," nutritionally dense items such as goji berries or cacao beans, otherwise known as raw chocolate.

"People listen to whatever they say, but sometimes their bottom line is just selling people stuff," observes Tim Williamson, moderator of the St. Louis raw Yahoo! group. "So they'll say, 'Cacao is the greatest thing since air.' Then people say, 'I gotta have that.' But a lot of times it's a bunch of nonsense."

Raw foodism also includes its share of eccentric leaders. Juliano Brotman, a popular raw chef in Los Angeles, claims he needs only around three hours of sleep per night.

Wolfe, the superfoods advocate, has written that a person's "cosmic receiver" can become blocked by waste matter created by processed foods, but says his specific "Sunfood" diet will "unlock dormant genius" and allow one to tap into "infinite intelligence."

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