Raw Veganism: Food for Thought During the Late-Pandemic, Salad Days

“Wet markets can be ‘timebombs’ for epidemics.”

(Professor Cunningham, the Zoological Society of London)

When one considers environmentalism, there lately seems to have evolved a twofold message. 

Firstly, that plant-based living is the way forward.  The 2020 coronavirus led to a greater demand for non-animal sourced foodstuffs in China, where COVID-19 is thought to have begun.  This, after the country had already been dealing with the aftermath of Avian Flu and African Swine Flu, pork-alternative products gathering popularity before the pandemic due to concerns about the health and sustainability of the supply and demand chain.  According to Vegconomist, it has since been reported to Bloomberg that appetite for plant-based meals is now forecast to “skyrocket” in the country.

Indeed, creator of Just Egg, David Yeung, in discussing the conjectured cause to have been the consumption of bat meat (though there are rumours of pangolins, too), noted how, “wildlife animal consumption clearly should have been banned long ago.  Even state-controlled media outlets such as China Daily have published editorials calling for a permanent wildlife trade ban.”  Hope, it seems, is on the horizon; certainly given BBC reports that a law will come into force banning the farming and eating of live wildlife this year (though a lingering loophole regarding medicinal, pet, and scientific “use” will remain).

Secondly, there has been a latent message of empowerment; and, beyond a return to respect for Nature, that potency is increasingly female.  Indeed, there is undoubtedly a correlation between enviro-groups and feminist intersectional concerns (for example, the Black Mambas anti-poaching unit, the World Forest Organisation, Fairtrade’s aims for the past couple of years, and so on).  Mother Earth awakening her daughters?  Debatable, yes.  And yet, one wonders…

So, when it comes to the raw food movement, it might be assumed that the founders were also female.  Such a presumption would be erroneous.  Contemporary raw foodism first began in Switzerland via the interests of the very much male Maximilian Bircher-Benner, who sought to “go back to nature” (we’ve heard that phrase a few times over the decades, including as necessarily as in the present one) after being inspired by the German lebensreform movement.  From vegetarianism to raw food, Bircher-Benner took up the Darwinian yet obvious observation that other animals do not cook their food.  His interest in this way of living led him to open a Lebendinge Kraft (or “Vital Force”, referring particularly to sunlight) sanatorium in the Zurich mountains in 1904.  It is there, in fact, that Bircher muesli had its origins on the daily menu.

Early proponents of raw foodism included Ann Wigmore, Eugene Christian, and George Julius Drews, while in the late 20th Century, Norman J. Walker expanded the raw food diet to include juicing in the 1970s and Leslie Kenton popularised sprouting in the 1980s.  The most famous 21st Century exponent is, debatably, the also very much male David Wolfe, with his Sunfood Diet.  The premise of his very popular book extended beyond veganism’s rationalising that most energy can be derived from plant-based foods direct (rather than the animals that eat them), Wolfe suggesting that those floral food sources should be left in as raw a state as possible for optimum nutritional benefit.  A food is yet deemed raw if not heated above 48°C.  At least 75% of the diet must consist of raw foods, be they dehydrated or sprouted or soaked, or simply juiced or blended.

In these still uncertain times, when many of us – through whatever means available – have opted to grow our own fruit and veg, it seems timely to suggest a brief adoption of such a diet during the warmer months.  Similar to switching to a macrobiotic diet for recuperation (as reported last issue), there have been studies which potentially show a positive effect from raw veganism for a period of time for those recovering from cancer.  In the interests of simply boosting immunity also and using produce in previously untried ways, raw veganism offers itself as an option for a short time, too.  One doesn’t have to order an expensive dehydrator to eat raw for a brief while, either.  With a wide range of raw products available to buy, things like nutrient-dense raw energy bars and raw crackers can be purchased rather than made at home.

We use the word “brief”, as there have been myriad arguments against raw veganism as a long-term diet and, despite a small pocket of the raw community, it is not recommended for children due to the potentially serious impact on development from a lack not only of vitamin B12 and vitamin D, but calories as well, due to the high fibre content filling up small stomachs more quickly.  Furthermore, Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, has found evidence for the crucial role that cooking did play in the evolution of mankind and how our digestive systems have adapted physically to accommodate that change.

What raw foodists do have to watch out for are antinutrients.  These include:

PHYTATE

From phytic acid and present in grains, legumes, and seeds. Phytate reduces effective absorption of essential minerals from a meal (such as iron and zinc, calcium and magnesium).  Indeed, research has shown an 80% reduction in absorption of phosphorous and zinc from foods such as pumpkin and chickpeas, respectively.

TANNINS & OXALATES

Antioxidant polyphenols which can affect digestion and hence absorption of nutrients.

LECTINS & SAPONINS

Present in all plant foods, though particularly grains, legumes, and seeds. Harmful in high amounts, leading to gastrointestinal issues and autoimmune disorders.

PROTEASE INHIBITORS

Again, grains, legumes, and seeds contain this further antinutrient, which inhibits digestive enzymes and thereby digestion of protein.

CALCIUM OXALATE

The form of calcium found in spinach and many other vegetables which is poorly absorbed.

CHACONINE & SOLANINE

The culprits in those who have an intolerance to nightshades, this antinutrient acting as a poison in those cases. Otherwise beneficial in very small amounts due to naturally antifungal properties.

TRYPSIN & CHYMOTRYPSIN INHIBITORS

Found in most grains and of concern for small infants and young children due to their naturally reduced pancreatic function.

Soaking legumes overnight before sprouting (if they are able to be sprouted) helps to rid them of many of the described antinutrients.  Indeed, sprouting has been shown to reduce phytate by between 37% and 81% dependent upon the type of legume.  However, this won’t help too much in the case of kidney beans, soybeans, or broad beans which must not be eaten uncooked, and therefore won’t be included in a raw vegan diet if followed strictly.  Similarly, cooking green leafy vegetables like spinach helps to reduce calcium oxalate content by between 19% and 87% depending on which green leafy vegetable it actually is.  Again, if one is raw, then this is of no help.  Professor Wrangham’s anthropological evidence seems to have a case in point…

In general, plant-based diets serve to provide plentiful quantities of alkaline chlorophyll to offset dietary acidity within our bodies; this, in addition to essential vitamins and minerals.  To boost this effect, consider the 90s’ vibe of a wheatgrass shot, a simple raw spinach salad, or go the powdered route and add some to a smoothie.  In the long-run, interchange these alimentary moments with a healthy, balanced diet inclusive of cooked food; especially in the northern hemisphere when summer is known to quickly turn to autumn (not to hurry on the potential return of the coronavirus in the least – this issue is all about positivity!).

The famous French writer, Colette declared that her close friend Annie de Pene had succumbed to the Spanish Flu because she had failed to eat well.  Colette would most probably have shunned the raw food diet – a lover of wine and cheese and French gastronomic delights to her very marrow – but the essential wisdom of food for health stands true.  Food as medicine – whatever that food prescription might be for each individual soul.  And to that end, if raw veganism works for you during the strange landscape of Summer 2020: so much the better, but make that salad a stew come winter.

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