Eat It Raw

Raw food is not just for hippies anymore. It is being embraced by hip-hop stars and New York restaurateurs.

| March/April 2002

The raw-food diet, once the exclusive domain of ’70s food faddists, is making a comeback for the same reasons it flourished 30 years ago: health and politics. Many find it helpful in relieving a variety of maladies—including allergies, fibromyalgia, obesity, gum disease, and mood swings—while others see raw food as a way to resist the unhealthy products of an industrialized food system. No matter how you slice it, excitement about a diet of uncooked food is running high.

"Anecdotally, there’s been a definite rise in interest in raw-foods diets," says nutritionist Suzanne Havala Hobbs, adjunct assistant professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health. "There’s been a lot of information out about celebrities that are eating raw foods, and naturally many younger people are interested in trying it out. There’s also been a wave of raw-foods cookbooks and restaurants." Hobbs, who also serves as nutrition advisor to the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, is currently conducting a research survey on the topic, called the Raw Foods Project.

A raw-food diet consists of foods that have not been processed or heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. These might include fresh fruits, vegetables, cold-pressed oils, sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, and even organic wine—but not meat or fish. According to June Butlin in Positive Health (Aug. 2001), a proper raw-food diet provides high levels of natural, essential nutrients such as fiber, essential oils, antimicrobials, plant hormones, bioflavonoids, vitamins, minerals, chlorophyll, digestive enzymes, and antioxidants.

Just how hip has raw food become? In Dead Prez’s song "Be Healthy" from their 2000 debut album Let’s Get Free, hip-hop’s radical duo encourages would-be revolutionaries to forgo fried chicken for juiced greens. They’re even bringing food issues to their live shows, notes Debra DeSalvo in the anthology Best American Food Writing 2001(Mcarlow & Co.). In her essay, which originally appeared in The Village Voice, she reports that Dead Prez roused a young crowd at New York’s rock club CBGB by asking if there were vegetarians, vegans, and, finally, raw foodists in the house. When a few whoops rang out and hands shot up, Dead Prez’s shouted, "Yeah! That’s the shit!"

New York’s raw foodists even have their own restaurant, Quintessence, a Manhattan bistro whose proprietors, Tolentin Chan and her husband, Dan Hoyt, understand the political and the personal power of the raw-food diet. "Major corporations are poisoning people with overprocessed, denatured food," says Hoyt. As for Chan, she suffered frequent colds and asthma attacks before trying a raw-food "cleanse"—the way most raw foodists get started—to see if she could get some relief. "My health improved tremendously," she says. "Now I’m 100 percent raw and my asthma is completely gone. I never get sick, and my energy is really high." Hoyt followed her lead and found relief from hay fever and food allergies. But both of them know how unappetizing raw food can seem at first.

"People think eating raw is gonna be like chewing on weeds," Hoyt says. But in the right hands, he says, it can be a refreshing culinary experience. "Raw food is very vibrant. We use lots of spices and sauces. The flavors are very strong and clean." Somebody out there must agree: Raw foods restaurants have sprung up across the United States, from Berkeley, Las Vegas, and Chicago to Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. It appears more are in the works.

Still, a raw diet isn’t for everyone. Holistic physician Ronald Hoffman says that some people do well on a diet of "living foods," but others definitely don’t. He also cautions that too many people use food as a personal statement. "It’s best to avoid arrogance," he cautions, "or using food as an emblem of virtue."

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