Mythbusting: Raw Food is Healthier than Cooked Food

The raw food movement is a trend that dominates hip menus of many health-conscious restaurants. Books about it line bookshelves heavy with information about other fad diets, such as the Paleo diet and gluten-free diets for health instead of allergen sensitivity. What’s the idea behind it? And, more importantly, does it offer a legitimate opportunity to improve your health?

Raw Food
Raw Food / Caspar Diederik / CC BY 2.0

The Myth

Our bodies need the enzymes present in raw foods, so a raw food diet is healthiest.

The Facts

There are plenty of reasons to include raw foods in your diet, but enzymes are not one of them. A nutritious diet should include plenty of raw foods such as fruits, vegetables and nuts—they’re great sources of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber—and yes, enzymes. All living organisms contain a plethora of enzymes, and each is tailored to a specific biochemical reaction. In plants, the enzymes are there to help the plant grow, thrive and then decompose. We have our own enzymes for digesting and processing the food that comes into our bodies, just like a plant has its own enzymes for photosynthesis and the utilization of fluids and nutrients it obtains from water and soil. The idea that the human body needs plant enzymes in order for us to digest foods just doesn’t add up.

Furthermore, while the application of heat via cooking does indeed destroy many enzymes in foods, so does the process of digestion itself. Enzymes are proteins, and proteins are denatured, or “unfolded” in the highly acidic environment of the stomach, specifically so that they can more easily be broken down into amino acids that can then be used around the body. In other words, the enzymes found in the food we eat do not participate in the digestive process; rather, they themselves are digested just like other proteins.

The Bottom Line

Except for a few rare health conditions in which enzyme production is compromised, such as pancreatic insufficiency, all the enzymes we need to digest food are made in our own bodies. We don’t need the assistance of plant enzymes to do it. There is no need to consume only raw foods, and eating a raw food diet is not necessarily more healthful than one that includes cooked foods.

 Did you enjoy this post? Read Kit’s last mythbusting post: Is Kombucha a Cure-all?