Near my house in Winnipeg, there’s a summertime Farmer’s Market that I used to go to every weekend to buy fresh local fruits, vegetables and honey. I grew up in rural farming communities and come from a long line of farmers, so I like supporting the little guys who still run family farms and sell their own product. Many people who buy there have the same logic – Manitoba is still a small province and a lot of us are only a generation or two removed from the farms. However, after two summers spending my Saturday mornings there, I’ve noticed there is also a growing population that shop there for “natural” products. Of course, like any market, the Farmer’s Market has responded to the demand by upping the supply.
There’s the bison meat sellers, who sell bison as “healthy meat.” This claim is somewhat dubious, as what they really mean is healthier than beef. A lean 85 g (3 oz) bison steak will give you only 7% of your daily intake of fat, but about half of that is saturated fat, and it also contains 25% of your daily intake of cholesterol. How does the beef steak compare? For the same portion, it’s 8% of your daily intake of fat, but there is actually less saturated fat, and it has the same amount of cholesterol. If you’re counting calories, you’re looking at 145 kcal for the bison versus 158 kcal for the beef. It’s better, though marginally. By contrast, a chicken breast(also 85 grams) is 142 kcal, 5% of your daily fat intake, with a third of the saturated fat of the other two, and slightly less (24% of daily intake) cholesterol. So, healthy? Well, all things in moderation, but if you insist on eating a lot of meat, chicken is a better choice.
Then there’s the raw food people, who insist that eating only raw grains is better because your body doesn’t use up as many enzymes to digest raw food. This is not how digestion works. Most of your food digestion is mechanical (chewing, rolling around in the stomach, being kneaded by the intestines) and chemical (saliva, stomach acid, bile, pancreatic secretions). Enzymes do help too. If you’ve ever taken a saltine cracker and stuck it on your tongue without chewing, part of the process at work is salivary enzymes breaking down the starches. Anyone who is lactose intolerant can tell you what happens when you body doesn’t produce the enzymes to breakdown milk sugars. However, for the vast majority of people, “lack of enzymes” is simply not a problem. Our bodies evolved to be incredibly efficient at taking up nutrients from food, hence the current issues with obesity. There is no reason to believe that simply by eating eating food, normal, healthy people could become digestive enzyme deficient.
It’s also important to note that the definition of an enzyme: a protein that catalyses a reaction without participating it. In other words, an enzyme doesn’t get used up during the reaction. Even if enzyme deficiency were a problem, there’s no reason to suspect that it could cause health effects like diabetes, allergies, and premature aging. Talk to the lactose intolerant and you’ll find that their symptoms are more along the lines of diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain. And even if enzyme deficiency were a problem, and even if there was some mechanism linking digestive enzymes and allergies, there’s no reason to believe that raw foods would consume less enzymes. If anything, raw foods are much more difficult to digest, and therefore the enzymes would be working figuratively harder. This is not to say that there isn’t benefit to consuming some raw foods, like fruits and vegetables. They’re a low-calorie source of dietary fibre, which can improve blood sugar control in diabetics and reduce cholesterol. They’re also a good source of various vitamins. However, it’s important to remember that raw foods haven’t been “sterilized” by cooking and so can carry disease, like the outbreak in Germany this past summer from bean sprouts, or spinach in North America a few years ago. Steaming your vegetables reduces that risk without losing any of the nutritional benefits, so again, raw food comes up short.