What exactly is 'raw'?

Raw living

Kate Magic of Raw Living asks exactly what we mean by 'raw food'. There does not seem to be a great deal of consensus – which can leave many people quite confused...


Technically, a raw foodist is someone who doesn't eat cooked food. Seems straight forward enough? But it actually gets a little complicated when you try to draw a clear line between what is raw and what is cooked.


The main reason for eating food in its uncooked state is to preserve the enzymes. Enzymes are present in all living things, and I think of them as analogous to the life force of food. Put simply, when you cook food you kill the life force in it, and that's why eating raw brings us more energy, more positivity, more clarity, and a deeper sense of connectivity. There's more to it than that, involving nutrients and the immune system,  but enzymes are at the heart of the raw food philosophy. If you want to find out more, you can go to Edward Howell's original research; his books are still in print. 

'Raw food' in the shops

When I first saw a label marked raw food (in about 2000), I actually shed a tear of joy. Having been raw since the early 90's, I had spent a long time calling up companies, trying to ascertain which products were raw and which weren't. Foods like olives, tahini, dried fruits; companies like Sunita, Biona, and Infinity; I would pester them with questions they didn't understand, let alone know the answer to. When it started being a label that companies thought was worth mentioning, it was a huge relief to me. Gradually, since then, more and more raw products have appeared on the market. Where there was nothing, health food stores now have entire sections: chocolate, crackers, crisps, granolas, superfoods, even the smallest and most out of the way health food store now has some concession to the raw foods market.

But how many 'raw' foods are actually 'raw'?

This is clearly a positive thing: good that customers are demanding healthier choices, and wonderful that companies are providing them. But more and more, I wonder, what exactly is raw? And how many of the products currently being sold as raw, actually technically are? I would estimate less than half. If a food is labelled as organic, it has to go through a rigorous (and expensive!) inspection process to carry that label. But anyone can stick "raw" on their product and most people won't be any the wiser as to how raw it actually is.

This upsets me! I'm sure the vast majority of producers aren't setting out to intentionally deceive their customers, and I know that what they are offering is still a vast improvement in terms of health and nutrition than their baked or fried counterparts. But I think a lot of companies are jumping on the bandwagon without fully researching their ingredients, and I don't like to see people misled in this way.

All about temperature

In our company, we seek to get guarantees from our suppliers of the temperature that the foods have been heated to. Sometimes, we have to ask many times to get that information - people can be strangely reluctant to give it! Even once we have it, we are just taking their word for it, we do not have a way of actually checking up on anyone.

And then the situation is further complicated by the fact that there is not one single agreed temperature at which a food stops being raw. The consensus is around 42 deg C. I personally believe there is a spectrum, and some foods will be more sensitive to heat than others. I would put it somewhere between 41-49 deg. Some producers heat foods to 46 deg and still claim they are raw, whereas other people would say at that temperature they are not considered raw anymore.

Furthermore, the whole point of raw is to eat foods which are alive, and in which the enzymes are still intact. So I wonder, if flax crackers have been dehydrated for days, packaged in plastic, and have been sitting on a shop shelf for 6 months, really how much enzymes are left? And what about fermented foods, which may not be raw, but still contain enzymes, would you include those in the raw category? (I would.)

When you start looking into it, you start raising more questions than you answer. I hope in the not too distant future, someone will start a certification board, akin to organic, that will become the recognised standard. For now, it's important to bear in mind that even if these raw products are incorrectly named as such, they are still great food choices, and whether they are technically raw or not only really matters to someone who is trying to be strictly, 100% raw. What I want to do here is identify some of the common grey areas so that you can do your research and decide for yourself if you are happy to consume foods that contain these ingredients.

'Grey' raw ingredients

Dates - most dried-fruit is heat-treated to stop it going mouldy, and keep it longer on the shelf. If you have a fresh date, like a Medjool date, it's soft and juicy. The harder and drier the date, the more likely it's been heated at high temperatures. At home in recipes, I always use fresh dates. I have been told sun-dried fruits aren't heat-treated, so look out for those.

Nuts - same with nuts, virtually all nuts have been heat-treated to inhibit mould growth. Safer to assume they are not raw than that they are. If you buy from the raw companies online, then you should be able to trust that they are, but if you're buying from a health food store or a supermarket it's less likely.

In the UK, almonds and hazelnuts are usually raw. Cashew nuts never are, unless you can afford to buy the hand-cracked ones. Pine nuts, macadamias, pecans - unlikely.

Seeds – Seeds tend to be raw though, with the exception of pumpkin seeds. Apparently, all Chinese pumpkin seeds are heat-treated, and it's the Austrian ones you need to look out for. We would love to sell more raw nuts, but though we have tried repeatedly, we can't find anyone who can guarantee a regular supply.

Oats – virtually all oats are steamed to stabilise them. We carry raw oats, and there are a few more brands popping up now, but unless they are specifically labelled as such, they won't be. Raw oats don't keep well, so if you're buying a health food bar that claims to be raw and it contains oats, I would be very dubious.

Agave was first introduced to the health food market in 2005, and back then it was definitely raw. As it became more popular, more companies started producing it, and most of them aren't. Raw agave costs over twice the price of normal agave, so there's your first clue! Understandably, when a company makes a product it wants to keep costs as low as possible to make it affordable to the consumer, so the temptation would be to use non-raw agave in order to make the product accessible.

Coconut Sugar isn't raw at all, although it perplexes me why so many raw companies use it and overlook that fact! Some coconut sugars, such as Big Tree Farms and Coconut Secrets, are heated at low temperatures.
Cacao is another highly debatable area. If you're buying beans or nibs, you're safe. Powder and butter are more dubious. My current understanding is that no Peruvian butter or powder is raw (Peruvian is the most commonly used). We also sell Ecuadorian and Balinese, which may or may not be, depending on who you're talking to and which way the wind is blowing that day!

Fermented foods like yoghurts, cheeses, miso, tamari, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir will all be living foods if they are unpasteurised (this will be labelled).

Superfoods - ironically, most superfoods aren't raw. Most come in powder form, and have been heated in the drying process. As all superfoods should be consumed in small amounts (from 1-10g a day), this shouldn’t affect your overall raw intake too much.

If I was creating an accreditation system, I would want to see certificates of inspection for every ingredient used, and I would allow around 10% non-raw ingredients (eg superfoods, seasonings), otherwise they wouldn't be allowed to put the word raw on the label. Until that's in place, you have to be your own certification board! If you have a favourite product that you've started having doubts about, contact them, establish that information, and then share it with everyone. But for now, if you want to be on the safe side, I would assume that that chocolate Brownie made with dates, cashews, oats and agave, isn't as raw as it might appear....   

Read more about Kate and Raw Living on her site here.

For some of her decious recipes, see FreeFrom Recipes Matter here.


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