Most health experts agree that fried foods are not the healthiest part of a balanced diet being heavy with fats. However, two new European studies indicate it's not fat alone, but high temperature that should trigger the warning about French fries and potato chips and the researchers apply the same caution to some foods baked at high temperatures. But these preliminary findings don't concern at least one group of Americans, their food isn't over-cooked, most of it isn't cooked at all.
Central Park near Boulder Creek is a great spot for a picnic, and over a dozen friends are here today, chanting a blessing before they start a pot luck dinner. The foods awaiting them look enticing - spaghetti marinara, salads, tuna pate. But a closer look reveals the spaghetti is actually the noodle-like strands of raw spaghetti squash, and the marinara is an uncooked tomato puree that's loaded with fresh herbs. As for the "tuna" pate, Sarah Kate DeLatt says the flavor comes from a clever blend of raw vegetables and nuts.
"Almonds, red onion, carrot, celery, parsley, lemon juice, kelp, dulse, nama shoyu which is raw soy sauce, sea salt," she said.
It's delicious, and a far cry from the fried chicken or barbecue pork Americans usually bring to picnics. In fact, there are no animal products here not even dairy or eggs. What's more, not a single dish has been baked, steamed, boiled or fried. But it's a familiar menu for most people at this picnic, who say they eat between 60 and 80 percent of their food raw.
"I think this is the best thing I've ever done. And I have to admit, I feel better than ever with it, so, yay. Yay, raw," she said. Brigitte Mars is a Boulder herbalist who has been eating only raw food for over a year. She says raw foods are usually fresh and unprocessed, which preserves their natural nutrients. Her husband, Tom, says uncooked food tastes good, and has helped him win a decades-long battle against acid indigestion.
"Now it's not low fat. You know, we eat lots of fat. Olive oil, avocados, all kinds of things with plenty of fat in it," she said.
Unlike the oils and fats in cooked meats and vegetables, though, these "raw food" fats have not been heated to high temperatures. According to some scientists, this is an important difference.
"Fats at room temperature that have never been heated up aren't so bad," she said. David Prescott is a founder of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder and a world-renowned expert on cancer. He says, in many cases, cancer is caused by ingesting overheated substances, whether it's cigarette smoke or too much well-cooked food.
"High temperature creates conditions for all kinds of chemical reactions, a myriad of chemical reactions, very few of which have been studied or are understood. Many of which undoubtedly are genotoxic, that is, they cause mutations. And if a substance causes mutations, it very likely is a carcinogen, that is, it can cause cancer because cancer is the result of mutations," he said.
Raw, boiled and steamed foods are not subject to those conditions, according to Dr. Prescott. It's baking and frying - usually at temperatures far above 100 degrees Celsius which create those carcinogenic chemicals. He points out that many cooking oils are processed at high temperatures. That adds to his concern about foods like French fries, which absorb the re-heated cooking oil that makes them piping hot. Dr. Prescott says he has seen so many scientific studies documenting carcinogens in French fries, he ate his last one over 20 years ago.
"The way French fries are cooked is so egregiously bad, that there was great motivation for not eating them. French fries are cooked in fat that is heated to very high temperature over and over and over and over," he said.
The cancer expert says he won't be surprised if worldwide research confirms the findings of new Swedish and British reports - that starchy foods which baked or fried contain high levels of acrylamide, a probable carcinogen. He says that does not necessarily mean there's any health risk to a hot meal, but he'd like to see more studies.
Boiled and steamed foods don't seem to contain high levels of well-known carcinogens. But back at that Boulder picnic, these diners say they're better off with raw.