The Raw Foods Movement Meets Shelf Stable Convenience: Incorporating Raw Ingredients in Packaged Products
By Jason Argabrite
By now we’ve all heard of “the raw food movement”—the latest and greatest diet craze that will help shrink your waistline and clear your complexion. Thousands have even claimed that it has helped cure diseases ranging from fibromyalgia to cancer. It’s the next big thing…until the next next big thing comes along, right?
Raw food, however, isn’t really the next big thing; it’s been the thing. Our ancestors ate raw fresh or dried foods for thousands of years. Today, however, as many look for ways to escape maladies brought on by the over-processed, nutrient-poor American diet, uncooked cuisine is experiencing a major resurgence. Books espousing the benefits of raw foods have made the New York Times Best-Seller List. Celebrities from music, film and television have championed raw foods and raw food cafes are sprouting up on street corners in every city.
In response to the growing demand, along with the need for convenience, today raw foods can be found in more than just the produce section, but in practically every product category. Several retailers now feature dedicated raw foods sections with packaged raw foods ranging from crackers and breads to spreads and salad dressings. There are raw cereals, bars, granola, trail mixes, dehydrated kale chips and soups. You can wash it all down with raw kombucha, coconut water or a smoothie. And of course, no raw food meal would be complete without a dessert of uncooked cookies or raw vegan ice “cream” made from coconut and cashews.
So What Is “Raw”?
Raw food is loosely defined as food that has not been subjected to temperatures above 118° F (48° C). Though there are numerous descriptions and some disagreement, this is the consensus definition of raw food. The 118° marker has been referenced in numerous books over the last decade, but its origin may well be the 1985 publication of Dr. Edward Howell’s Enzyme Nutrition.
In his book, Dr. Howell attests that “to get enzymes from food, one must eat raw food. All life, whether plant or animal, requires the presence of enzymes to keep it going. Therefore, all plant and animal food in the raw state has them. But the mere touch of heat destroys them.” In order to clarify what qualifies as “heat,” Dr. Howell conducted studies “to determine the thermal death point of protoplasm (living matter), and found that immersion in water at 118° F destroyed enzymes in a half-hour.”
Thus, for foods to maintain their enzymatic value, they cannot be subjected to heat equal to, or in excess of, 118° F. To be on the safe side, some raw foodists set the max temperature even lower, between 92° and 115° F. Vitamins and minerals are also subject to depletion and destruction at certain temperatures, most of which are higher than 118° F, but by setting the limit where it is, most of the enzymes, minerals and vitamins will still be present when raw foods are consumed.
“It’s no mystery that foods, closer to their natural state, impart better nutrition” says Jacob Hopkins, owner of Earthling Organics, maker of Rawnola Bars and Cereal. “This suggests that some things are better left undone. Many subtle qualities are lost during the refining and processing of foods.”
The New Raw Food Consumer: Mainstream, Not Extreme
Today, most of those who buy raw packaged foods are not converts to the raw food movement committed to a lifetime of eating 100 percent raw food. They are everyday people who are looking for healthier options. Justin Baumgartner, founder of The Laughing Giraffe Organics, makers of Laughing Giraffe Granola and Snakaroons, sees “more growth in raw food snacks and superfoods as a supplement to a cleaner overall diet.”
The Hartman Group recently conducted a study on consumers who said they had tried a raw foods diet in the past six months and found that few are strict raw foodists, but many people are increasing the raw foods in their diet. “Consumers are participating in the raw foods diet in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a few days of detoxing or one meal out of the day to balance out other not so healthy choices,” says Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at Hartman, the editor of Hartman Salt, a new online food portal, and natural foods chef. “We also saw many people who had chronic health problems that doctors could not figure out coming to raw foods in an effort to gain control of their health.”
The Hartman Group developed the raw foods “language map” below, which was derived from hours of interviews with consumers around the subject of “raw.” In this, the dialogue about raw ranged from “fresh” and “unprocessed” to food being “spiritual” or part of a “life force”—once again illustrating the range of ways people engage in raw foods.
Abbott also points out another important insight: raw is more than a phase, it becomes part of consumer’s overall lifestyle. “While most people won’t stick with a strict raw foods diet for long, we found that when they do return to the standard American diet, they still incorporate many more raw foods into their diets.”
Other trends are also crossing over into raw foods, including vegan and gluten-free diets, says Abbott. Baumgartner agrees, “We are getting a lot of help from the gluten-free segment. Since most raw foods are inherently gluten-free, and are much less processed than the usual gluten-free fare, many folks are filling their snack needs in the raw foods section as opposed to the gluten-free section.”
The First Rule of Raw Foods: Keep it Simple
One thing you will notice about on-the-go raw foods is how few ingredients they have. “We provide people with a simplistic and naturalistic approach to packaged foods” says Hopkins. “Our embrace of simplicity allows the ingredients to speak for themselves.”
Food simplicity is becoming a mainstream idea. Michael Pollan, in Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, writes, “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients” (Rule 6) and, “avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce” (Rule 7). Numerous cookbooks have been published to fill the “5 ingredient recipe” niche. Even the Food Network has joined the fray with a cooking show devoted to the idea.
According to Hopkins, “Ingredients in their pure raw form are simplicity at its best.” Baumgartner agrees, “There are a lot of amazing products out right now but I like to stick to the basics—high quality nuts, seeds and dried fruit.” These are the key words and phrases you hear today amongst raw food consumers and producers: pure, natural, high quality, simple, basic.
Nuts are one of the staples of the raw food diet. Since many raw foodists avoid animal protein, they are in need of alternative protein sources and nuts are a fine substitute. In comparison to cooked nuts, raw nuts are a significantly higher protein source. Boiled peanuts contain, on average, 3.8 grams of protein in every one ounce serving, while an equal serving of raw jungle peanuts from South America contains 8.9 grams of protein along with higher iron and potassium levels. The application of heat from the cooking process not only destroys enzymes, it also negatively impacts other nutrients, including protein.
Capturing Raw Nutrients in Packaged Products
So how do you maintain the delicate nutrients in fresh food in a packaged product? Even fresh produce can sometimes fall short of our own definitions of fresh by the time we eat it. Produce often spends weeks “ripening” at the port of entry before it’s eventually trucked to grocery stores and makes it to your table. While adding more fresh foods into your diet is challenging, by developing convenient raw foods, companies are delivering the nutrition that is needed for good health and longevity.
However, using whole foods without adding any preservatives can lead to shelf life concerns. “I think the best ingredients for shelf stable products are those that contain as little moisture to start with as possible,” Baumgartner explains. “I like to use as many dry goods as I can in my recipes so I can control the amount of moisture I put back into the products and have a better gauge of how the product will dehydrate.”
That opinion is shared by Hopkins, whose unbaked granola bars are dehydrated. “There are natural ways we try to maximize the shelf life with ingredients such as turmeric and lemon.”
In order to maintain shelf life, many of the raw foods available today are either dried or dehydrated. According to Hopkins, “Dehydration itself is one of the oldest food preservation techniques known.” In many cases, the ingredients that go into on-the-go raw foods have been sun dried and stone ground to ensure that they are both raw and stable. In addition, other methods used to create ready-to-eat foods without exposing the nutrients to heat over 118 degrees include freeze drying and cold pressing.
While some raw food companies sprout nuts and seeds, it’s not often recommended for packaged goods as the moisture limits shelf life and can lead to food safety concerns. As with any ingredient, make sure to get details from your supplier on exactly how the product was processed and at what temperatures. For example, some “raw” cashews are boiled in oil or scorched in fire in order to condition the shell prior to cracking and speed the process. There are others, however, who use special knives to manually crack the shell, and then dehydrate the nuts to remove the skin.
The process of drying fruits at the source prior to shipping is one that certainly helps to maintain shelf life, and it also increases the nutritional value of many of the fruits in question. Bananas are a good example. A one-ounce serving of fresh banana has 100mg of potassium, 1.4mg of calcium, and 0.1mg of iron. The same serving of raw sun dried banana has 359mg of potassium, 5.5mg of calcium, and 1.37mg of iron.
Why the discrepancy? “Fresh” bananas are harvested weeks before they are ripe in order to ensure that they hit that perfect yellow color on your local grocer’s shelf. Sun dried bananas are allowed to ripen on the plant, continuing to draw valuable nutrients for up to a month longer. They start off with more minerals so they will still have more minerals when they reach the consumer.
Since consumers look to raw foods as a way to promote wellness, the more nutrient dense you can make your product, the better. “We make products appealing to consumers who are closing the gap between health and food,” explains Hopkins. “Our line of raw granola bars features superfood ingredients that are meant to deliver a powerful punch of phytonutrients. Some have even ascribed healing benefits to them.”
“Our new Matcha Bar is made with the Japanese green tea of the same name,” says Hopkins. “Doctors are recommending Matcha to reduce blood pressure. And our Ayurvedic Bar is formulated with turmeric, which is high in antioxidants, and Ashwaghanda, which is gaining recognition for its stress relieving influence.”
Baumgartner also recently put out a new Snakaroon using his favorite superfoods. “Goji berries, cacao and maca—I think they are the superfood trifecta.”
Maca’s history goes back to the ancient Incan warriors who consumed it prior to battle, but there is also science behind the word “super” in these raw superfoods. The ancient Chinese goji berry is credited with many things by Chinese herbalists, but there is little dispute that raw dried goji berries contain more vitamin A than even raw carrots. One ounce of raw goji contains 5,293 international units of vitamin A (110 percent of DV) while a serving of raw carrots contains 4,677 IU (94 percent of DV).
Likewise, a tiny Amazonian berry called the Camu Camu fruit has upended ideas about what qualifies as a high vitamin C content. An orange has 53.2mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit, which represents nearly 90 percent of the Daily Value. Raw Camu Camu powder on the other hand contains over 10,000mg of vitamin C in an equivalent serving, meaning that in contains twice the Daily Value for vitamin C in just a quarter teaspoon.
In the end, raw foods are superfoods. Food eaten in the raw, at the peak of its nutritional value, offers the greatest benefit to the consumer. The enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients packed into raw foods are what make them superfoods or at an even more basic level, health food.
“Although I’m not old enough to remember, I wonder if the term ‘health food’ existed 50 years ago,” asks Hopkins. “Is it because we are awash in a sea of refined and over-processed ‘un-health foods’ that people feel the need to make a distinction?” Regardless of the reasons, it is clear that this new generation of raw food entrepreneurs is tapping into a movement that is only just beginning.
While there are certainly challenges in creating on-the-go raw foods, the nutritional payoff is clear and the health food store in your neighborhood may already be resetting its shelves to make room for a raw food section, too.
Jason Argabrite is the director of marketing and sourcing for Ultimate Superfoods, a company that specializes in natural, raw, organic food products from around the globe. His company’s mission is to bring food to consumers who are seeking a healthy alternative to processed foods. Jason is currently completing a course of study in Nutritional Counseling. You can reach him at email@example.com.