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The Raw and The Cooked

Or: Are Raw Cashews Better than Roasted Ones?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

WNYC
Raw cashews: high in calories AND nutrients (Amy Eddings/WNYC)

No, I'm not going to be talking about myth, and Claude Levi-Strauss' epic study on mythmaking, The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume 1.  No way. 

I'm interested in whether eating raw nuts is significantly better for me than eating roasted ones.  Or is THIS a myth?

Certainly, raw, unsalted nuts have an advantage over roasted ones because they do not contain salt, oils, or other ingredients or additives, like seasonings or the stuff that makes almonds taste "smoked."

But I toast my walnuts and almonds in the oven -- without peanut oil or salt. Is this bad?

On one vegan Internet forum, people posting worried that roasting nuts ruined their nutrients and converted their healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats into bad, saturated fats. I took a quick glance at the nutritional information for raw, dry roasted, and roasted and salted cashews on Calorie Counter and found no real difference in the saturated fat in one ounce of cashews. It was the same: 2.5 grams. 

The real problem could be the presence of acrylamide, a chemical that can form in some foods during high temperature cooking processes such as frying, baking, and roasting. The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) says the chemical is found mostly in food made from plants -- potato and grain products appear to be big players -- and in coffee.

Acrylamide can show up not just in baked, roasted and fried foods -- it's produced industrially for use in plastics, grouts and cosmetics. It's also found in cigarette smoke. Yuck.

Here's the kicker: According to the National Cancer Institute, some studies have shown that when lab rats were exposed to acrylamide, there was a risk they would contract several kinds of cancer. But the Institute admits that the evidence from human studies is incomplete. It's not clear whether the levels found in cooked food would be a problem. The F.D.A. says it's trying to figure this out.  

Even so, perhaps in an abundance of caution, the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider acrylamide to be a probable human carcinogen. And the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization have said acrylamide in food poses a "major concern," and is urging more research.

While that research is being done, does this mean I have to stop BAKING and COOKING??

Raw food enthusiasts would say, "Yes!" Dr. Gabriel Cousens, author of Rainbow Green Live-Food Cuisine, says, "Cooking, or other forms of processing such as microwaving, destroys qualities and components of our food for which the significance is not yet and perhaps will never be known in its totality."

He calls cooking "a risky business." Nuts figure prominently in his live-food diet, but nut butters? Not so much. He says even tahini, made out of raw sesame seeds, and raw almond butter can be exposed to high heat during the grinding process.

Others remind us that we've been cooking our food for millions of years, and that we should not worry TOO much about acrylamide. 

I don't know, I'm not ready to go raw. But I'm willing to eat raw nuts. I'll start there.

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