ST Scroll Back: Would you drink untreated water in raw health trend?

We take a closer look at people’s passion for uncooked food and, now, raw water

Crooked River, which is the source of Opal Springs Water Company’s unfiltered, untreated, unsterilised water, in Oregon. Start-ups deliver untreated water on demand. PHOTO: NYTIMES

We love eating sashimi, and we usually look forward to yusheng for Chinese New Year in Singapore. But for now, some of us just want to set the dishes on fire until they're cooked to a carcinogenic crisp.

There's a creepy-crawly 1.6m-long reason for this.

There's no way I am linking to that horrifying parasite story though. You know how to use Google. Type: "Raw food", "1.6m" and "The Straits Times". Come back when you're done and sick to the stomach.

These incidents were also awful: Remember the bacteria outbreak that was related to raw-fish dishes from a couple of years ago? Victims were hospitalised or even suffered amputations.

Before you order a flamethrower to cremate your sushi or eggs benedict, there are raw-food advocates who believe cooked food is the thing that will wreck your health. The thinking behind the diet is that cooking food above 40 deg C (just above the normal temperature of the human body) destroys important nutrients and enzymes, and can form harmful chemicals.

Critics fire back, saying the claims are based on half-baked truths They argue that the nutrition value of some foods is actually improved by cooking. That's apart from the benefits of killing bugs that cause food poisoning.

Throwing cold water on those who think raw is wrong are raw water trend zealots.

Advocates of unfiltered, untreated, unsterilised spring water are wary of what flows from taps, reported The New York Times. They don't like the fluoride added to it, and don't like the lead pipes that some of it passes through. They also don't trust filtered water and treated bottled water. Apparently, the wrong kind of filtration removes beneficial minerals, and healthful bacteria are killed during treatment.

So what's your poison? Is the thought behind the raw-food movement positive, but our bodies are no longer built for uncooked meals?

Read this before your next meal.

Salad greens offered at a tertiary institution's dining hall. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

1.9 million years ago
That's when humans may have started cooking. Major changes occurred in hominin biology then. Compared with its ancestors, Homo erectus had small teeth, small bodies and much larger brains. According to a controversial hypothesis put forward by primatologist Richard Wrangham, these changes were driven by cooked food. Mr Wrangham believes that it drove our divergence from more ape-like ancestors, and that the bodies of Homo sapiens couldn't exist without cooked food.

20,000 years ago
That's when the first pots were made in China. The scorch marks and soot on their outer surfaces point to their use as cooking utensils, and they form part of the earliest firm evidence that humans were cooking then.

Raw deal

"We are the only animal who has ever lived that would starve to death if we ate raw food alone. We've lost the enzymes and the absorption mechanism to digest raw food." - Genetic expert Steven Jones, who said if you ate only raw food, you'd starve to death after six months.

Raw appeal

"(The raw food diet) is an extremely healthy diet. You are eating almost all plant-based food, very little overly processed food… You'll probably lose weight if you follow (the diet). But the reason you'll lose weight is because of how restrictive it is." - Associate Professor Crowe, a researcher in nutrition at Australia's Deakin University. He said one likely benefit was weight loss, but not because of any properties inherent in raw food.

Raw appeal: Trendy demand for untreated water is start-ups' revenue stream

Opal Springs Water Company in Oregon, bottling raw water - unfiltered, untreated, unsterilised spring water - for start-up company Live Water. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Cost of raw water per 9.5 litres from Oregon's Live Water, as marketed in San Francisco. Other start-ups like Tourmaline Spring in Maine have emerged in the last few years to deliver untreated water on demand.

"Tap water? You're drinking toilet water with birth control drugs in them. Chloramine, and on top of that they're putting in fluoride. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it's a mind-control drug that has no benefit to our dental health." - Mr Mukhande Singh, founder of the Live Water start-up, as told to The New York Times.

Raw deal

"Ewwww. But as we reported then, and today remind potential raw water aficionados, this isn't surprising - or a health risk." - Chicago Tribune, on its 2008 report of its journalists testing samples of Chicago tap water. They found tiny amounts of an anti-seizure drug, a painkiller, caffeine, and chemicals used to make Teflon and Scotchgard. Studies have shown that they aren't harmful to people in such small amounts.

"Many thousands of people used to die from cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases. No longer - at least in the developed world where we have excellent water utilities. It is simply reckless to revert to untreated sources of water because they've been pitched as 'pure' or 'raw'." - Commissioner Debra Shore of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

"We can believe in fairies, too, if we like. We could tell people to go out and lick a rock if we need more silica, or sell pet rocks as cures for diseases. It's in the same realm as crystals, this belief in the properties of the natural environment to make you healthy." - Dr Val Curtis, professor of hygiene and director of the environmental health group at the London School Of Hygiene And Tropical Medicine. She was speaking to The Telegraph on claims by Live Water that its water is alkaline, abundant in sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, and high in natural silica - which it said can reduce wrinkles, keep hair healthy, and increase joint strength.

Raw appeal: Toss of the dice? But yusheng is yummy

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>2,000 years ago
That's when the dish of raw fish slices started appearing in China.

The custom of having the dish on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, also known as ren ri ("every man's birthday"), was brought to Singapore with the migration of Cantonese and Teochew people from China in the 19th century.

We do love the festive atmosphere created by tossing the raw fish slices with ginger slices, spring onion, coriander, sesame seeds, lime juice and oil.

Raw deal: Extra unwanted ingredients

Yusheng with roast beef as an unusual ingredient. PHOTO: ST FILE

If you're imagining a potential 1.6m-parasite wriggling among the colourful yusheng ingredients, splash out on nicely cooked abalone or lobster or beef to replace the raw fish. Or get that flamethrower.

If you're considering yusheng with freshwater fish, but fear it's contaminated with Group B Streptococcus bacteria... Well, there's that flamethrower.

If you're heading abroad for the festive season, and checking out koi pla, the cheap Thai dish with raw fish ground with spices and lime, hear this Thailand doctor out. Dr Narong Khuntikeo's parents died from liver cancer after eating the much-loved dish, and he is warning people off it.

The fish usually contains parasites that cause a type of liver cancer believed to be killing up to 20,000 Thais per year. It is often caused by a parasitic flatworm - or liver fluke - native to freshwater fish in the Mekong region. (Google the parasite yourself, please.)

Raw appeal: Meat still mooing

Some recommend thinking pink when it comes to cooking steak. PHOTO: ST FILE

Ordering a steak that's rare or medium-rare may signal a couple of things, says the UK's Independent. One, the meat the restaurant will offer you is probably of a better quality than for well-done ones. Two, according to Manchester restaurateur Steve Pilling, those asking for steak well-done are "probably those who know less about food".

Ouch. That's a tender spot.

"The trend of eating rarer meat is part of the more general shift from food as fuel to food for pleasure. Eating roast beef, a steak, and even a pork chop, is more pleasurable if they haven't been cooked too well done." - Mr Huw Gott, who opened London steakhouse Hawksmoor.

Would you go as far as eating raw pork though? Served as pork tartare. (Google "trichinella".) How about chicken sashimi, a common menu item in yakitori bars and restaurants across Japan? (Campylobacter bacteria is not your friend.)


Raw deal: Runs in the family

Q. Why is raw fish okay to consume, while raw beef, pork and other land animals are typically not on the menu?

A. "Perhaps it's because our bodies are more closely related to land animals than to those of fish." - Dr Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. He explained that the parasites and bacteria in raw animal meat are more dangerous than the ones in raw fish.

A. "Parasites and bacteria tend to come from an animal's gut, not its muscle." - Dr Eugene Muller, a microbiologist at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. He explained in a report by Time magazine that if your butcher nicks open the intestines, harmful microorganisms released could contaminate all the meat.

Rogues' gallery of creepy-crawlies that may be in raw meat:

  • Salmonella
  • E. coli
  • Worms
  • Flukes
  • Virus hepatitis E

Again, Google is your friend. For serious research purposes, though, here's a link to cute stuffed toy versions of frightful gut microbes.

Raw appeal: Feed our gut allies

"We've come to realise how important this gut community is for our health, and yet we're eating a low-fibre diet that totally neglects them." - Microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg from Stanford University.

Unprocessed and, sure, raw fruit and vegetables may help feed good microbes. Listen to this NPR podcast about being friendlier with your microbiome.

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