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Enzyme Nutrition and Raw Food: Fact or Fiction?

Cooking In Old Iron Skillet
Cooking In Old Iron Skillet

Certain foods, such as mushrooms, are actually healthier when cooked.

by John P. Thomas
Health Impact News

In a previous article [1] I discussed the nutritional considerations of eating vegetables raw or cooked. The research showed strong support for eating a combination of raw and cooked vegetables, because both options provide nutritional benefits.

I am sure that some who read the first article are concerned about enzymes. They have chosen to eat vegetables raw for the sake of enzyme preservation. Food is considered raw when it has not been heated above 116-118 degrees F. The discussion of enzymes and raw food naturally leads to a consideration of the lifetime work of Dr. Edward Howell, author of Enzyme Nutrition.1 Dr. Howell advocated a raw food diet to protect the naturally occurring enzymes that are in food, thinking that would preserve the enzymes that are in the human body. He believed this would provide for optimal health and longevity. His theory has 4 main points:

  1. Enzymes in raw food contain the “life force,” which is transferred to the body when the food is eaten. This “life force” enhances vitality and longevity. When cooked food is eaten, the body must use up some of its own “life force”/”enzyme potential,” because cooked food does not contain any life force/live enzymes.
  2. The enzymes present in raw foods provide significant help for the digestion of the foods themselves once the foods enter the human digestive system.
  3. The body has a finite “enzyme potential” for manufacturing digestive enzymes, which must be preserved to promote health and longevity. The body permanently depletes a portion of its enzymes whenever cooked food is eaten.
  4. Cooking destroys the enzymes in raw food, which forces the body to produce more of its own digestive enzymes than would otherwise be necessary to digest the food.2

Scientific research has advanced in many areas since Dr. Howell wrote his book. As a result I think it is desirable to take a fresh look at his enzyme theory. I took time to read through Dr. Howell’s book, Enzyme Nutrition, published in 1985. I will share some of what I observed.

Presuppositions

Presuppositions are foundational beliefs that research is built upon. Often we don’t examine our presuppositions because we think that our beliefs are so obvious that no one would ever question them.

At one time in history, everyone believed that the world was flat. This is an example of a presupposition that was ultimately replaced as new information became available. The adoption of the new supposition brought substantial change to scientific research in physics. Let’s take a look at some of Dr. Howell’s presuppositions and teachings to see how they stand up over time. I have stated my interpretation of Dr. Howell’s presuppositions as bold headings. I will begin by addressing the four main points stated above concerning his theory, and then add some additional considerations.

Enzymes are Life

Main Point 1: Enzymes in raw food also contain the “life force,” which is transferred to the body when the food is eaten. This “life force” enhances vitality and longevity. When cooked food is eaten, the body must use up some of its own “life force”/”enzyme potential,” because cooked food does not contain any life force/live enzymes.

The Forward to Dr. Howell’s book states,

For enzymes operate on both chemical and biological levels, and science cannot measure or synthesize their biological or life energy.

This biological force is the very core of every enzyme. Various names such as life energy, life force, life principle, vitality, vital force, strength, and nerve energy have been offered to describe this energy. Without the life energy of enzymes we would be nothing more than a pile of lifeless chemical substances—vitamins, minerals, water, and proteins. (page viii, Enzyme Nutrition)

Most certainly, enzymes are an important part of living organisms, but do they actually contain life itself? Dr. Howell elevates enzymes above all other elements of nutrition and dietary health by giving them the unique place of being a life force. This is only a theory. He presented evidence showing that enzymes contain energetic emanations as measured by Kirlian photography, but these electro-magnetic emanations are not life itself. To make such statements is to offer a presupposition without scientific proof.

Enzymes in Food are Aids to Digestion

Main Point 2: The enzymes present in raw foods provide significant help for the digestion of foods themselves once the foods enter the human digestive system.

Dr. Howell states,

Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that enzymes exist in all living things and become food enzymes when the food is eaten. But until I found out how ultrasensitive enzymes are to heat, I did not realize that the human race had been trying to get along without a whole category of food ingredients since cooking began. (page 121)

I tried to find research that supports the theory that the enzymes contained in the raw food we eat actually become digestive enzymes once we consume the food. This is a very common belief. But, I was unable to find any scientific proof for it.

There are two types of enzymes. Those that exist within the cells of living organisms, and in the case of organisms that have complex digestive systems containing stomachs and intestines, there are digestive enzymes. I could not find confirmation that the enzymes in our food will become digestive enzymes once the food has been consumed.

I suspect that the enzymes in food are actually destroyed by stomach acid. I also wonder about the very small amount of naturally occurring enzymes that are contained in many leafy vegetables. Are there really enough enzymes to produce a digestive effect? The enzymes in vegetables help the plant decompose in the natural environment. But, I cannot find any scientific evidence that the natural plant enzymes digest food in the stomach. This appears to be speculation.

Dr. Howell states,

The aging of meat and game to promote its tenderness and enhance its flavor has been practiced for a long time. The aging process consists of keeping the product at the proper environment of moisture and temperature. This allows the enzyme cathepsin within the tissues to slowly digest the hung meat by a process not unlike that which occurs in the digestive tract and which is known as autolysis. This is a good example of the operation of food enzymes. In those carnivores swallowing an entire animal, the catheptic enzymes of the prey become food enzymes and act the same way in the stomach of the host as they do when aging meat. (page 41, Enzyme Nutrition)

The enzymes in plants and animals certainly work in the natural environment to degrade the organisms (to recycle it) after it dies. However, do enzymes work that way in the human digestive system? Once again this is speculation. The natural function of the human digestive system is to breakdown and digest all parts of the food we eat. The enzymes in food are not somehow selectively preserved so that they can digest food. They are digested by the body along with all the other components of the raw food that we eat.

Every Organism will Die when Its Finite Amount of Enzymes have been Exhausted

Main Point 3: The body has a finite “enzyme potential” for manufacturing digestive enzymes, which must be preserved to promote health and longevity. The body permanently depletes a portion of its enzymes whenever cooked food is eaten.

Dr. Howell stated,

We can learn from this research that if you have young enzymes at age 80 you should be in the prime of life—not old. If you take in enzyme reinforcements during the younger years, your enzymes at 80 will be more like those at 40. (page 28)

Dr. Howell focused his medical career on promoting the consumption of raw food, based on the belief that every living organism was born with a finite amount of enzymes, and when these enzymes were used up, the organism would die. Thus, he taught that people should eat as much raw food as possible, because if food does not contain enzymes, then we must use our own storehouse of enzymes to digest food, which will eventually exhaust our finite supply. Death occurs once enzymes have been depleted. He relied on various insect and animal studies to try to prove his theory. The studies measured total enzyme content in Daphnia, grasshoppers, potato beetles, fireflies, nematodes, and rats at different ages. The findings showed that younger adult insects and animals had high enzymes and old insects and animals had low enzymes. Other studies measured the enzymes in human saliva and found a similar pattern. Old people had fewer enzymes than young people.

If his enzyme theory is true, then a person should be able to extend life indefinitely. We would expect that a person who eats only raw food and takes enzyme supplementation should be able to live much longer than people who eat cooked food and who do not take enzyme supplementation. This is a theory without any proof. The proof will not be found in animal studies or insect studies or in deductive reasoning, but in actual research conducted in human subjects over the course of a lifetime. I will be glad to be corrected if I am wrong, but I am unaware of people living to the age of 120 or older, because they only ate raw food and consumed supplemental enzymes. The reduction in enzyme levels as people and other organisms age is not necessarily the one and only cause of aging or death.

Cooking and Processing of Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats

Main Point 4: Cooking destroys the enzymes in raw food, which forces the body to produce more of its own digestive enzymes than would otherwise be necessary to digest the food.

Dr. Howell states,

The secret of the good health of the carnivorous Eskimo is not that he eats meat, but that he forbids his personal enzymes to digest all of it. We can do the same with proteins, carbohydrates, and fats from plant foods. (page 47, Enzyme Nutrition)

I will accept the resources sited by Dr. Howell that Eskimos allowed the process of autolysis and bacterial fermentation to take place in stored meat before they consumed it. However, my problem with the preceding statement, and with the totality of the theory he is promoting, is that Dr. Howell has a presupposition that if cooking is bad for some types of food, then it is bad for all foods. He treats proteins, carbohydrates, and fats as if his enzyme theory applied identically to each type of food. For example, he does not always differentiate between the harmful effects of highly processed/refined carbohydrate and other forms of carbohydrate. He concludes that bread is bad, because it is cooked. Perhaps bread is unhealthy because it is made of highly refined carbohydrate, which almost instantly turns into sugar once it enters the body. Based on more recent research, it is clear that most people today have a fundamental problem with their metabolism because of the large quantities of carbohydrates found in the typical American diet. This problem manifests in the high rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome. The problem is not caused by the cooking of the carbohydrates. Rather the problem is the quantity consumed and the highly refined and denatured quality of the carbohydrates.

Dr. Howell very clearly articulated the problem with one carbohydrate: white sugar. He called it a skeletal food. But at the time he wrote his book, he did not seem to understand the rapid conversion process of other forms of carbohydrate into sugars. We now know that the cooking of carbohydrate is much less important than the actual nature of carbohydrate itself, especially for people with damaged digestive systems.

Enzymes are the Last and Final Revelations in Nutritional Knowledge

Dr. Howell stated,

In 1932, when I discovered food enzymes, I counted myself with the very few in believing we possessed the last and final revelations in nutritional knowledge. (page 121)

Among the many thousands of species of creatures living on this earth, only humans and some of their domestic animals try to live without food enzymes. And only these transgressors of nature’s laws are penalized with defective health. We cannot ascribe poor human health to vitamin or mineral deficiencies because foods have been fortified to the hilt with these. (page 17)

Dr Howell considers the discovery of enzymes to be more important than all other dietary factors. He bases human health on the presence or absence of enzymes in the diet and in the body. It is short-sighted to ascribe health or illness to only one factor such as enzymes.  And dangerous to assume that food fortified with synthetic vitamins and dead minerals will support health. Many important vitamins have been discovered since 1932. Our modern agricultural methods have diminished the vitamin and mineral content of food and have added toxic ingredients that are making us all sicker. A simple reliance on enzymes will not correct the mineral and vitamin deficiencies of low quality food.

Man should have Built-in Cooking Equipment

Let the reader consider that a human baby, like an infant animal, is given raw food having a full complement of enzymes, from the breasts of its mother. If it needed cooked food for survival, it would have been provided with it. But in fact, a newborn infant has no need for cooked food. A cooking stove, which is a human invention, does not come permanently attached as a part of the anatomy of a newly born infant! (page 71, Enzyme Nutrition)

This is an interesting argument. Thus, we could also say, if a human being required clothing for warmth, we would be born wearing clothing and would not need to manufacture it. I agree that a new born baby needs only the milk of its mother, but it seems rather silly to put forth the argument that the lack of a built in stove in our anatomy means that we should not cook food later in life.

Food should be Pure and Unadulterated

no one has the knowledge to say that taking something away from food is ”safe,” or adding a foreign element to food is ”safe. (page 71, Enzyme Nutrition)

There is considerable wisdom in the preceding statement. The modern agribusiness model and corporate genetic engineering programs assume that people possess the wisdom necessary to fundamentally alter food for the sake of profitability without harm to our health. Dr. Howells’s preceding statement reflects his passion for not disturbing the purity of natural food. This is noteworthy.

Cancer and Heart Disease are the result of Disturbed Metabolism and the loss of Food Enzymes

It is decidedly unbecoming for those possessing the tools of science to close their eyes to the possibility that those diseases which are human trademarks, such as cancer and heart disease, are the products of disturbed metabolism induced partly by the hidden machinations of food enzyme deficiency. (page 71, Enzyme Nutrition)

Dr. Howell had an accurate view on many aspects of nutrition. His condemnation of white sugar should be a clear and powerful warning to everyone who reads his book. Also, his promotion of raw milk continues to stand the test of time, not only because of the enzyme content of raw milk, but because of the entire network of beneficial nutrients contained in raw milk and other raw dairy products, which he did not discuss. His elevation of enzymes to an exalted position above all other dietary factors cannot be supported in the area of heart disease and cancer given recent research. Recent research is confirming that the high incidence of heart disease is linked to prolonged consumption of refined carbohydrates, and cancer is linked to prolonged consumption of hydrogenated fat and other industrial oils. The problem is not cooked carbohydrate or cooked oils; the problem is highly processed and denatured industrial food.

The Perversion of Food by Cooking Leads to Obesity and Poor Health

If utilization of raw foodstuffs proceeded at a normal rate for these millions of years and we step in and do something to food, such as cooking it, which increases its utilization and absorption beyond the normal, this amounts to a perversion. If obesity is the result, it certainly is not wholesome. And it does not require deep insight to perceive that the evil consequences of such an assault on the endocrine balance may later hand us a legacy of many apparently unrelated pathological entities. (page 73, Enzyme Nutrition)

Even after reading his book, I was not convinced that his enzyme theory was true. I just could not make the leap from the weak research data that he offered to his conclusions. I remain unconvinced that cooking is a perversion. There is a great difference between apparent correlation and actual causation. Much of Dr. Howell’s theories are based on observed relationships, which he considers to be causative. Causation requires the isolation of research variables to eliminate other possible causes, which might be stronger than his enzyme theory for life and longevity. However, I must agree wholeheartedly with his last statement, which should cause us to closely examine the health of Americans.

If obesity is the result, it certainly is not wholesome. And it does not require deep insight to perceive that the evil consequences of such an assault on the endocrine balance may later hand us a legacy of many apparently unrelated pathological entities. (page 73, Enzyme Nutrition)

Widespread obesity is one of the marks of a culture in dietary distress and nutritional decline. I do not believe that the cooking of food is the cause of obesity and illness in America. Rather it is the high carbohydrate/low fat diet (filled with omega 6 oils, processed food, and genetically modified organisms) which is bringing us down to the pit of poor health and needless suffering. There are many diets that produce improvements in health. The key factor is not enzymes, but the elimination of unhealthy food. When highly refined carbohydrate foods and unhealthy oils are removed from the diet, then health will improve.

SUMMARY

Dr. Howell’s enzyme theories do not stand up to close examination. He did not present evidence to fully support his theory when he wrote his book, and such scientific evidence is still lacking. In order for me to be convinced of his theory, I would need to see scientific evidence that proves that the enzymes in raw food actually assist with digestion when food is eaten. I would need to see proof that we actually have a finite amount of enzymes and that the conservation of those enzymes will extend life. I would need to see actual research that shows that it takes more digestive enzymes to digest cooked food than is needed to digest raw food.

Regarding his last point that enzymes actually contain the life force that gives life to plants and animals, I think he is quite wrong on this point. If it was true that enzymes are life, then those who are manufacturing enzymes would also be manufacturing life itself. Enzymes are critical to multiple life processes, but they are not life itself.

See Also:

Raw versus Cooked Food: Which is Healthier? [1]

Resources

1.Enzyme Nutrition: Unlocking the Secrets of Eating Right for Health Vitality and Longevity, Dr. Edward Howell, M.D., Avery a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., 1985.

2. List adapted from: “Do ‘Food Enzymes’ Enhance Digestive Efficiency, Longevity?” Retrieved 4/17/2014. http://www.beyondveg.com/tu-j-l/raw-cooked/raw-cooked-2b.shtml [2]