Would you like to join me on a journey – a journey that goes “beyond the dinner plate? ” It’s an exploration of food alchemy. By food alchemy I mean the transformation of food into energy that the body can use. You see, food is not what it seems. In fact, food is very secretive and keeps its secrets well hidden from view.
Let’s start our journey…
Since everything in the universe vibrates with energy it follows that food too contains energy. However, unlike the energy we get by breathing in negative ions (charged particles) from the air, food energy is not readily available.
The release of energy from food requires chemical reactions to occur in the stomach and ultimately in the body’s cells. The reactions in the stomach are also needed to break down food into nutrients and building materials for repair and maintenance.
But I want to focus on energy in the context of our vitality or life-force. We need that energy to perform the daily operations of our body – without it we die! So a key question to ask is “how do we convert food into this life-force energy? ” Well, as I said we need to get some chemical reactions going in our stomach (primarily). The key to those processes are enzymes
Basically enzymes are catalysts and that means they help make chemical reactions more efficient without actually changing themselves. Enzymes are involved in every biological and physiological process in the human body. There are many types of enzymes but the only ones of interest for our journey are: food enzymes and digestive enzymes.
From our energy perspective we are interested in digestion as a means to produce glucose and/or the materials to produce glucose. But once that has occurred we are still not finished because glucose in itself is not energy so we have to transform it into energy in order for our body to be able to use it to maintain our vitality.
Okay, let’s follow up on what happens to glucose and how it gets transformed and stored in the body’s cells. The easiest way to do that might be to start at the end and work backwards. The body’s cells stored energy in packets (really called molecules but I think packets describes them better) known as ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate).
So where does ATP come from? We have already discovered that one result of digestion is the formation of glucose or blood sugar. As blood circulates through the body the cells take in glucose. They do that using ‘catchers’ (for want of a better word) that transport glucose into the cell body.
But there’s still more that needs to happen – as i mentioned the glucose has to be transformed into usable energy. The main way that is done is through the mitochondria of the cell. Mitochondria are sites on the interior walls of cells where chemical reactions can take place. They take up glucose and oxygen and use them to produce ATP in a process called cellular respiration. Right, so we’ve this ATP stuff loaded up and waiting in the body’s cell waiting to spring into action but how do we actually release the energy so we can use it?
I hate to say it again… but there’s still more! To release the ATP energy we need to break one of the chemical bonds that hold it together. Imagine you have a coiled spring tied up tightly with string. It can’t uncoil until the string is broken… then wow, look at it go! It works much the same way with ATP except that the string is replaced with a high-energy bond between its molecules.
But, of course we can’t simply cut the ATP bonds with scissors – it’s a bit more sophisticated than that.. In fact, it requires a special enzyme to facilitate a reaction that converts ATP into ADP (adenosine diphosphate) – can you see how we’ve gone from tri- (3) to di- (2)? That result is important since breaking one of the bonds is what is required to release energy to help maintain our life-force.
However, a cell can only hold a small amount of energy and although we have millions of cells, they need to keep producing ATP and to break it down to release its energy. Fortunately, it is not necessary to rely solely on producing brand new ATP since reversing the chemical reaction that transformed ATP into ADP will reconstitute ATP – a bit like recycling/recharging a battery). That ATP is then available for breaking down and releasing energy. ATP can also be formed from other substances in the body but that is not addressed here.
It seems a long time since I first mentioned enzymes… but I haven’t forgotten them. In essence, enzymes assist in the digestion of food by making the digestive process more efficient. As I said previously, the two types of enzymes we need to consider are: food enzymes and digestive enzymes (produced primarily by the pancreas).
As you might expect food enzymes are found in food. Nothing very profound there, but the question to ask is why are they there – what do they do? Okay, a warning here that we are about to enter potentially hostile territory. Raw food advocates claim that food enzymes assist in food digestion in the stomach. They also claim that the body uses less of its digestive enzymes which they also believe are limited to a finite supply
Personally, I don’t subscribe to those views, but don’t let me stop you. I believe that the primary purpose of food enzymes relates directly to the particular food in which they are found.. Basically, their role in that food is to facilitate chemical reactions that commence under favourable conditions the transformation of the composition and nutrient content of that food. So as I see it their role is primarily outside the body. What I’m saying is that they render the food more readily digestible and more nutritious but it’s an external process.
Examples would include the sprouting of seeds which renders them more readily digestible and significantly increases their nutritional content and the ripening of bananas during which starch is progressively transformed into sugars.
Because I think primary role of food enzymes lies outside the stomach, in my opinion, it follows that they have little value as an aid to the internal digestive process. In fact I can’t see why food enzymes shouldn’t be considered by digestive enzymes as proteins and treated accordingly.
Nor do i support the claim that there is a finite supply of digestive enzymes with the implication that once that’s used up – well, it’s goodbye! I think there may be some confusion in that the efficiency of the pancreas may become impaired through abuse and that may inhibit the production of sufficient digestive enzymes.. Keeping the pancreas healthy should help maintain the necessary supply of digestive enzymes throughout life.
Raw or cooked?
Another area of debate relates to the relative nutritional value and enzyme content of raw versus cooked food. Raw food advocates claim that cooking destroys all food enzymes and significantly reduces its nutrient value.
It is true that cooking can destroy enzymes. It is also true that cooking can reduce the nutritive value as measured, for example, by vitamin and mineral content. However, it is not quite as black and white as raw food advocates claim.
Why? Well the amount of reduction depends very much on the method and duration of cooking. The method of cooking determines the temperature to which the food is subjected and whether the process is moist or dry. There is a marked difference, for example, between the effects of steaming and baking. The former maintains a temperature of boiling water and ensures a moist environment while the latter requires higher temperatures, takes place in a dry environment and for a longer duration. My preferred methods of cooking in order of choice are: steaming; poaching; and stir-fry.
Charcoal/flame grilling potentially introduces additional concerns that relate to the nature of the compounds formed on the food during those methods.
I am not at all keen on microwave cooking. Maybe it’s my ignorance but it seems to me to be an unnatural way to cook. I think I can understand how conventional cooking excites food molecules and weakens their bonds through the application of external heat. That is, heating from the outside in.
It seems to me that microwaves heat the food from inside out by beaming straight into the food molecules. What happens then is anyone’s guess but I suspect that such drastic action bursts open the cell walls and out pours all the nutrients and they too get bombarded. As i say maybe I avoid microwave cooking out of ignorance – but I’m glad I do!.
Some reports suggest that a reduction of about 20-30% in nutritive content can be expected from careful cooking of vegetables. But that’s still not all the story…
Cooking of some vegetables actually increases nutrient availability – in other words makes the nutrients more readily available in the digestive process. So we need to weigh up the potential loss of nutrient content against the gain in bioavailability. Still further, we need to recognise that the mineral content is not significantly affected by cooking.
My raw versus cooked food balance. As a general rule I aim for about 40-50% raw and 50-60% cooked depending on the season.