I’ve been away from the blog for a while. There’s been no tragedy or crisis in my life, I haven’t been any more busy (although that has recently changed) or anything like that. In truth, I’ve been burned out. I’ve received a few threats against me over the past couple of months – due almost exclusively to the fact that I have given a few public talks discussing the tactics, beliefs, and practices of racist organizations in the United States. Apparently those racists didn’t like being critically examined. Those threats – and the worry that naturally arises as a response to them, has consumed a lot of energy. Ah well.
At any rate, my desire to return to blogging has been a slow in coming, but nevertheless, I have returned. And I even have a topic. So that’s nice.
A newly-made friend of mine suggested that since I love writing about skeptical issues, that I may want to turn my ‘skeptical eye’ to a movement they were once associated with through an acquaintance of theirs. This movement has generated a large number of motivational speakers, gurus, experts of all sorts, and strange, pseudoscientific beliefs and practices without number. Broadly speaking, I’m talking about the raw organic foods lifestyle (I’ll probably end up referring to it as ROFL, which is appropriate, since I spend a lot of time doing just that), but ROFL is only a part of a larger movement that includes so-called ‘longevity technology’ and more traditional ‘energy’-based movements.
At the heart of ROFL is the belief that the act of cooking food actually destroys the healthiest part of the food – namely enzymes. In a nutshell, enzymes are catalysts (usually but not always proteins) that allow certain chemical reactions (like the conversion of sugar to glucose for example) to occur, by facilitating the creation of special sites (active sites) where such reactions can occur far more quickly than they might otherwise do. Think about your saliva for a second; the enzyme present in saliva – salivary amylase – assists in breaking down starch into carbohydrates while you chew your French fries. But I’m not a biologist. Here’s a far, far better source for you to look at.
At any rate ROFL advocates claim that cooking denatures – warps – the ‘shape’ of these enzymes, which destroys their nutritional value. This is a big deal for ROFL advocates, because they allege that enzymes are the core of their ‘living foods’ doctrine which claims that cooking of any kind destroys enzymes and changes the molecular structure of food, rendering it toxic. Yep, if you eat cooked food of any kind, you’re basically poisoning yourself… The best diet therefore, is one where the plant matter is still ‘living’ – still full of enzymes – and that means that it must be raw, uncooked, and untreated. You are allowed to wash the dirt off first though.
There are a few big names in the ROFL movement. One of these names really stands out though: David “Avocado” Wolfe, a man so steeped in the mysticism surrounding ROFL that were he a tea, he’d have the consistency of tar. David is a fan of homeopathy, naturopathy, Chinese medicine, raw foods, organic foods, ‘earthing’*, and a host of other rather strange beliefs. He has even gone so far as to claim that by living a ‘truly’ healthy life-style, which includes meditation and raw foods, one can become like some of the ‘masters’ he’s met who only need to sleep one hour a day, or maybe one night a week. He claims that drinking natural spring water from the earth will connect people with Gaia in deep and meaningful ways. He argues that broccoli can cure cancer and can help our bodies get rid of plastics (whatever that means). In short, David is a guru; he peddles alternative panaceas to all that ail us, he offers courses in Raw Food Certification, and seems to have built a small yet apparently thriving marketing empire, with himself as the primary product.
It doesn’t matter that the claims Wolfe is making about the powers of ‘super-foods’ aren’t really borne out by any scientific or medical evidence; in truth the super-food fad has never had much scientific credibility. If eating blueberries is all that it takes to prevent cancer, then the active ingredient in the food that allowed for this miracle of healing would have been extracted, refined, patented and sold for huge amounts of money. Pharmaceutical companies might be shifty-eyed and money-grubbing, but their greed almost guarantees that if they can make money from something, they’ll try. A cure or vaccine for cancer derived from a common blueberry? Show me a company that would pass that up, and I’ll show you a company destined for bankruptcy.
At any rate, Wolfe, and people like him aren’t really bringing anything revolutionary or miraculous to the market; the foods they are selling and the associated appliances, water purifiers, and informational packages will almost certainly add nothing to a person’s overall health. But Wolfe isn’t selling a cure or a second chance at living healthy; he’s selling a lifestyle. He’s selling the illusion of authenticity.
Andrew Potter, a philosopher from the University of Toronto, and author of the book “The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves” argues that the trend of some people to seek ever-more far-fetched or ‘alternative’ ways of living is actually a reflection of the desire for nonconformity. In a mass-produced, mass-consuming culture such as the one that dominates the societies of the Global North, it becomes difficult to find consumer products that are unique – that say to the world, “I am different; I am like no one else alive” – and that realization makes people seek to find alternative ways of behaving, believing, and living that take the place of consumer goods in determining personal uniqueness.
Some people make the mistake of linking authenticity to Truth, and so when they find fringe or alternative ways of living, they see in them a sort of authenticity – or at least the illusion of the authentic – which they then conflate with Truth. Buying food at a farmer’s market is more ‘authentic’ than buying food at the grocery store, and so it is better – more True; growing one’s own food is more ‘authentic’ than buying it at a farmer’s market, therefore it is better – more True. As more people seek to live ‘more authentically’, the counterculture of authenticity becomes co-opted by mainstream consumerism and so the search of the authentic experience must move further afield. The closer one is to the mainstream, the less ‘authentic’ they are, and so buying food at Save-On is less authentic than buying from a farmer’s market, is less authentic than buying from an organic farm, is less authentic than growing your own food.
The ROFL movement and its gurus – David Wolfe included – are simply salespeople in the ever-widening search for an authentic life. Providing evidence to show how the things and ideas they sell are worthless is meaningless, because their worth is found in the act of consuming them. The result of being socialized into accepting consumerism as the normal pattern of behaviour is that even when trying to divorce ourselves from it – even when we try to show our rejection of consumer society – we end up reproducing those same cycles again. All that the devotes of Wolfe have accomplished is that instead of consuming fuel, fast-food, and technological distractions, they consume the fantasy that they are not consumers at all.
*Earthing is the practice of ‘tapping in’ to the earth’s magnetic field in order to partake of its healing powers. It’s another, perhaps more modern form of energy healing, and it’s just about as effective.
[UPDATE 22/09/12 @PST 17:22] A scientist buddy of mine pointed out this fantastic video examination of the ROFL way of eating. I’ll post it below. Watch it. It’s awesome.