Raw food diets — in which food is eaten in its uncooked form and as unprocessed as possible — have a growing following. Some people believe that cooking food makes it a lot less nutritious, but while there are minimal risks with a raw plant food diet, the same isn't true for a raw meat diet.
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There are no health benefits for humans from eating raw meat, and you risk falling victim to food poisoning if you do so. Cooking provides the high temperatures needed to kill harmful bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is very clear, stating that "raw foods of animal origin" are the ones most associated with foodborne illnesses and food poisoning than any other. They can carry harmful bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens and E. coli, which are only killed through cooking.
What’s a Safe Cooking Temperature?
The National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that if you enjoy meat rare or medium-rare this may still be fine, but the only safe way to tell if meat that's a little less done is safe, is with an inexpensive instant-read meat thermometer. Relying exclusively on the color or texture of meat is insufficient — specifically a brown color doesn't always confirm safety, while a pink color doesn't necessarily mean that a meat is undercooked and unsafe.
Ultimately, a food thermometer helps guarantee you're cooking meat until the "just-right" doneness for juiciness and deliciousness. According to the CDC, these are the internal temperatures meat should reach:
- 145 F for whole beef, veal and lamb, and fresh pork and ham (allow the meat to cool for three minutes before carving or consuming).
- 160 F for ground beef, veal, pork and lamb, and for egg dishes.
- 165 F for all poultry, including ground chicken and ground turkey, and stuffing, leftovers and casseroles
Is Raw Meat Ever Safe?
Despite the health concerns, eating raw meat in the form of beef steak tartare and "cannibal sandwiches" is still something that some Americans like to do.
The McGill Office for Science and Society takes a pragmatic approach, acknowledging that eating raw meat under any circumstances is most definitely a risky business, but pointing out that poisoning from steak tartare is uncommon because the dish is usually served only in upscale restaurants where the meat supplied is of the highest standard, and the hygiene standards applied are very good.
The same cannot be said for cannibal sandwiches, which are a popular home-prepared dish in the Midwest around the holiday season, featuring raw ground beef, typically seasoned with spices and onions and served on bread or crackers.
With home-prepared tartare or cannibal sandwiches (also called tiger meat), the beef won't have been butchered specifically with a raw dish in mind and the risks are much higher.
Indeed, the USDA says that with each holiday season, there are hundreds of people in the Midwest who are sickened after eating cannibal sandwiches.
The USDA also says that beef purchased ground is particularly dangerous as grinding allows any bacteria like E. coli present on the surface to be mixed throughout the meat. These bacteria multiply rapidly in temperatures between 40 F and 140 F (4.4 C and 60 C)
The only safe way to technically eat "raw" meat is if it's cured and air-dried like traditional prosciutto or salami. The low water content and high acidity of these products is what makes them safe, according to the USDA, as it makes it impossible for most bacteria to grow.
But the CDC warns they are still among the foods that should not be eaten by pregnant women, older adults and people with weakened immunity, due to the risk of Listeria.
Sickness From Raw Meat Diets
If you were to eat a raw meat diet, the bacteria that uncooked meat is often contaminated with could make you very sick. Types of bacteria commonly found on raw meat and the symptoms they can cause include:
- Clostridium perfringens: Diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramps (vomiting and fever are less common). Symptoms usually begin suddenly, within a few hours to one day of eating the food and last for less than 24 hours.
- Salmonella: Diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, vomiting. Symptoms appear with 12 to 72 hours.
- Campylobacter: Symptoms take two to five days to come on and include diarrhea (often bloody), stomach cramps/pain, fever.
- E. coli: Severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody) and vomiting start within three to four days. Around 5 to 10 percent of people diagnosed with this infection develop a life-threatening complication.
Never Eat Undercooked Chicken
If you ever see "torisahi" on a restaurant menu, give it the widest possible berth, as this is eating raw meat taken to its most dangerous level. Roughly translating from Japanese as "raw bird," it's a dish of chicken sashimi — either totally raw chicken, or poultry that's flash-broiled on the outside but still completely uncooked in the middle. As a dangerous new food trend, it's being served mainly in Japan, but there have been reports of it being served in the U.S. too.
The CDC says raw chicken is commonly contaminated with Campylobacter and sometimes with Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens. Far from voluntarily eating raw chicken, the CDC advises that if you think the chicken you are served at a restaurant or anywhere else is not fully cooked, to send it back for more cooking. At home, always use a meat thermometer and follow the meat cooking temperatures listed above to ensure safety.
Plant-Based Raw Food Diets
What about raw diets more generally? Followers of the raw food movement never or only rarely eat food that is cooked, as they believe that heat destroys beneficial enzymes and vitamins in food and that cooking can create toxins. They mostly only eat plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables and cold-pressed oils, along with raw nuts and sprouted seeds and legumes.
While a raw plant diet with only plant foods may be much safer from a foodborne illness point of view than a raw meat diet, it's not fail-safe: In 2016 the CDC reported on a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella that was linked to a raw food meal replacement shake.
From a nutritional point of view, Stanford Medicine says that a raw food diet emphasizes some of the best of healthy food sources, with roots and vegetables that are high in beneficial micronutrients and fiber. It is also bulky and free of unhealthy, high-calorie processed foods, making it good for weight control.
However, the limited source of protein in a plant food raw diet may cause health problems, such as skin changes and irregular menstrual periods in women. It's also too low in calories for people who don't need or don't want to lose weight.
Cooking is far from the evil that raw foodists claim anyway, according to experts. Far from destroying nutritional goodness, cooking can actually increase the availability of some healthful plant chemicals. For example, the American Institute for Cancer Research says that heat and oil can change the structure of lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, making it easier to absorb.
In addition, cooking can really increase the palatability and tastiness of very healthy foods (like vegetables), helping you to eat more of them.
Is This an Emergency?
- CDC: "Foods and Food Poisoning"
- CDC: "Be Food Safe: Protect Yourself from Food Poisoning"
- McGill Office for Science and Society: "What Are the Risks of Eating Steak Tartare?"
- USDA: "Tips for Eating Cannibal Sandwiches This Holiday Season"
- USDA: "Ground Beef and Food Safety"
- USDA: "Principles of Preservation of Shelf-Stable Dried Meat Products"
- CDC: "Listeria (Listeriosis) Prevention"
- CDC: "Chicken and Food Poisoning"
- CDC: "Salmonella Recall & Advice to Consumers & Retailers"
- AICR: "Heat, Shape and Type: Increasing Lycopene Absorption"
- National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Can Rare Meat Be Safe?"
- Stanford Medicine: "A Skeptical Look at Popular Diets: Hurrah for Raw Food?"