Raw-Food Fervor Starting to Sprout

It's raw, but it's hot. Interest in eating food in its pure form, uncooked and unprocessed, is growing. Celebrities swear by the raw diet and local stores scramble to keep raw products in stock.

It's raw, but it's hot.

Interest in eating food in its pure form, uncooked and unprocessed, is growing. Celebrities swear by the raw diet and local stores scramble to keep raw products in stock.

And at the uncooked heart of it all, are San Diego natives David Wolfe and Thor Bazler, the founders of Nature's First Law.

Together, they've created a multimillion-dollar business and source of raw gospel nationwide. Their El Cajon company sells specialty food, information and products to support living raw.

"It's no longer some niche, weird thing that some kind of crazy hippie is doing out in the desert somewhere," Wolfe said. "This is a mainstream, middle-class idea that is doable for anyone, and it gives people some control."

Wolfe discovered the alternative way of eating when he attended the University of California Santa Barbara. He began experimenting with nutrition to help with his sensitivity to certain foods and eventually discovered raw eating.

He introduced his childhood friend Bazler, then known as Stephen Arlin, to the diet. The two Patrick Henry High School graduates, who had grown up across the street from each other, now swear by a 100 percent raw diet of organic, unprocessed, plant-based food.

The raw-diet theory is that cooking robs food of some of its life force and that processing can add harmful ingredients. Devoid of some natural elements, like water and certain enzymes, cooked or processed food can't provide its full nutritional potential.

Both men say they saw dramatic improvements in their energy and well-being after adopting a raw diet. Inspired by the changes, they began selling raw-food books and products to others from the trunks of their cars. They deserted career plans in law and real estate in favor of promoting raw living.

"We thought: we have to do this, we can do this, no one is doing this," said Bazler, who changed his name to use his nickname Thor and mother's maiden name, Bazler. "It was such a profound truth it was easy for us to abandon those plans."

Ten years later, the aspirations paid off. They have 23 employees and their company is on target to exceed $6 million in revenue this year. Profits were at least $1.2 million last year, Bazler said. Popular organic retailer Whole Foods is adding Nature's First Law products to its stores.

Nature's First Law sells all organic foods, the majority of which are exotic items like goji berries or cacao beans. It also sells products and books on raw lifestyles, including Wolfe's latest book "Naked Chocolate". Both Wolfe and Bazler have written a number of books on the merits and techniques of raw eating.

"This is about getting back to normal," Wolfe said. "The food that is available has so much stuff in it. You want to eat stuff that grows off trees, not the stuff from factories."

Raw foodies say they feel healthier, mentally clearer and more energetic after they ditch cooked food. But Wolfe and Bazler are also popular with the al dente crowd; the majority of Nature's First Law clientele are people eating partially raw diets or those interested in finding higher-quality organic products.

Mitch Wallis, general manager at Kung Food Express Cafe, a natural-foods restaurant and store in San Diego, said the Nature's First Law products sell faster than he can keep them in stock. And the largest-attended events at his store are raw-food events, including the performance of Wolfe's raw band (all the members are raw foodies).

"I think it's a combination of two things. They are really high-quality products -- completely unadulterated raw, organic products -- and they are hard to find," Wallis said. "People really seem to be realizing there are some benefits (from eating raw.)"

Although the raw-food diet isn't new, the fervor surrounding it has grown recently, dietitians and organic dealers said.

Some big-name people stumbled across the company early and helped spread the word to others. Wolfe and Bazler said they knew they'd made it when Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was one of their first 10 customers. Bazler said Jobs, who is interested in raw eating, has remained a loyal customer.

A number of celebrities tout the importance of raw eating. Wolfe has worked with celebrities like Woody Harrelson, Alicia Silverstone and Angela Basset, all raw foodies.

Thanks to his film connections, the company provided all the food and products for "After the Sunset," and star Pierce Brosnan can be seen slathering Nature's First Law sunscreen on screen.

Wolfe is a sort of messiah of raw foodism, and travels the world promoting raw-food lifestyles to small private groups and large gatherings like Tony Robbins' organization. Wolfe lives primarily at the office between jaunts around the country.

Both men have made the business their lifestyle.

Bazler remains the base of the company, attending to the daily operations of the retail portion of business. A family guy, Bazler is focused on spending time with his wife and their three sons, who have never tasted candy and eat nearly all raw foods. Wolfe and Bazler have even turned their parents, once doubters of their career choice, into raw-food eaters.

"What made sense for us, what's natural for us and what's natural for all creatures on Earth is to eat raw food," Wolfe said. "What we've been doing with cooking is trying to alchemically improve on nature. We may have succeeded, and we may have failed in that attempt."

Some scientists and dietitians dispute the purported merits of raw diets.

The American Dietetic Association said the promotion of fruits and vegetables is positive. However, strict adherents to the raw-food diet may have difficulty getting adequate nutrients and could have problems with bone density.

"I think the intentions behind the diet are admirable and great, but I don't think there is a whole lot of science that shows it's better than cooked food," said Dave Grotto, a former raw foodie and registered dietitian speaking on behalf of the American Dietetic Association.

Although they once subscribed to and emphasized a 'cooked food is poison' motto, both Wolfe and Bazler have softened their stance. They said raw food is an opportunity for everyone to introduce more healthful living into their diets and lives. And they recommend that only 80 percent of most people's diets be raw in order to remain balanced.

"Every single medical journal says eat more fruits and vegetables," Bazler said. Wolfe added, "You never hear eat more cheesecake."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News