TAMPA — At first glance, the menu items at Grass Root seem common enough — a burrito, pizza, spaghetti and "treatballs."
But look closer.
Sprouted sunflower seeds replace the refried beans you usually find in burritos. The "spaghetti" is really shredded zucchini. These and some other dishes include only raw ingredients.
This Tampa Heights restaurant is one of few in the area to draw a steady clientele with its raw-food dishes, picking up on a growing trend in recent years. Such restaurants include the Grass Root's Tampa and Lakeland locations, but also Leafy Greens Cafe in St. Petersburg and restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Raw-food enthusiasts eat a plant-based diet that hasn't been heated to more than about 115 degrees. Proponents say it's healthier than cooked food.
"When you eat raw food, the mineral and vitamin content in the food is not compromised," said Grass Root owner Sabrina Greene, 42.
Everything on the small, eclectic restaurant's menu is vegetarian friendly — and some of it cooked — but to her most health-conscious customers, Greene recommends the raw dishes.
Nutrition specialist Linda Bobroff said eating raw food isn't dangerous — as long as it's not eggs, dairy or meat. She added, however, that cooked foods have benefits, as well.
"Some nutrients are released from plant cells when the cell walls are broken down during cooking," said Bobroff, who is a professor of family, youth and community sciences at the University of Florida. "So it's good to eat cooked vegetables as well as salads, which obviously are eaten raw."
Still, raw-food restaurants are becoming pretty popular, and Bobroff acknowledged that the trend might be healthier in some cases.
"For those who eat a diet very high in animal foods, especially those high in saturated fat, moving toward a more plant-based diet (like a raw-food diet) is positive," Bobroff said. But "it's not necessary to eat all raw foods and may not be better to eat all raw foods in order to get all the nutrients you can from plant goods."
Greene is still a believer. In her native New York City, raw-food restaurants were much more common. Tired of the big-city grind, Greene moved to Florida in 2005 with her husband, Spencer.
"When we got here, we pretty much starved to death because there were no vegetarian restaurants," she said.
Figuring they weren't the only ones in Tampa who would benefit, the Greenes soon started a catering business, featuring vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Later that year, the couple discovered raw food on a trip to Puerto Rico. They visited the Ann Wigmore Institute, a natural health education center, where they took classes. Upon their return, they added raw dishes to their list of specialities and, in 2006, opened the Grass Root.
Now, in a historic building at Columbus Drive and Florida Avenue, customers eat between bright orange walls, under dim yellow lights, over the whir of a kitchen blender.
Most dishes are from recipes Greene first made for her family. The raw food at Grass Root gives customers energy, she said, and helps the body expel waste.
"Most of your immune system is in your colon, so I'm always talking about elimination to my customers," Greene said. "My kids get embarrassed, but it's so important."
It feels good when you're "moving properly," and how you feel, she said, has more to do with what you eat than you might think.
Greene's daughter, Sasha Aird, said the food is nourishing.
"You're full, but it's not like you have to slip into a coma for two hours to recover from it," said Aird, 21, who runs the restaurant's Tampa location.
Customer Raven Woodard agrees.
"You get really great-tasting food, and right down to the dessert, it's good for you," said Woodard, 48.
The Grass Root, Greene said, is also good for the planet. At both locations, the staff gives extra oil to people who convert it to fuel. To-go containers are biodegradable, jars are all reused and vegetable scraps are given to a farmer to feed his bunnies.
Said Greene: "Small things make a huge difference."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 269-5301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.