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High-five, you’re eating the vegetables, perhaps reluctantly but hey, it’s a start. So now that you brought all those fresh nutrients home and they’re in your fridge, what do you do now? Do you join the raw trend and say sayonara to cooked food? Not so fast, it turns out that there are benefits to eating certain foods raw and certain foods cooked, it all depends. Read on to find out which foods are better for you cooked or raw.
Cooking helps to improve digestion, enhances certain nutrients including beta-carotene and lycopene in addition to killing harmful bacteria such as E.coli, Salmonella and Listeria. Not all foods pose the risk of pathogens or bacteria, but cooking is necessary for some food since cooking is the only way to eliminate these dangerous microorganisms.
Certain methods of cooking do deplete foods of some of their nutrients and health-promoting compounds; however, cooking does enhance nutrients of certain foods. One study from Cambridge University measured the nutrients of individuals who have been consuming raw food diets long-term and found that they had normal levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene, however they had significantly low lycopene levels.
In addition to enhancing certain nutrients, the heat from cooking vegetables breaks down cell walls of the plants which allow the body to absorb more nutrients. Additionally, cooked food is easier to chew which is an essential step in the digestive process. The more we chew, the easier the food is to digest.
Simply put, ‘raw’ food is food that hasn’t been chemically processed or heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the main arguments to eating a predominantly raw food diet is that it retains most of the beneficial nutrients of foods, yet, certain foods eaten raw can pose risks because cooking is necessary to rid certain foods of pathogens and bacteria.
Eating a raw diet does provide some nutritional benefits because as opposed to cooking, the vitamins, minerals and fiber in certain foods are not as depleted. However, the main consequence of eating a raw diet is that it is quite deficient in essential nutrients including iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and protein.
In addition to the deficiency of essential nutrients, raw food diets pose additional serious health risks. Studies have shown that people on a raw food diet can significantly lose weight and long-term raw food diets can cause significant bone loss. In addition, one study showed that women can develop amenorrhoea, which is the absence of menstruation. Due to these drawbacks, the researchers of the latter study concluded that “a very strict raw food diet cannot be recommended on a long-term basis.”
Foods That Provide More Nutrients Raw
Cruciferous vegetables including broccoli contain myrosinase which is an enzyme that plays a key role in converting glucosinolates to the anticancer compounds isothiocyanates. Myrosinase is destroyed by heat so any method of cooking can reduce the anticancer effects of broccoli. One study showed that the bioavailability of isothiocyanates is about 3 times greater in raw broccoli compared to cooked. If you choose to cook broccoli, steaming is the most effective method because it preserves the most glucosinolates.
The Takeaway: Broccoli is healthier raw to benefit from the anticancer compounds.
Cabbage is better for you raw because, similarly to broccoli, cooking cabbage breaks down myrosinase which is beneficial because it has anticancer properties. One study showed that myrosinase was depleted after microwaving cabbage for 2 minutes and after steaming for 7 minutes.
The Takeaway: Cabbage is healthier raw, yet, lightly cooking cabbage does retain cancer fighting compounds, so if you choose to cook cabbage, tread lightly!
Garlic contains sulfur compounds which provide anticancer properties. Heating garlic can significantly diminish it’s anticancer effects, even minimal microwaving for 60 seconds and baking in the oven for 45 minutes. However, if you crush or mince garlic and let it sit for 10 minutes before heating it you can reduce the loss of anticancer properties.
The Takeaway: Crush or mince garlic and allow it to ‘stand’ for 10 minutes before you cook it to retain anticancer properties.
Eating your nuts raw is a healthier option than roasted nuts. Roasted nuts are doused in low quality vegetable oil, which when heated and chemically altered is a major toxin. If you aren’t a fan of raw, dry roasted nuts are the next best option because these aren’t typically roasted in vegetable oil.
The Takeaway: Nuts are healthier raw to reduce toxins and to retain the antioxidant effects.
Onions contain phenolic acids and flavonoids, which are potent antioxidants. Cooking onions can reduce their antioxidant properties by 75% when boiled, 65% when microwaved and 30% when fried. Additionally, raw onions are antiplatelet agents which help prevent cardiovascular disease. If onions are boiled or heated, their antiplatelet activity is completely diminished.
The Takeaway: Onion is healthier raw to reap the health benefits.
Foods That Provide More Nutrients Cooked
Cooking does deplete important nutrients; however, it is often the case that cooking certain foods increases the antioxidant capacity of these foods. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants is important for your health because antioxidants help to combat free radicals which can wreak havoc on your cells. When you do cook your vegetables, steaming is the best cooking method to preserve nutrients, retain antioxidants and other health-promoting compounds.
Cooking asparagus increases the antioxidant capacity, polyphenols, quercetin, rutin, beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin by 16-98% as one study showed.
The Takeaway: Steaming asparagus significantly increases its antioxidant capacity while retaining its other nutrients better than other cooking methods.
Cooking carrots increase their beta-carotene levels which is a potent antioxidant can help to prevent heart disease. Beta-carotene also gets converted to vitamin A by the body which supports vision, bone health and immune system regulation. Beta-carotene is a carotenoid which is what makes fruits and vegetables red, yellow and orange.
The Takeaway: Cooking carrots increases their antioxidant capacity.
Eggs can contain harmful bacteria. In particular, salmonella can easily get through the shells, especially if eggs are laid in wet contaminated environments. By cooking eggs you are eliminating the harmful bacteria and your body will be able to significantly digest the protein better compared to raw eggs. When you are buying eggs, choose omega-3 enhanced eggs or pasteurized. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using pasteurized eggs if recipes list raw eggs.
The Takeaway: Cook eggs to increase your ability to utilize protein and to rid harmful bacteria that could cause illness.
Cooking mushrooms increases an antioxidant found in mushrooms called ergothioneine. Researchers of one study concluded that due to the properties of ergothioneine, eating mushrooms could help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, cooking mushrooms decreases argaritine which is a potentially carcinogenic substance.
The Takeaway: Cooking mushrooms increases their antioxidant capacity and decreases a harmful carcinogen.
Cooking spinach does reduce some nutrients including vitamin C and folate, yet it enhances the bioavailability of beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. In order to increase the bioavailability of beta-carotene and minimize the depletion of other nutrients, it is best to lightly cook or steam spinach. Before cooking spinach, be sure to rinse the leaves, spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens require extra attention to rid harmful germs.
The Takeaway: Lightly cooking or steaming spinach increases the bioavailability of certain nutrients.
One of the studies mentioned earlier showed that individuals who consume a raw diet had low levels of lycopene. This is due to the fact that cooking enhances the antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes, among other foods. This is an example of when cooking breaks down the plants cell walls improving the body’s ability to absorb and digest nutrients.
Tomatoes have the highest content of lycopene compared to other foods such as watermelon, red bell peppers and papaya. The lycopene in tomatoes offer significant antioxidants and high levels of lycopene in the body is associated with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.
Although vitamin C content is reduced when cooking tomatoes, their lycopene content can double in as little as 30 minutes of cooking which has been shown to increase their antioxidant activity by 60%. The good news is that you can get your vitamin C in other fruits and vegetables whereas tomatoes contain the most lycopene.
The Takeaway: Cooking tomatoes enhances your body’s ability to absorb the antioxidant activity.
Meat, Poultry & Fish
Raw meat, poultry and fish contain harmful germs which can pose a threat to your health, this is why it is always suggested to thoroughly cook meat because it will destroy harmful bacteria. It is particularly important to cook poultry to a certain temperature because some bacteria – including salmonella – is contained in the intestines which will only get killed if the temperature inside reaches the desired/necessary degrees.
When you’re preparing raw meat, carefully wash cutting boards and knives before using them with other foods.
The Takeaway: Cook meat thoroughly to ensure you kill off all the bacteria that could cause illness.