Raw vs Cooked. An ongoing debate in which there is no easy answer. As with most questions I am asked in my nutrition practice my answer to this is ‘it depends’. It depends on the food in question, it depends on the source of the foods, and it depends on the individual’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Let’s finally put an end to the debate of raw vs. cooked.
In the grand scheme of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, varied, whole foods diet, the cooked vs. raw debate isn’t that critical for most people.
Where this can become a consideration is for vitamin and mineral deficiencies or insufficiency. These may be due to digestion or absorption issues, or avoidance of certain foods due to allergies, intolerance, or choices.
The answer isn’t as simple as “raw is always better” or “cooked is always better.” Some vitamins are destroyed in cooking, while others become easier to absorb (a.k.a. more “bio-available”).
Here is the skinny on vitamins and minerals in raw foods versus cooked foods.
Foods to Eat Raw
Eating the phyto-nutrients found in plant foods has been associated with reduced risk of certain chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Raw vegetables may also help boost mental health and relieve symptoms of depression.
Generally, water soluble nutrients, like vitamin C and the B vitamins, found mostly in fruits and vegetables, are best eaten raw.
The reason why is two-fold.
First, when these nutrients are heated, they tend to degrade. This is from any heat, be it steaming, boiling, roasting, or frying. Vitamin C and the B vitamins are a bit more “delicate” and susceptible to heat damage than many other nutrients.
To combat these nutrient losses is to eat foods high vitamin C and B vitamins in their raw form (like in an awesome salad) or to cook them for as short a time as possible (like quickly steaming or blanching).
Fun fact: Raw spinach can contain three times the amount of vitamin C as cooked spinach.
The second reason why foods high in vitamin C and the B vitamins are best eaten raw is that they’re “water soluble.” So, guess where the vitamins go when they’re cooked in water? They’re dissolved right into the water. This is particularly true for fruits and veggies that are boiled and poached but even for foods that steamed as well.
Of course, if you’re a savvy health nut, you’ll probably keep that liquid to use in your next soup or sauce to preserve those nutrients that are left after cooking. Just don’t overheat it or you may lose what you were aiming to keep.
How much loss are we talking about? It can go from as low as 15%, up to over 50%.
In short, the water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and the B vitamins degrade with heat and some of what’s left over after they’re heated dissolves into the cooking water. So be sure to cook your fruits and veggies as little as possible and keep that cooking water to use in your next recipe.
Foods rich in Vitamin C: Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cauliflower, Cantaloupe, Citrus fruits, Green and Red peppers, Spinach, Cabbage, Mango, Pineapple, Tomatoes
Foods Rich in B Vitamins: Nuts and seeds, Dark, leafy vegetables, Citrus Fruits, Avocados, Bananas, whole grains. (Other great sources of B-vitamins include meat products, eggs and dairy but I am not about to suggest you eat those raw)
Fun Fact: A cup of chopped red peppers contains nearly 3 times as much vitamin C as an orange. Another example of how a marketing campaign led us to believe something about food that is not accurate. I’ll pause on that thought for now..
Soaking nuts and seeds
Regarding raw nuts and seeds, it may be beneficial to soak them. Soaking nuts and seeds (for several hours at room temperature) allows some of the minerals to become “unlocked” from their chemical structure, so they’re more absorbable.
Foods to Eat Cooked
Cooking certain orange and red “beta-carotene rich” veggies (e.g. tomatoes, carrots, & sweet potatoes) can help make this pre-vitamin A compound more absorbable. Vitamin A is one of the fat-soluble vitamins meaning it needs fat to be absorbed into our system. Sautee in organic grass-fed butter, olive oil or coconut oil to help get the most out of these orange and red veggies.
Fun fact: One study found that absorption of beta-carotene was 6.5 times greater in stir-fried carrots than in raw carrots!
In addition to supplying you with more absorbable beta-carotene, cooked veggies give your body more of certain other antioxidants such are lutein (good for eyes), and lycopene (supports heart and bone health). Cooking vegetables can also give more minerals. Heating releases bound calcium, making of the mineral available for the body to absorb.
For individuals with compromised digestion. Raw vegetables are sometimes not an option. Cooking vegetables makes them more easily digestible even when in some cases nutrients are lost in the process.
One Vegetable That’s Great Eaten Both Raw and Cooked
And I’m not just saying this to get everyone to eat it any way possible (although, I would love for this to happen…unless you’re allergic, of course).
Spinach contains so many beneficial compounds that it’s great eaten both raw and cooked.
Eating raw spinach preserves the water-soluble vitamins C & the B vitamins. Use it for salads, in wraps, as a base for curries instead of rice, or blend it up in smoothies.
Eating spinach cooked allows the pre-vitamin A, as well as some of the minerals like iron and calcium to be better absorbed. Cooked spinach has 245mg/cup of calcium while raw spinach only has 30 mg/cup. That is a significant difference! Spinach also reduces in size when it’s cooked, so it’s easier to eat way more cooked spinach than raw spinach. Add it to soups and stir-fries, in omelettes and stews, or CLICK HERE for a tasty Sauteed spinach side dish recipe.
What About Fresh vs Frozen?
When deciding to purchase you fruits and vegetables fresh vs frozen environmental and geographical factors should be considered. Living in a Canadian climate, not all produce is available to be harvested year-round. Yes, we can find it at our grocery stores. But where did it come from? Every taste a fresh strawberry in the middle of February? You might as well be eating air, completely tasteless.
Seasonal fruits and vegetables bought fresh on the off season we picked somewhere on the other side of the world, packed and shipped 1000’s of miles before reaching our shelves. They are often harvested before they are fully ripened, and the final stages are completed under lights in which not all nutrients become available to us. The nutrient content is based on the stage of ripening on the vine. It comes to a halt as soon as they are picked. The “ripening” that occurs enroute, is somewhat false. The colors may become more vibrant, but the flavor and nutrient value still lacks.
This is exactly when frozen foods are a better choice. The fruits and vegetable can stay on the parent plant until they are fully ripened before harvesting. They are then flash frozen to preserve the maximum amount of nutrients. As a bonus, they are often much more cost effective. No need to break the bank to eat healthy.
The debate may continue. Raw Food advocates may continue to promote the no cooking lifestyle and that’s fine by me. In winter, and for those with compromised digestion, cooking our food may be a preferred choice. The old nutrition philosophy of making sure you get a lot of nutrient-dense whole foods into your diet holds true. Feel free to mix up how you eat them, whether you prefer raw or cooked just make sure you eat them!
Understanding the complex world of nutrition can be exactly that, complex. Different food work differently for different bodies. To gain a better understanding of what foods work best for you and how to prepare them, CLICK HERE to book a free call. Lets have a conversation and create a plan!