We often hear that fruits and vegetables in their raw form are nutritionally superior to cooked produce. But how much truth is behind this claim? The answer is that it varies among different types of vegetables and fruits. In some vegetables and fruits cooking increases nutrition, while in others we see a decline in antioxidant and/or vitamin levels. The chemistry of food and its components can be quite complex, but we can use the basics listed below to optimize nutrient intake.
Certain nutrients will increase with cooking while others will decrease. When people ask this question, I always counter with, “How do you prefer them?” I’d rather someone eat cooked broccoli rather than no broccoli at all. Most Americans do not get the recommended five to nine servings (recommendation depends on age and gender) of fruits and vegetables daily to contribute to a well-rounded diet.
My simple answer is to eat them using preparation methods that help you enjoy the taste, texture and flavor so that you continue to incorporate nutrient-dense plant foods into your diet. Aim to fill half your plate with fruit and vegetables at each meal to reach the recommended number of servings. When it comes to the raw versus cooked debate, the bottom line is to fit fruits and vegetables into your eating regimen any way you can!
These orange-hued roots are high in beta-carotene, an antioxidant that serves as a precursor to vitamin A, which plays a role in vision. Cooking carrots increases carotenoids, so try steaming or boiling them. Roasted carrots have less beta-carotene, but the caramelization and sweet flavor created during the process might please your taste buds more than boiled.
Citrus fruits often steal the show when it comes to immune boosting vitamin C, but peppers contain three times the amount found in oranges! Red and yellow peppers contain more vitamin C than green. Vitamin C can be destroyed with cooking, so munch on slices of bell pepper as a snack and dunk them in hummus for some extra fiber and protein. Peppers also make great toppings for salads, tacos or stuffed in sandwiches.
These fungi are more nutritious when cooked. Mushrooms have thick cell walls and the process of heating helps to release their vitamins and minerals. Some research has shown that raw mushrooms contain small amounts of toxins, which can be destroyed through cooking. Choose a variety of mushrooms such as shiitake, enoki and oyster mushrooms. The compounds within these fungi are being studied for their medicinal properties in regards to cholesterol, immunity and more. When it comes to cooking, choose any method you like — grilled, sauteed or roasted.
Enjoy this dark leafy green raw in salads, smoothies or stuffed in a sandwich. Spinach is a great source of vitamin B9 (folate), which can be significantly reduced when heated or cooked. This nutrient is especially important for women of childbearing age to prevent neural tube defects in children. Folate is found in abundance in many other leafy greens such as kale, collard greens and romaine lettuce. Green smoothies anyone?!
This red fruit is high in vitamin C, which can be destroyed in cooking. On the other hand, lycopene, the main antioxidant found in tomatoes and other red- and pink-hued produce is increased when tomatoes are cooked. Good sources for lycopene include homemade stewed tomatoes, marinara sauce and tomato paste. While ketchup technically has a high lycopene content, it is also high in added sugar (4 grams of sugar per one tablespoon of ketchup), so be careful with serving size as it can add up!