There’s an ongoing debate regarding raw vs cooked food that’s still causing controversy. Truth be told, some foods taste better raw, while others are more flavorful and palatable when cooked. So how should you eat your food for better health? Raw or cooked?
It is well known cooking food can lower the level of some vitamins while increasing the availability of others. But the proponents of the raw-food diet are still convinced that eating mostly uncooked, unheated and unprocessed raw foods is healthier.
Before we join the raw vs cooked food debate, I feel compelled to mention I’m not in either camp, and I usually enjoy foods in both states. And truthfully, the answer is a bit more complicated than a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
How Does The Raw Food Diet Work?
Most raw food diets are made up of at least 70% raw foods. These include raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fermented foods among others.
A small percentage of raw foodists even consume raw dairy products, and even fewer raw fish and meat.
The typical claim is that cooking destroys enzymes and various nutrients and raw foods are more nutritious. Truth be told, it can be hard to follow such a strict diet, which is why only a few people are able to stick to it in the long term.
Potential Risks Of Eating Raw Foods Only
While there is some risk of bacterial contamination when eating uncooked fruits and veggies, it is even higher for raw fish and meat. Not to say it would be life-threatening to adopt such a lifestyle, but the potential risks must be taken into consideration and the food sources also must be chosen carefully.
What happens to food during cooking?
Raw foods typically contain enzymes that can help digestion. These enzymes are very sensitive to heat and are lost during the cooking process. While raw foodists claim that eating cooked foods will force your body to produce more enzymes for digestion which can be detrimental to your health, scientific research hasn’t been able to support this.
Apparently, our bodies are quite good at producing the enzymes needed to digest food, and some of them are even absorbed and re-secreted.
Nevertheless, some nutrients are partially lost during the cooking process, especially water-soluble vitamins such as C and B. Vitamin A and some minerals are less affected by cooking and it looks like cooking doesn’t destroy fat-soluble vitamins such as D, E and K.
Also, the greatest loss of nutrients is caused by boiling, while other cooking methods such as steaming, stir-frying and roasting are more efficient at retaining nutrients. The cooking time also affects the resulted food’s nutrient content – the longer a food is exposed to heat the greater the loss of vitamins and minerals.
To conclude, vitamins C and B, as well as other water-soluble vitamins are found in higher levels in raw foods, so this is where you should be getting them from.
The Benefits Of Cooking Food
Despite the loss of nutrients, cooking makes foods both easier to chew and to digest, which ultimately helps the body digest and absorb the nutrients more efficiently. Furthermore, grains and legumes contain various anti-nutrients (compounds that make various nutrients less available to our bodies) and they are greatly reduced if they’re properly cooked.
Interestingly, cooking vegetables makes antioxidants such as lutein, lycopene, and beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) more available to the body.
Furthermore, cooking destroys harmful microorganisms and bacteria found in certain foods, efficiently preventing food-born illness. The risk of bacterial contamination is greater for raw meat, eggs, fish, and dairy, but also for plants such as tomatoes, lettuce, and spinach.
The easiest way to reduce the risks of food-born illness is by either cooking foods or purchasing them from trusted sources.
Since some foods are healthier cooked, while others are better for us when consumed raw, the bottom line is we should eat a combination of both. Here are two handy lists – one with foods best eaten raw, and another with foods you should be eating cooked.
Foods You Should Be Eating Raw
- Garlic – Cooking destroys garlic’s sulfur compounds that are known to have anti-cancer properties.
- Onions – Raw onion is a natural anti-platelet agent that helps prevent cardiovascular disease and cooking onions significantly reduces this effect.
- Cabbage – Cabbage contains an enzyme myrosinase that has anti-cancer properties. The enzyme is very heat sensitive and easily destroyed by cooking.
- Broccoli – This wonderful superfood also has cancer-fighting properties and while eating it completely raw is unappealing for most people, you can just lightly steam it to retain as many of its health benefits as possible.
Foods You Should Be Eating Cooked
- Carrots – The beta-carotene content in carrots is significantly increased during the cooking process.
- Tomatoes – Cooking them increases the antioxidant lycopene.
- Mushrooms – Mushrooms contain a potential carcinogen called agaritine, but also an antioxidant known as ergothioneine. Cooking them will degrade agaritine and increase the content of ergothioneine.
- Spinach – Cooked spinach contains more calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium than raw spinach.
- Potatoes – While it might seem like a no-brainer, the starch in potatoes cannot be properly digested unless they are cooked.
- Meat – Cooking meat destroys harmful bacteria that may cause food-born illnesses. The same goes for poultry and fish.
- Legumes – Legumes naturally contain toxins called lectins, but they can be removed when they are properly soaked and cooked.
As you can see the raw vs cooked food debate is not all black & white. Some foods need to be cooked for both hygiene reasons and health benefits, while others are not just safe to consume raw, but also more healthy. For this reason, our main focus should be to ensure we eat a variety of foods in both raw and cooked forms to get the best of both worlds.