Let’s put an end finally to the debate of eating raw vs. cooked foods.
In the grand scheme of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, varied, whole foods diet, the raw vs. cooked debate isn’t that critical for most people.
It may become a consideration, however, in regard to vitamin and mineral deficiencies (or “insufficiencies”). These may be due to digestion or absorption issues, or avoidance of certain foods (due to allergies, intolerances, or choice).
The answer isn’t as simple as “raw is always better” or “cooked is always better.” As with most nutrition science, it depends on several factors. Some vitamins are destroyed in cooking, while others become easier to absorb (more “bioavailable”).
So here’s the skinny on vitamins and minerals in raw foods versus cooked foods.
Foods to Eat Raw
As a general rule, 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 occurs 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 than many other nutrients.
Of course, the obvious way to combat this nutrient loss is to eat foods high in vitamin C and B vitamins in their raw form (in an awesome salad, for instance) or to cook them for as short a time as possible (such as 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?
Yes, they dissolve right into the water; this is particularly true for fruits and veggies that are boiled and poached but even for foods that are steamed as well.
If you’re a savvy health nut, you’ll probably keep that liquid to use in your next soup or sauce in order to preserve those nutrients that remain after cooking. Only don’t overheat your soup or sauce because you may lose what you were aiming to keep.
But, how much loss are we talking about? It ranges and can go from as low as 15% to over 50%.
In short, the water soluble vitamins, such as 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.
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 (tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes, for example) can help make this pre-vitamin A compound more absorbable.
Fun fact: One study found that absorption of beta-carotene was 6.5 times greater in stir-fried carrots than in raw carrots!
Eating your fat-soluble vitamins with a bit of fat will help you to absorb more of them, so that’s one factor to consider.
One Vegetable that’s Best 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 is great eaten both raw and cooked.
Eating raw spinach preserves the water-soluble vitamins C & the B vitamins.
Eating spinach cooked allows the pre-vitamin A, as well as some of the minerals like iron to be better absorbed. Because of how much spinach reduces in size when it’s cooked, it’s easier to eat way more cooked spinach than raw spinach.
So in conclusion, 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, only please make sure you eat them.