Let’s finally put an end to the debate of raw vs. cooked.
Of course, in the grand scheme of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, varied, whole foods diet, the cooked vs. raw debate isn’t super critical for most people.
Where this can become a consideration is for people with vitamin and mineral deficiencies (or “insufficiencies”). These deficiencies could be due to a number of things like digestion or absorption issues, or avoidance of certain foods (due to allergies, intolerances, or choice).
What I can tell you is that that answer is not as simple as saying “raw is always better” or “cooked is always better.” As is the case with most nutrition science, it is dependent on several factors. Some vitamins are destroyed in the cooking process, while others actually become easier for the body to absorb (a.k.a. more “bioavailable”).
So here it is, the skinny on vitamins and minerals in raw foods versus cooked foods.
Foods to eat raw
In general, water soluble nutrients (think vitamin C and the B vitamins) found mostly in fruits and vegetables, are best eaten raw.
The reason for this is two-fold.
Firstly, when these nutrients are heated in cooking, they tend to degrade; this is from any heat, be it steaming, grilling, roasting, boiling, or frying. Vitamin C and the B vitamins are a little more “delicate” and susceptible to heat than many other nutrients.
Of course, the obvious way to avoid these nutrient losses is to eat foods high vitamin C and B vitamins in their raw form (like in a delicious 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 seems quite simple. It’s because they are ‘”water soluble”. Think about what would happen when these foods are cooked in water..that’s right, they dissolve right into the water! This is particularly true for fruits and veggies that are boiled or poached but can even happen to foods that are steamed as well.
Of course, what you could do is keep that liquid to use in your next soup or sauce to preserve those nutrients that are left after cooking. Just be careful not to overheat it or you may lose what you were aiming to keep.
You’re probably thinking ‘how much are we even talking about here’? Well, it can range from anywhere as low as 15% as numbers as high as 50%, and more!
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. This means you should try 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 red and orange veggies that are high in beta-carotene rich, like tomatoes, carrots & sweet potatoes, 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!
Of course, 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
S P I N A C H!
Now, I’m not just saying this to get everyone eating 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 whether eaten raw or cooked.
By eating spinach raw the raw the water-soluble vitamins C & the B vitamins are preserved.
Eating spinach cooked allows the pre-vitamin A, as well as some of the minerals like iron to be better absorbed. Not to mention how much spinach reduces in size when it’s cooked, so it’s much easier to eat a lot more cooked spinach than raw spinach.
The old nutrition philosophy of making sure you get a lot of nutrient-dense whole foods into your diet remains true. Feel free to mix up how you eat them, whether you prefer raw or cooked just make sure you eat them.
Recipe (cooked spinach): Sauteed Spinach
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 bag baby spinach leaves
1 dash salt
1 dash black pepper
- Heat olive oil in a large cast iron pan.
- Add garlic and saute for 1 minute.
- Add spinach, salt, pepper and toss with garlic and oil.
- Cover pan and cook on low for about 2 minutes.
- Saute cook spinach for another minute, stirring frequently, until all the spinach is wilted.
- Squeeze fresh lemon juice on top.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Enjoying the cooked spinach with the vitamin C in the “raw” lemon juice helps your body absorb more of the iron.