You might have heard by now that cooking will destroy your food’s nutrients. There is an intense debate on both sides that show valid arguments for and against cooking your food. So what’s the real answer? Whether you boil, fry, steam, bake, or microwave your food, some nutrients are going to be destroyed. However, does the amount of nutrients that are destroyed outweigh the benefits that cooking our food provides?
Cooked Food is Toxic
This is the claim made by raw-foodists. They believe that eating a raw food diet improves mental and physical health. By cooking food, they say that enzymes are destroyed, and the molecular structure of the food is altered. Is this true? Let’s look at a study in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology:
To clarify the cooking losses of minerals (sodium, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, copper), various food materials were analyzed before and after cooking, and the following results were obtained. (1) The mineral contents of cooked foods in mass cooking were on an average about 60-70 percent of those in raw or uncooked foods. (2) Cooking losses were particularly high in minerals of vegetables. (3) Among various cooking methods, loss of mineral was largest in squeezing after boil and in soaking in water after thin slice, followed by parching, frying and stewing. (4) Cooking losses of minerals in meals cooked in home brought about the similar results as those by the mass cooking procedures. (5) The measures to prevent cooking loss are (a) eating the boiled food with the soup, (b) addition of small amount of salt (about 1% NaCl) in boiling, (c) avoidance of too much boiling, (d) selection of a cooking method causing less mineral loss (stewing, frying or parching).
This study clearly shows that cooking your food will destroy about 1/3 of the minerals that were tested, and that the amount of nutrients that are destroyed is dependent on the cooking method.
Cooking Food Improves Its Digestibility
Some studies show that cooking actually enhances the nutritional value of food. Take this study for example that was published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry:
The raw tomato had 2.01 ± 0.04 mg of trans-lycopene/g of tomato. After 2, 15, and 30 min of heating at 88 °C, the trans-lycopene content had increased to 3.11± 0.04, 5.45 ± 0.02, and 5.32 ± 0.05 mg of trans-lycopene/g of tomato (p < 0.01). The antioxidant activity of raw tomatoes was 4.13 ± 0.36 μmol of vitamin C equiv/g of tomato. With heat treatment at 88 °C for 2, 15, and 30 min, the total antioxidant activity significantly increased to 5.29 ± 0.26, 5.53 ± 0.24, and 6.70 ± 0.25 μmol of vitamin C equiv/g of tomato, respectively (p < 0.01). There were no significant changes in either total phenolics or total flavonoids. These findings indicate thermal processing enhanced the nutritional value of tomatoes by increasing the bioaccessible lycopene content and total antioxidant activity and are against the notion that processed fruits and vegetables have lower nutritional value than fresh produce.
This study shows that the antioxidant bioavailability in raw tomatoes was increased by cooking. Specifically, they looked at lycopene – a red pigmented antioxidant that has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Is Cooking Food Unhealthy
There are obviously valid points for and against cooking your food. There are also extremes on both sides. There are some raw-foodists that are purists – meaning they will not eat anything that is cooked. There are some that try to get the majority of their food intake from raw sources, and then there are those that don’t worry about it, and just cook what needs to be cooked for that particular meal. I personally fall in the latter category, and here’s why.
It’s easy to get caught up in the details of your diet. While nutrients are going to be lost through cooking, eating a nutrient dense diet of whole foods will still provide you will more than enough vitamins and minerals for optimal body function. I will certainly avoid certain cooking methods, like frying – which has been shown time and time again to not only destroy nutrients, but also create carcinogens.
However, I’m not going to stress about the temperatures that I cook my food at or whether it should be cooked at all. Everyone can agree that whether or not you eat a vegetable raw or cooked, it’s still better than eating no vegetables at all. Whether cooked or not, it has been proven time and time again that fruits and vegetables are healthy and help reduce the risk of disease.
Avoid processed foods, exercise frequently, work on good mental health, and don’t worry so much about the minute details. They can be an interesting read, but can sidetrack you from the big picture.
Tips For Keeping Your Food Nutritious
As you dive deeper into the research of cooking your food and whether or not it’s healthy for you, you begin to notice a few patterns taking effect that fit the profiles of both arguments. Here are a few tips you can follow that will help prevent the nutrient loss of your food.
- Do not overcook your food. Excessive heating is directly correlated with nutrient loss.
- Cooking time and temperature are the two biggest factors for nutrient loss. Keep them on the low side.
- Eat your meat rare or medium-rare. The National Cancer Institute has shown a 1/3 less risk of stomach cancer than those who ate beef medium-well or well-done .
- Avoid frying your food at all costs.
- Use as little water as possible when cooking. Water leaches minerals and vitamins – especially water soluble ones.
- Cook vegetables soon after cutting. Prolonged air exposure destroys many vitamins.
- Water, heat, air, and light are the 4 biggest natural elements that affect nutrient content. All should be minimized.
Follow these tips once you have the bigger picture in place. Once you’ve changed your lifestyle to include whole foods, and have incorporated exercise into your daily life, then you can start delving into the intricacies of your diet. Until then, focus on cutting out processed foods, drinking water, and getting active.
What do you think? Do you cook the majority of your food? Will these studies influence how you handle your food preparation?