Raw foodism goes back to the 1800s, when one of the first supporters, Swiss-born doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner, claimed that eating raw apples helped cure his mild jaundice. He then started conducting experiments with raw food and opened a dietetics clinic to relay his message to anyone who would listen. Today, the raw food diet still has a following, but more people are asking about one component of it: Are raw vegetables healthier than their cooked counterparts? Let’s explore:
Why go raw?
The theory behind eating raw foods is that food contains natural enzymes that are destroyed when they’re cooked above 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Further, vitamins and phytonutrients (plant chemicals that help fight and prevent disease), are also destroyed. In some cases, eating the vegetable in their raw form can provide higher amounts of a nutrient.
For example, vitamin C is easily destroyed by heat. Vegetables including peppers, green leafy vegetables (like kale) and broccoli are all packed with vitamin C, which is diminished when cooked. The same goes for B vitamins such as biotin, thiamin, niacin and riboflavin. Although they aren’t found in very high doses in vegetables, they too are destroyed when exposed to heat.
Then, there are krauts like sauerkraut. Live and active cultures that often function as probiotics are found in these fermented foods, but exposing them to heat will destroy these good bacteria.
Lastly, if you look at the whole picture of the nutritional status of raw foodies, you’ll find an interesting one. A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition, for one,found that folks who were on a raw food diet for a long period of time had a relatively high level of beta-carotene and normal levels of vitamin A. However, the study also found that they had low levels of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. This goes to show it’s really all a balancing act and that cooked foods do have their advantage as well.
What are the advantages of cooked?
The idea that cooking food could give it more nutrients than eating it raw was first recognized in 2002, when a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that cooking tomatoes caused them to release lycopene. Heating tomatoes at 190.4 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, the researchers found, increased the amount of lycopene by a whopping 25 percent. That’s no small benefit, since lycopene has been found to help reduce the risk of heart disease, macular degeneration (a degenerative eye disease) and cancer.
Carrots also have more nutrients when they’re cooked. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistryfound that cooked carrots had higher amounts of carotenoids and vitamin C than raw carrots. Immediately after being cooked, the carrots’ antioxidant content also went up by a whopping 34.3 percent.
Another study published in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology determined that cooking asparagus increased several natural phytochemicals, including quercetin, lutein and zeaxanthin. The antioxidant quercetin helps fight inflammation and may help prevent certain types of cancer and protect the heart. Lutein, another antioxidant, helps keep eyes, skin and the heart healthy, and is thought to help protect against breast cancer. The antioxidant zeaxanthin has also been shown to help protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration.
Mushrooms also have higher amounts of nutrients when cooked (although they’re technically a fungi, not a vegetable). The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database reports cooked mushrooms have higher amounts of potassium, zinc and niacin than their fresh counterparts.
It’s also well known that leafy greens like spinach and kale contain both calcium and iron. In their raw state, a natural compound called oxalic acid blocks the ability for the body to absorb these important nutrients. When cooked, however, the heat breaks down the oxalic acid so your body can absorb these minerals.
Both raw and cooked vegetables are great for you. To reap the most nutritional benefits, your best bet is to eat a healthy mix of each.
Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report
Related video: Are Frozen Vegetables More Nutritious Than Fresh
(Provided by Food & Wine)