Raw vs. cooked foods– which is better? The raw foodies will tell you that it’s healthier to eat foods raw. It’s true that eating certain foods raw preserves more of the vitamins that are easily destroyed by heat, such as vitamin C and some B vitamins. But, there are certain foods that you should always cook or will derive more health benefits if you expose them to heat. Here are six you should know about.
Meat and Eggs
It goes without saying that you should thoroughly cook meat and eggs to reduce your risk of foodborne illness. In fact, meat should reach a temperature of 165 degrees F. to be safe to put on the table. Chicken is commonly contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella and Campylobacter, and the only way to make it not a threat is to thoroughly cook it. The same applies to all meat you put on the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table. Also, never wash chicken before cooking it as washing it can contaminate your kitchen with bacteria from the chicken.
You also need to cook eggs, as they can carry salmonella. What few people realize is raw eggs contain two proteins that block nutrient absorption. One is avidin, a protein that reduces the absorption of biotin, a type of B-vitamin. Conalbumin interferes with the ability of your digestive tract to take up iron. So, eating raw eggs could make you sick or even lead to a deficiency of iron or biotin. Fortunately, cooking inactivates these proteins.
Whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but always cook them before adding them to your plate. Grains contain phytic acid, a substance that reduces the absorption of iron and zinc when you consume it at a meal. Once phytic acid reaches the intestinal tract, it binds to iron and zinc so that these minerals are excreted rather than absorbed. Fortunately, heat destroys almost half of the phytic acid in whole grains. So, to maximize the minerals you get from the grains you eat, cook them beforehand. Soaking, fermenting, sprouting, and processing also reduces phytic acid.
Another way to maximize nutrient absorption when you eat whole grains is to consume them with a source of vitamin C. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of some minerals, particularly iron. Citrus fruits are not the only good source of this antioxidant vitamin. Kiwifruit, guava, strawberries, papaya, parsley, and lemon juice are other excellent sources of vitamin C. How about a squirt of lemon juice on that bowl of quinoa or barley?
Beans aren’t food you want to munch on raw, but who would want to? You could break a tooth biting into a raw bean! Beans contain toxic compounds called phytohemagglutinins, a type of lectin. Red and white kidney beans are the most concentrated source of phytohemagglutinins, so make sure you cook them thoroughly. The safest way to prepare them is to boil them for at least 30 minutes. Cooking beans in a slow cooker is risky as they may not reach a high enough temperature to destroy most of these toxic compounds.
What happens if you eat raw kidney beans? As little as five raw kidney beans can cause unpleasant symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. But, don’t ignore kidney beans or other beans. They’re a rich source of a B-vitamin called folate, plant-based protein, iron, and fiber. Just make sure they’re well cooked!
Hopefully, you don’t have a hankering for raw potatoes! Potatoes contain a variety of anti-nutrients, including protease inhibitors, lectins, and saponins. Some sources believe the saponins in potatoes are irritating to the lining of the small intestinal tract. They believe saponins have properties similar to a soap or detergent and can disrupt the delicate microvilli in the small intestinal tract that absorb nutrients. Plus, lectins and protease inhibitors reduce the absorption of minerals. On the plus side, most of the anti-nutrients are in the skin of the potato, so you can remove them by peeling them.
Another reason not to eat raw potatoes – when potatoes are uncooked they have higher levels of alkaloids that can be toxic at high concentrations. Plus, the starch in uncooked potatoes is difficult to digest. So, make sure the potatoes you eat are cooked.
You often hear that raw vegetables are better for you but there are exceptions. For example, cooking increases the quantity of beta-carotene you absorb from carrots. That’s because heat releases this nutrient, so your body can better absorb and use it. To enhance absorption of beta-carotene, even more, add a source of healthy fat, such as olive oil to your carrots.
Tomatoes are another vegetable that packs more nutritional punch when you cook them. Tomatoes contain a heart-healthy compound called lycopene. Your body best absorbs lycopene from cooked or processed tomatoes, not raw. So, get your lycopene from sautéed, baked, or stewed tomatoes or from tomato sauce or ketchup.
Asparagus is another veggie you can best enjoy heated. That’s because you’ll absorb more of the vitamins, including vitamins A, E, and K from asparagus when you cook it. But, don’t overdo it. High heat, lots of water, and cooking for a long period of time can reduce its nutritional content.
Mushrooms are a fungus with surprising health benefits. This versatile food contains a variety of phytochemicals and also contain B-vitamins, fiber, potassium, and selenium. On the downside, mushrooms contain chemicals called hydrazines that are potentially carcinogenic. Fortunately, cooking destroys them. By cooking them, you can enjoy their health benefits without significant exposure to hydrazines.
The Bottom Line
Raw versus cooked? It depends on the food. There is a place for raw foods in your diet. Consuming certain vegetables raw means you get more vitamin C since vitamin C is easily destroyed by heat and light. But, other vegetables and foods, it’s best to cook. Now, you know which ones.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Chicken and Food Poisoning”
Precision Nutrition. “Phytates and phytic acid.”
Journal of Food Composition and Analysis. Volume 22, Issue 6, September 2009, Pages 494-502.