The debate has raged on for decades, should we be eating more raw or cooked foods, which are better for our health? We try to unpick the arguments.
Raw Foods: Definition
By definition, a raw food is a food that is not heated beyond 50°C. “Raw foodists” believe that higher temperatures destroy the naturally occurring enzymes and nutrients in the foods we eat, thereby preventing the body from obtaining all the health benefits from that food.
Typical raw foods include:
- sprouted whole grains and sprouted seeds
- fermented foods (miso and sauerkraut)
- raw (unpasteurized) dairy or cheese
- raw fish
Because there is no “conventional” cooking, food preparation equipment tends to include food processors, blenders and food dehydrators, which you can use to make fruit rolls or dehydrated vegetable “chips”.
What are the benefits?
A high intake of plant foods (particularly the minimally processed type) is associated with lower risk of certain types of cancers. Raw foods, such as nuts, seeds and sprouted grains, are are nutrient-dense as well as high in healthy fats and fibre. Sprouting grains and seeds have been shown to improve the bioavailability of some nutrients. The use of fermented foods means regular consumption of probiotics, or good bacteria, which help maintain the right balance of healthy flora in the gut.
What do researchers say?
Raw food supporters believe that humans need to eat raw foods to obtain the optimal benefits from naturally occurring enzymes in these foods. However, the enzymes contained in raw foods are denatured by the hydrochloric acid produced by the stomach once the food enters your stomach, raw or cooked.
While it’s true that applying heat to foods can destroy or reduce the level of some nutrients, such as water-soluble vitamins, antioxidants and some unsaturated fats, other nutrients actually become more bioavailable (better absorbed by the body) once the food is cooked.
For example, lycopene in tomatoes and biotin in eggs are more available to your body once the food is cooked.
Herbs and Spices
Besides adding flavour to the foods we eat, herbs and spices also contribute antioxidants. Simmering, soup making and stewing appear to increase antioxidant capacity, while grilling and stir-frying decrease antioxidant capacity. Freezing herbs and keeping pureed herbs refrigerated was also shown to increase antioxidant capacity, but keeping them in a vinegary form (such as vinaigrette) decreased it.
Try including some of these beneficial herbs and spices to your cooking:
So should you cook or go raw?
While there is no single superior cooking method, most studies show that using less cooking liquid and/or shorter cooking times helps improve retention of phytonutrients. Therefore, instead of boiling, consider methods such as steaming, blanching, stir-frying, or microwaving. Of course, there are recipes for which boiling still makes sense, such as soups, because you will consume the cooking liquid as part of the finished dish.
Rather than overanalyzing, it is best to consume a wide variety of plant foods prepared in many different ways. Foods should be enjoyable, so prepare fruits and veggies the way you like them and consume them regularly.