For years we have been told, time after time, that vegetables ought to be eaten raw because only in this way do they preserve their nutrients, being vegetables healtier raw than cooked. So, for years we have been stuffing ourselves with salad, tomatoes, carrots and celery without daring to go anywhere near a steamer or a saucepan. But are vegetables healtier raw or cooked? Well, today, we are about to explode the great cooking myth regarding the supposed superiority of raw vegetables.
There is basically one reason underlying the belief that raw vegetables are to be preferred: cooking, in one way or another, tends to eliminate most food nutrients. One might answer by saying “it depends on the vegetable and the way it is cooked”, but generally speaking it is not true at all. Besides, in many cases, as we are about to see, it is better for vegetables to be cooked.
The myth regarding the consumption of raw vegetables springs from the fact that excessive cooking does indeed tend to reduce the content of certain vitamins, such as those of the B and C groups. So, in order to avoid overcooking a vegetable, it is preferable to eat it raw. That of broccoli is a typical example. This fabulous vegetable is rightly considered a super-food, being rich in sulforaphane, a molecule endowed with anti-tumour properties. If broccoli is boiled excessively until tender, the action of the sulforaphane it contains will be neutralized and it is for this reason that its raw consumption is recommended. For many of us, however, this is not exactly a sublime experience so researchers recommend a rapid cooking method that keeps the vegetable crisp. In this way, the properties of the broccoli remain intact and the palate is gratified by a delicious plate of broccoli, pan-tossed in garlic and olive oil!
On the other hand, there are some vegetables, would you believe, which are better for you when cooked. Among the offenders, there are two which are particularly dear to raw foodists: carrots and tomatoes. Cooked tomatoes have approximately 35% more lycopene, an extremely powerful antioxidant and anti-tumour agent. The heat actually helps break down the cell walls, which releases the precious substance. Similarly, it is better to cook carrots in order to preserve the strength of carotenoids, another type of antioxidant that is good for our health. Obviously, as we said earlier, it is always a question of “how” vegetables are cooked. Frying, for instance, involves cooking at very high temperatures, albeit for no more than a few minutes, and undermines the nutrients of most foods. Of course, this does not mean we have to give up eating delicious fried zucchini, but those wishing to preserve food nutrients intact should opt for steaming or boiling vegetables rapidly in plenty of water.
I would like to conclude this article by exploding a myth within the myth: that raw vegetables are more digestible because they preserve their enzymes and so limit the use of those in the body. Obviously, this is not true: vegetable enzymes are deactivated as soon as digestion starts and, in any case, are very different from those needed to digest them inside the body. Furthermore, as already explained above, heat helps break down the cell walls, making most cooked vegetables more digestible than raw ones.