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Is Raw Food Healthier Than Cooked Food?

Cooking
food
can improve its taste, but it also changes the
nutritional content.

Interestingly, some vitamins are lost when food is cooked,
while others become more available for your body to use.

Some claim that eating primarily raw foods is the path to
better health. However, certain cooked foods have clear
nutritional benefits.

This article discusses the benefits of both raw and cooked
foods.

Raw Bell Peppers, Onions and Other Veggies in a Pan

What Is a Raw Food Diet?

Raw foods are foods that have not been cooked or processed.

While there are various types of raw food
diets
, all of them involve eating mostly unheated, uncooked
and unprocessed foods. In general, a raw food diet is made up
of at least 70% raw foods.

The diet often includes fermented foods, sprouted grains, nuts
and seeds, in addition to raw fruits and vegetables.

Many raw foodists consume a vegetarian or vegan
diet
, eliminating animal products and eating mostly raw
plant foods. However, a small number also consume raw dairy
products, fish and even raw meat.

Advocates claim that raw foods are more nutritious than cooked
foods because enzymes, along with some nutrients, are destroyed
in the cooking process. Some believe that cooked food is
actually toxic.

While there are some clear benefits to eating raw fruits and
vegetables, there are also some potential problems with a raw
food diet.

A strict raw food diet is very difficult to follow, and the
number of people that stick to a completely raw diet in the
long term is very small.

Furthermore, some foods contain dangerous bacteria and
microorganisms that are only eliminated by cooking. Eating a
completely raw diet that includes fish and meat comes with a
risk of developing a food-borne illness.

Summary: Raw food diets involve eating
mostly raw fruits and vegetables. Eating raw foods has some
benefits, but there are also potential problems.

Cooking May Destroy Enzymes in Food

Frozen Vegetables

When you consume a food, digestive enzymes in your body help
break it down into molecules that can be absorbed (1).

Fresh foods also contain a variety of enzymes and some people
believe they may aid your digestion.

Enzymes are heat sensitive and deactivate easily when exposed
to high temperatures. In fact, nearly all enzymes are
deactivated at temperatures over 117°F (47°C) (2, 3).

This is one of the primary arguments in favor of raw food
diets. Some people believe that when a food’s enzymes are
altered during the cooking process, more enzymes are required
from your body to digest it.

Proponents of raw food diets claim that this puts stress on
your body and can lead to enzyme deficiency. However, there are
no scientific studies to support this claim.

In fact, plant and animal enzymes play an important role in
their metabolism, but do not help humans digest them.

Furthermore, the human body produces the enzymes necessary to
digest food. And the body absorbs and re-secretes some enzymes,
making it unlikely that digesting food will lead to an enzyme
deficiency (4, 5).

Moreover, science has not yet demonstrated any adverse health
effects of eating cooked foods with denatured enzymes.

Summary: Cooking foods deactivates the
enzymes found in them. However, there is no evidence that
food enzymes contribute to better health.

Some Water-Soluble Vitamins Are Lost in the Cooking Process

Raw foods may be richer in certain nutrients than cooked foods.

Some nutrients are easily deactivated or can leach out of food
during the cooking process. Water-soluble vitamins, such as

vitamin C
and the B vitamins, are particularly susceptible
to being lost during cooking (6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

In fact, boiling vegetables may reduce the content of
water-soluble vitamins by as much as 50–60% (7, 9, 11).

Some minerals and vitamin A are also lost during cooking,
although to a lesser extent. Fat-soluble vitamins D, E and K
are mostly unaffected by cooking.

Boiling results in the greatest loss of nutrients, while other
cooking
methods
more effectively preserve the nutrient content of
food.

Steaming, roasting and stir-frying are some of the best methods
of cooking vegetables when it comes to retaining nutrients
(12, 13, 14, 15).

Lastly, the length of time that a food is exposed to heat
affects its nutrient content. The longer a food is cooked, the
greater the loss of nutrients (9).

Summary: Some nutrients, particularly
water-soluble vitamins, are lost during the cooking process.
Raw fruits and vegetables may contain more nutrients like
vitamin C and B vitamins.

Cooked Food May Be Easier to Chew and Digest

Cauliflower, Tomatoes and Other Vegetables on a Table

Chewing is an important first step in the digestive process.
The act of chewing breaks down large pieces of food into small
particles that can be digested.

Improperly chewed food is much more difficult for the body to
digest and can lead to gas and bloating. Additionally, it
requires significantly more energy and effort to properly chew
raw foods than cooked ones (16).

The process of cooking food breaks down some of its fibers and
plant cell walls, making it easier for the body to digest and
absorb the nutrients (17).

Cooking also generally improves the taste and aroma of food,
which makes it much more enjoyable to eat.

Although the number of raw foodists who consume raw meat is
small, meat is easier to chew and digest when it’s cooked
(18).

Properly cooking grains and legumes
not only improves their digestibility, but it also reduces the
number of anti-nutrients they contain. Anti-nutrients are
compounds that inhibit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients
in plant foods.

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Put simply, some cooked foods may provide the body with more
nutrients than their raw counterparts because they are easier
to chew and digest.

Summary: Cooked foods are easier to chew and
digest than raw foods. Proper digestion is necessary to
absorb a food’s nutrients.

Cooking Increases the Antioxidant Capacity of Some Vegetables

Tomato, Tomato Soup and Basil Leaves

Studies have shown that cooking vegetables increases the
availability of antioxidants like beta-carotene and lutein (19, 20).

Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant that the
body converts into vitamin A.

A diet rich in beta-carotene has been associated with a reduced
risk of heart disease (21).

The antioxidant lycopene is also more easily absorbed by your
body when you get it from cooked foods instead of raw foods
(22).

Lycopene has been associated with a decreased risk
of prostate cancer in men and lower risk of heart disease
(23, 24).

One study found that cooking tomatoes reduced their vitamin C
content by 29%, while their lycopene content more than doubled
within 30 minutes of cooking. Also, the total antioxidant
capacity of the tomatoes increased by over 60% (22).

Another study found that cooking increases the antioxidant
capacity and content of plant compounds found in carrots,
broccoli and zucchini (25).

Antioxidants are important because they protect the body from
harmful molecules called free radicals. A diet rich in
antioxidants is associated with a lower risk of chronic disease
(26).

Summary: Cooking your vegetables may make
certain antioxidants more available to your body than they
are in raw foods.

Cooking Kills off Harmful Bacteria and Microorganisms

It’s better to eat certain foods cooked, as raw versions may
contain harmful bacteria. Cooking food effectively kills
bacteria that may cause food-borne illness (27).

However,
fruits
and vegetables are generally safe to consume raw, as
long as they have not been contaminated.

Spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and raw sprouts are some of the
fruits and vegetables most frequently contaminated by bacteria
(28).

Raw meat, fish, eggs and dairy often contain bacteria that can
make you sick (27, 29).

E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and
Campylobacter are some of the most common bacteria
that may be found in raw foods (30).

Most bacteria cannot survive at temperatures over 140°F (60°C).
This means that cooking effectively kills bacteria and reduces
the risk of food-borne illness (31).

Commercially produced milk is pasteurized, which means it has
been heated to kill any harmful bacteria it may contain
(32).

It is not recommended to consume raw or undercooked meat,
eggs
or dairy. If you do choose to eat these foods raw, make sure
your food is fresh and purchase it from a trusted source
(31).

Summary: Cooking food effectively kills
bacteria that may cause food-borne illnesses. This applies
especially to meat, eggs and dairy.

It May Depend on the Food

Meat, Potatoes and Vegetables on a Plate

Neither a completely raw nor completely cooked diet can be
justified by science.

That’s because both raw and cooked fruits and vegetables have
various health benefits, including a lower risk of chronic
disease (33).

The truth is that whether food should be consumed raw or cooked
may depend on the food.

Here are a few examples of foods that are either healthier raw
or healthier cooked:

Foods That Are Healthier Raw

  • Broccoli: Raw broccoli contains three times
    the amount of sulforaphane, a cancer-fighting plant compound,
    than cooked broccoli does (34, 35).
  • Cabbage: Cooking cabbage destroys the enzyme
    myrosinase, which plays a role in cancer prevention. If you
    choose to cook cabbage, do so for short periods (36).
  • Onions: Raw onion is an anti-platelet agent,
    which contributes to heart disease prevention. Cooking onions
    reduces this beneficial effect (37, 38).
  • Garlic: Sulfur compounds found in raw

    garlic
    have anti-cancer properties. Cooking garlic
    destroys these sulfur compounds (39).

Foods That Are Healthier Cooked

  • Asparagus: Cooking asparagus breaks down its
    fibrous cell walls, making folate
    and vitamins A, C and E more available to be absorbed.
  • Mushrooms: Cooking mushrooms helps degrade
    agaritine, a potential carcinogen found in some
    mushrooms. Cooking also helps release ergothioneine, a powerful mushroom antioxidant
    (40, 41).
  • Spinach: Nutrients like iron, magnesium,
    calcium and zinc are more available for absorption when
    spinach is cooked.
  • Tomatoes: Cooking greatly increases the
    availability of lycopene in tomatoes (22).
  • Carrots: Cooked carrots provide more
    beta-carotene than raw carrots (19).
  • Potatoes: The starch in potatoes is nearly
    indigestible until a potato is cooked.
  • Legumes: Raw or undercooked legumes contain
    antinutrients called lectins. Lectins are eliminated with
    proper soaking and cooking.
  • Meat, fish and poultry: Raw meat, fish and
    poultry may contain bacteria and parasites that can cause
    food-borne illnesses. Cooking these foods kills harmful
    bacteria.

Summary: Some foods are better to eat raw,
and some are healthier when cooked. Eat a combination of
cooked and raw foods for maximum health benefits.

The Bottom Line

Some foods are more nutritious when eaten raw, while others are
more nutritious after being cooked.

However, it’s unnecessary to follow a completely raw diet for
good health.

For the most health benefits, eat a variety of nutritious raw
and cooked foods.

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