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Raw or cooked? Health advocates on either side could argue until the grass-fed cows come home. But while no dogma may either be proven as the best diet, scientists have identified certain foods that are more nutritionally-available to our bodies if they are cooked—versus those that should be eaten raw. Read on to find out what foods to cook for optimal nutrition absorption, and which to consume raw.

Foods to Eat Cooked

Carotenoid-rich foods: The most well-known source of the carotenoid lycopene is the tomato which benefits our health by reducing rates of heart disease and cancer (especially prostate cancer in men). Lycopene becomes stronger in concentration and bioavailability the more it is cooked, which is why doctors recommend getting your intake of it from cooked tomato products like tomato sauce, tomato pasta and tomato juice. Just make sure it’s not from a can.  

Other carotenoids found in orange-hued vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes also become more bioavailable when cooked. Make a better mashed potato for dinner by pureeing carrots and sweet potatoes together with a drizzle of almond milk. 

Foods with anti-nutrients: It’s funny to use the term “anti-nutrient” when describing any fruit or vegetable, but it’s true. Spinach, beans and grains all have certain chemicals that inhibit the absorption of other nutrients when eaten, by means of binding to those nutrients in our body and “taking them away” from us to use. Usually, with beans and grains the difference is negligible, since we always cook those foods (or sprout them!), but not so with spinach. Raw spinach contains oxalic acid, which inhibits our bodie’s ability to absorb iron and calcium, and even takes those nutrients out of our body during digestion. Cooking spinach leaches out those anti-nutrients and allows our bodies to better utilize all nutrients.

Foods to Eat Raw

Heat-sensitive nutrients: While carotenoids and some other nutrients become more bioavailable when cooked, others are simply destroyed by heat, namely vitamin C, vitamin B and folate. Fresh berries in particular have been documented to lose their powerful antioxidant concentration when exposed to heat. Enjoy your blueberry crisp for a sweet summer treat, but also have a fresh blueberry smoothie in the morning for your antioxidant fix. 

Cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cabbage and the like—may also be more nutritious when eaten raw. They contain nutrients called isothiocyanates (the same chemicals that make broccoli smell sulphuric) that are thought to be responsible for the incredible cancer-fighting properties of these foods. When exposed to heat, like boiling, those nutrients are cooked away and are drastically lower. Enjoy your cabbage freshly grated into a slaw, and have your broccoli lightly steamed in very little water if you just can’t stomach it raw.

Image: Geoff Peters 604