Getting the Most from Your Meal: Raw or Cooked?

by Linda Rakos, RD,LD/N
Assistant Director Hospitality Services

For quite some time, a debate has continued over whether raw or cooked foods are better. Raw has often been claimed the victor, but experts say it depends on the food. For some food, cooking brings its health benefits. Some nutrients, such as minerals like calcium and zinc won’t decay much when cooked. But others, particularly vitamin C and B vitamins which dissolve in water, are reduced with cooking. Here are a few examples of food you may eat, and some tips on how to eat them.

Tomatoes are full of several good agents: vitamin C; folate, a promoter of healthy cell growth, and lycopene, an antioxidant that may inhibit prostate, breast, lung, and endometrial cancer cells. Both vitamin C and folate are preserved best without heat; however, cooked tomatoes contain three to four times more lycopene than raw ones. Lycopene is locked in the fiber of vegetables, and cooking releases it. Lycopene is difficult to find in other foods, so if you want the health benefits of lycopene you should eat your tomatoes cooked.

What about fish? Fish packs a lot of protein and selenium, a mineral important in immune function that may even have an anti-aging effect. And some fish, like tuna and salmon are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids, which often ease inflammation. Sushi and sashimi fans may enjoy their raw fish delicacies, but they get no extra nutritional benefits by going raw rather than cooked. They do face an added risk since raw fish increases the risk of ingesting harmful bacteria and parasites. Cooking destroys most bacteria and parasites in fish, without disturbing the protein or omega-3’s. Stick with cooked fish especially if you have an immune deficiency, which increase the risk of potential ill effects from fish.

And finally, let’s look at garlic. Garlic also contains compounds that may have anti-cancer properties. It is hard to determine the exact role a food may have against cancer, and eating large amounts of garlic may even lead to irritation of the digestive tract. But if you are one of the many people who enjoy garlic as a flavor enhancer in your food, it is possible that raw garlic provides more of those anti-cancer properties than cooked. Cooked garlic may be less pungent and therefore easier to consume, especially if you may be “queasy” from certain medications. But, take note: unless the herb is chopped or crushed and allowed to stand for at least 10 minutes before cooking, heat may destroy much of the enzyme that unlocks garlic’s cancer-fighting compounds. It’s your preference, but researchers do recommend that if you cook it, you crush it and let it sit while you prep other food.

So, what is the verdict on raw vs. cooked foods? Well, as the old adage goes, variety is the spice of life!