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Two pairs of hands hold chopped Brussels sprouts and cauliflower over a saucepan and roasting pan, which are both steaming on top of an active stove.

To cook or not to cook? That is the question.

Looking at all these newly-bought vegetables recently on my kitchen counter, I wondered what I was going to do with them.

To cook or not to cook vegetables?

I’d chosen the red, yellow and green variety which are good for our eyes. Then I remembered something about certain vegetables being better for us raw, rather than cooked.

Well, we all know vegetables are good for us in any state, and it’s important to eat them – lots of them! But I wanted to check up on this little puzzle of whether to cook or not to cook. I’d just bought some quite expensive vegetables and I wanted to get the best out of them.

It's complicated

What I found out is not straightforward. Some vegetables are better cooked, some are better raw, and some have different benefits for us, depending on whether they’re cooked or raw.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are good for us no matter which way we eat them. When they’re cooked, they release more of the antioxidant, lycopene which decreases our risk of heart disease and certain cancers. The cell walls are broken down by cooking and then our bodies can absorb this lycopene more easily. If we add a small amount of olive oil when cooking the absorption of lycopene can be further increased. Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce are also good sources of lycopene.1

Unfortunately, cooking reduces the level of vitamin C available, so eating raw tomatoes some of the time can give you that extra vitamin C.1

Spinach

Spinach is a good source of beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are helpful for our eyes. The Vegetarian Times states that cooking spinach breaks down cell walls and makes lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta carotene more absorbable by our bodies. Cooking also reduces the oxalic acid content of spinach which blocks our absorption of iron and calcium. It also increases the availability of vitamins A and E, as well as zinc, calcium, and iron. Lightly steaming spinach seems to be the cooking method most recommended, however, a quick blanching is also favoured by some nutritionists.

On the other hand, some vitamins, including vitamin C, are more available in raw spinach.

Kale

According to the USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory, cooking kale increases its levels of vitamin A, K, and beta-carotene. Calcium is more easily absorbed from cooked kale but this cooking reduces the vitamin C levels.

Try lightly steaming Kale in order to get the most vitamin A, K, and beta-carotene for our eye health.

White mushrooms

When white mushrooms are cooked, they have about twice the amount of zinc. They also have more vitamin A when they are lightly cooked.

Broccoli and cauliflower

Broccoli and cauliflower are vegetables, which have certain benefits for us when cooked, and certain benefits when raw. When eaten raw, they can have a cancer-fighting effect on our bodies, but raw broccoli and cauliflower are difficult for many people to digest. Have a little bit raw if you can. Chopping them up finely in a salad is one way to go.

Lightly steaming broccoli and cauliflower breaks down the fibers that are hard on our digestion and helps these vegetables retain their vitamin C. It may also boost the available antioxidants according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Brussel Sprouts

Brussel sprouts are a good source of vitamin K-1 and calcium. The vitamin C in brussel sprouts can be reduced by cooking, but hey, who can eat brussel sprouts raw? Try lightly steaming or roasting brussel sprouts.

Carrots

If we want to absorb the anti-oxidant, beta carotene from carrots, they need to be cooked. This breaks down the tough cell walls where the beta carotene is stored. Most of this is stored just below the skin, so giving the carrots a good scrub, rather than peeling them, is the way to go.

Bell peppers or Capsicum

Red, yellow, and orange peppers are simply ripened green peppers. These ripened ones each have their own nutritional advantages.

The red pepper contains the most vitamin A, vitamin C, and beta-carotene. It has even more vitamin C than citrus fruit. The yellow ones have lots of carotenoids. The green peppers, however, have the highest amount of lutein.

You do lose some vitamin C when you cook red bell peppers, but antioxidants like carotenoids become more available with cooking. Heat breaks down the cell walls, which makes the carotenoids easier for your body to absorb. If we’re eating peppers for our eyes, stir-frying and roasting appear to be better. But bell peppers are good for us raw, too, so have some raw in salads too.

Caution

Before we eat too much of any vegetable, we should check it out against any other health issues we may have, or medications we are taking. Brussel sprouts, for example, contain high amounts of vitamin K, which can prevent blood thinners from working properly and high amounts of oxalic acid aren’t good for our kidneys.

So now I’ve discovered there is no simple answer to the question “To cook, or not to cook?” Some of my veggies will be going into salads (well, it is summer down-under) and some will be steamed. I think the quick blanching method is worth trying too.

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