Cooking can destroy some of the nutrient properties of vegetables, but do you know that some vegetables actually improve nutritionally when they are cooked?
Tomatoes are a good example. The most important nutrient in tomatoes is lycopene, an antioxidant generally believed to decrease the risk of some cancers, particularly prostate cancer. But the lycopene in raw tomatoes is difficult for the body to absorb.
When you cook tomatoes, however, you break down the vegetable’s tough cell walls, releasing more lycopene and making it much easier for our body to absorb it. Tomato sauce has about four times the useable amount of lycopene as raw tomatoes.
Other vegetables that improve nutritionally with cooking include spinach, carrots, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes.
While cooking improves these vegetables, most vegetables lose nutrition with cooking; especially the water-soluble B and C vitamins are degraded. In general, the higher the temperature and the longer the cooking time, the more the nutritional loss.
You might be surprised to know that if you had to choose one best way to cook vegetables, it would be by microwave. This method may have a bad reputation, but it is undeserved. The advantage of the microwave is that it is fast, meaning less time at high temperatures destroying nutrients.
Avoid microwaving cauliflower though, as it looses nutrition by this method, and perhaps the most important thing to know about the microwave is to ONLY use plastics and containers inside the microwave that are guaranteed “microwave safe”. Most plastics and take-out containers are NOT safe, and if you use them to hold your food, you will be liberating carcinogenic chemicals into your food, which over years could cause problems.
Safest to cook in glass or ceramics with specific labeling that says “microwave safe” (a “recyclable” symbol does not mean microwave safe). If you want to prevent the vegetables from drying out, put a damp piece of white paper towel on top of them before cooking.
The Bottom Line
There is no one ideal way to cook vegetables, because one method can decrease one nutrient and improve the absorption of another nutrient. For example, carrots are one of the few vegetables that do well with boiling, which raises its carotene levels. But boiling destroys the important polyphenol antioxidants.
So the best idea is to:
1) Eat a variety of different colored vegetables each day. It’s fine to eat some raw and some cooked.
2) Vary the way you cook them, and use your taste as a guide. Which way tastes best to you? Probably for you, that is the best method, because you will actually eat those vegetables regularly, which is the most important point.
3) Whatever way you cook vegetables, consider mixing in a little olive oil after cooking, because your body will be better absorb the fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients that way. And olive oil itself is an excellent food.
4) If in doubt, undercook your vegetables, and consider using the microwave if that results in good tasting vegetables for you.
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