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To Cook or Not to Cook?

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   By: Dr. Jean Antoine Boodhoo

   2014-01-27 03:11 PM

It is not always easy for the ordinary person to know whether it is better to cook (fry, grill, microwave, poach, bake, roast, barbeque, baste, boil, steam etc.) or to eat food raw. 

Raw foods have been eaten since time immemorial, as the advent of man’s control of fire (1) did not come until much later in evolution (2). It is, however, not entirely clear whether eating raw food may be historically inadvisable.  Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, has argued that ancient man (Hominids) became today’s man, ie – acquired traits like big brains and new facial features by mastering fire, suggesting that cooking is what makes us humans (3).  However, this is not a view shared by other anthropologists. 

There are inherent problems with the eating of raw foods.  Raw foods may be infected by microorganisms and parasites or soiled by manmade chemicals.  Despite these, the move to a more plant-based diet is increasingly gaining traction. 

Several parts of the plant such as the stems, mature leaves, enlarged roots and tubers contain indigestible raw cellulose and starch. These would not have been part of man’s diet prior to the advent of fire (4).

One of the arguments towards the consumption of raw foods is that the heating of food can result in some or all of the nutritional content being destroyed.  Indeed, it has been shown that certain nutritional components, such as the fat soluble and water soluble vitamins, protein and the phytochemicals in plant sources are affected by the heating techniques used and can be lost almost completely (5).

Some of those nutrients are not, however, completely lost and may be dependent on the heating method.  For example, boiling vegetables may result in some of the nutrients to be washed away in the boiling water, while steaming/poaching will retain much of those nutrients (6).  Indeed, techniques involving dry heat, such as baking/roasting/barbequing/basting may retain more of the nutritional content. However, this may, nevertheless, not be the case with respect to heating in a microwave.  It has been suggested that cooking food in a microwave is more likely to contribute to complete loss of nutritional content (7, 8). 

It has been stated that heating certain foods may make the nutrients more readily available.  For example, the release of lycopenes from cooked versus raw tomatoes, and the release of carotene which is converted to vitamin A from carrots (9).  Further, certain foods, such as cassava, have to be cooked in order to destroy toxins inherent in the food. 

It has been stated that grilling produces distinct flavors.  However, it can also also contribute to health risks such as the production of two types of cancer producing compounds.  Marinating the meat and grilling at lower temperatures can reduce the risk of carcinogens.

The debate between whether to cook or not to cook foods will continue, although there is evidence for both points of view.

Whatever one’s choice when cooking food opting for methods that will retain more of the nutritional content such as steaming, baking, roasting, poaching and basting are preferred to frying, grilling and microwaving.  When boiling, the recommendation is to keep the water for use as a broth. 

 

References:

  1. Who Mastered Fire? - LV Anderson http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_evolution/2012/10/who_invented_fire_when_did_people_start_cooking_.html
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_of_fire_by_early_humans
  3. Catching Fire:  How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham – September 7, 2010 – Published by Basic Books
  4. Stahl, Ann Brower (April 1984) “Hominid dietary selection before fire” - Current Anthropology (University of Chicago Press) 25(2) 151-168, do:10.1086/203106
  5. Nutritional Effects of Food Processing - http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/processing
  6. Organic Consumer Association – www.organicconsumer.org/articles/article_6463.cfm
  7. Should You Be Eating a Raw Food Diet?, Tony Schober http://www.coachcalorie.com/does-cooking-food-destroy-nutrients/
  8. Microwave Cooking and Nutrition, http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/Microwave-cooking-and-nutrition.shtml
  9. Two vegetables that are healthier cooked than raw – Kristie Leong MD - http://voices.yahoo.com/two-vegetables-healthier-cooked-than-raw-6660886.html
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