Long ago, our human ancestors discovered the wonder of cooking food. Not only did those early humans likely find that cooking food made it taste better and more satisfying, but it is believed that eating cooked food as opposed to raw lessened the amount of energy required for digestion. This resulted in greater energy available for the expansion of skills and intellect that make the human race what it is today.
Despite this undeniable historical importance of cooked food–and the fact that cooking technology has come a long way from those first few open fires–these days, we still choose to eat many types of foods in their raw form.
As it turns out, there are a number of complex differences between raw vs. cooked vegetables! We’re going to work our way through a detailed breakdown which explains these distinctions as well as why eating raw vegetables as well as cooked ones are both important to maintaining a balanced diet.
Is it a Vegetable or a Fruit?
Let’s start off by first clarifying what we actually mean when we say the word “vegetable”. The botanical difference between fruits and vegetables all boils down to which part of a plant the item comes from. A fruit is produced by the flower of a plant and most often contains seeds. Vegetables, on the other hand, are any other part of the plant matter which is edible, such as leaves, stems, roots, and rhizomes.
Despite this distinct line between fruits and vegetables, there remains a ton of overlap in terminology due to the fact that most folks classify produce according to how it tastes and/or is used–i.e., vegetables are savory while fruits are sweet. For our purposes, we’re sticking with this culinary sense for categorizing fruits and veggies, meaning that yes, many of the so-called “vegetables” we cover in this article are, technically speaking, fruits.
Some Vegetables That Are Technically Fruits
- Bell Peppers–as well as Chili Peppers
- Green Beans
- Zucchini–and other types of Summer Squash
Differences Between Raw and Cooked Vegetables
At the base level, the difference between raw and cooked vegetables comes down to just one thing: the exposure (or lack thereof) to heat! This singular change results in a slew of differences however, many of which shift the overall health benefits of consuming raw or cooked vegetables. Let’s dig in!
Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables: Taste & Texture
First and foremost, we must consider how cooking changes the way we humans experience vegetables. Some folks may feel that eating raw vegetables is a rather bland experience–an understandable sentiment! Raw vegetables are often extremely crunchy, fibrous, and have such a high water content that their flavor is frequently less than front and center.
By cooking vegetables, the inherent flavors are concentrated and secondary flavors are allowed to develop (think of that nutty taste broccoli inherits when it is roasted) and their tough fibrous texture is typically softened. These improvements in palatability make it all that much more likely that you are to eat–and enjoy eating–a greater quantity of vegetables. That’s always a good thing!
Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables: Appearance
Raw fruits and vegetables often have striking coloring, rivaled only by that of other wonders of the natural world. This coloring is for good reason too! Known as phytonutrients, the compounds responsible for the vibrant hue of a fresh vegetable serve to defend the parent plant against radiation, pathogens, and other environmental dangers.
Sometimes, a cooking process will intensify the natural coloring of vegetables, almost magically making those bright green peas even more green. More often than not, however, cooking fresh vegetables only strips away some of their natural vibrancy. This is due to the fact that pigmenting compounds such as chlorophyll and beta carotene are altered by the application of heat, albeit at different rates. Green vegetables like broccoli will lose their coloring rather quickly, while beta-carotene rich items like carrots take a lot longer to see much phytonutrient loss.
Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables: Digestibility
In most cases, cooked vegetables are more digestible than raw, as the heat exposure during the cooking process helps to break down some of the tough fibers and rigid plant cell walls. As mentioned earlier, this gives the human digestive system a leg up on processing, allowing the body to extract a greater amount of nutrition all while using less energy to do so.
Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables: Water Content
As many foods cook, they often lose some of their natural moisture, and seeing as vegetables are mostly water, they stand to lose a lot! Even if you cook vegetables in water such as when boiling or steaming, the veggies themselves will still lose some of their moisture into the surrounding water, as opposed to taking water in the way that starches and grains do.
On one hand, this loss of water concentrates the nutrition, as for example 1 cup of cooked spinach has about 10 times as much nutrition as 1 cup of raw spinach. But on the other hand, it decreases the natural hydrating effects of fresh vegetables, so be sure to keep that glass of water handy when eating cooked veggies!
Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables: Risk of Pathogens
Generally speaking, raw vegetables carry a much lower risk of causing food poisoning as compared to raw animal products such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. However, the fresh produce still stands a chance of picking up dangerous bugs, whether due to animal activity where the vegetables are grown or as a result of human handling during processing.
Cooked foods however, carry far less risk as the exposure to high heat during cooking kills many, if not all of the pathogens that could cause illness. While thorough cleaning is a perfectly adequate way to reduce your risk of food borne illness when eating raw foods, cooking vegetables is an excellent tool to mitigate the risk as well.
Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables: Nutrition Content
Answering the question of whether vegetables are healthier cooked or raw is a tricky one–not all veggies behave the same! Some vegetables lose certain nutrients as they are cooked, while the same cooking process may increase the bioavailability–the ease with which your body can absorb and make use of a substance–of other healthful compounds.
Let’s look at a few examples of how cooking affects the nutrition of some vegetables and whether each is healthier to eat raw or cooked.
Cooking mushrooms increases the availability of certain antioxidants, while simultaneously decreasing the naturally occurring small quantities of toxins and carcinogens found in these fungi.
Members of the Cruciferae family like broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts contain some important cancer-fighting sulfur compounds and enzymes. These substances are sensitive to heat, meaning you should eat raw broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous veggies to maximize your intake of these compounds.
While sweet potatoes are indeed safe to consume raw (white potatoes and yams are a different story though!) the starches in any of these types of tubes are extremely difficult to digest in their raw state. Cooking potatoes of any type makes their nutrition more readily available to you and also helps to avoid any digestive discomfort.
While raw spinach does contain higher amounts of water soluble vitamins like vitamin C, cooking it releases a greater quantity of calcium and iron, meaning that cooked spinach gives you a bigger dose of those important minerals.
Similar to those cruciferous veggies, cooking garlic destroys a number of those infamously pungent sulfur compounds. Raw garlic retains this good stuff, but we all know that raw garlic can be a bit harsh! If you don’t find it palatable, go ahead and cook it a bit–you’ll still get a boost.
Cooking tomatoes greatly increases the amount of absorbable lycopene, which is an antioxidant that is proven to defend the body against many illnesses and cancers, especially prostate cancer and lung cancer.
While you might think that this green stalk-like veggie is healthier raw, the truth is that this veggie is just too fibrous for your body to reap all of the nutritional benefit. Cooking asparagus makes nutrients such as folate and several other vitamins much more accessible.
Ideas for Making Vegetables Taste Better
Not a vegetable lover but still want to get plenty of them (and their health benefits!) in your diet? Let us help! Here are a few ideas and tricks for making that plate of raw or cooked vegetables even tastier.
- Whether you are eating raw vegetables or cooking them, pairing them with healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, chopped nuts, or toasted seeds is a good idea! Many fresh vegetables contain essential nutrients which are fat-soluble, meaning the body can only absorb and put to use in the presence of fat.
- Use fresh herbs to add flavor! This is a great way to amp up the taste of your veggies without dousing them in high-sodium seasoning mixes or saturated fat laden sauces. Try rosemary with cooked carrots, fresh dill sprinkled into a green salad, or citrusy cilantro and roasted tomatoes.
- Give your smoothies a boost with the power of nutritious vegetables! The flavors of some less-than-tasty veggies can be easily subdued when blended with other fresh produce such as sweet apples, raw carrots, tangy citrus, or refreshing cucumber.
- Whip up a batch of your favorite dip or sauce to serve alongside your raw or cooked veggies! Dunk sliced raw vegetables in some homemade hummus or stuff a baked sweet potato with a dollop of Broccomole.
Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables FAQs
What is the Raw Food Diet?
Along with the topic of raw vegetables often comes some questions about raw food diets. Does following a raw food diet mean you only eat raw fruits and vegetables?
Not exactly! While most folks following these types of eating plans do choose to stick to a diet of raw plant foods, some opt to consume other types of raw foods such as uncooked fish and meat or unprocessed dairy products. Of course, there are some food safety concerns that arise with the consumption of these types of products, therefore it is important to carefully consider the origin point of these items as well as how they are stored and handled.
Many times these diets include foods that have been processed in other ways–such as fermented foods or sprouted foods–which help to increase the availability of nutrients without requiring exposure to heat.
Are There Any Vegetables That are Unsafe to Eat Raw?
Although raw vegetables offer a ton of health benefits in many cases, there are a few vegetables that could be downright dangerous when consumed raw.
As mentioned above, regular potatoes are not safe to consume without cooking as they contain a compound called solanine. While it would take a great number of raw potatoes to ever cause serious harm, even small quantities of this stuff can cause digestive upset so always cook your taters!
Red Kidney Beans
Red kidney beans are one of the worst offenders in the rankings of unsafe raw vegetables. They have a mouthful of a compound called phytohaemagglutinin which is concentrated enough in the raw beans that even just a small handful of them could cause severe nausea and vomiting. Soaking and cooking the beans works to remove the toxin–just be sure to discard any soaking or cooking water straight away.
Yes, those pre packaged mushrooms you get in the produce department are perfectly safe when eaten raw, but any foraged or wild mushrooms should always be cooked before eating. Certain varieties contain a compound known as agaritine, which is thought to potentially have carcinogenic effects. Cooking the mushrooms destroys this toxin though!
What’s the Healthiest Vegetable Cooking Methods?
So, what’s the best cooking method when it comes to your precious veggies? The key is to use as little water as possible. When cooked in water, vegetables always lose some nutrients to the water itself, which sadly gets dumped down the drain more often than not! Instead of boiling, opt for steaming, sautéing, stir frying, or roasting.
Eating Raw Vegetables vs. Cooked Vegetables: Summary of Differences
Here is a quick recap of the differences between raw and cooked vegetables:
- Raw vegetables have a fresher (sometimes bland!) taste and more crisp texture, while cooking vegetables often makes them taste more appetizing and softens their texture.
- Raw vegetables often have more vibrant coloring as compared to cooked vegetables, due to the fact that some phytonutrients are destroyed in the presence of heat. Along with this loss of pigmenting compounds comes some loss of nutrition as well.
- Vegetables lose water as they cook, thereby concentrating the nutrient density inside the food!
- Raw vegetables will always carry some risk of contamination by harmful bacteria or other pathogens, while cooking the veggies always helps to mitigate some of this risk.
- It’s a mixed bag when it comes to vitamin and mineral content variations between raw and cooked vegetables; some vegetables lose many of their key nutrients while heated, while others experience an increase in the number of bioavailable nutrients!
It’s ultimately up to you whether you decide to eat your vegetables cooked or raw, but the bottom line is this: vegetables are good for you no matter how you slice them! To get the best of both worlds, aim for a diet rich in both raw and cooked vegetables.