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September 2003 Issue
Maximize the nutrition of your produce.
by Michael Fick
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At least two factors determine the nutrition level of the produce – the fruits and vegetables – we eat: the source and the preparation method. In the November 2000 column on Farmers’ Markets we saw that the freshness hierarchy among sources is generally your own garden first, then the local farmers’ market, then frozen, then supermarkets, then canned. Many nutrients oxidize rapidly after produce is disconnected from its umbilicus to the earth, and cooking and preservation methods can further affect its nutrition for better or worse. Once we have those fresh, green goobers in our hot little hands, it’s up to us to prepare and serve them to best insure the best nutrition from our produce … and to decide whether the benefits of the “best” way are worth the effort.

The increasing tendency with produce is towards raw, crunchy and still wiggling. While that’s unsettling -- probably downright dangerous -- with pork chops, it’s easy with raw apples or bananas, even broccoli. After all, produce provides the best nutrition when it’s raw – LIVE -- doesn’t it?

Yes … and no. There are advantages to both raw and cooked, and they vary across the produce spectrum. Let’s dig into the garden and examine the advantages of both. Is raw a fad, or do the best fruit and vegetable nutrition really come from eating produce still “warm from the vine”, and raw to boot? Maybe the latter … if you like eating boots, have four stomachs, and moo.

OK, that was a joke. While many methods of cooking our produce preserve – sometimes even improve -- its nutrition, many types of produce are tasty and quite digestible raw, even for us humans. The people, cookbooks, restaurants, books, Californians, etc. which advocate eating produce still squealing on the plate offer several arguments for their side. They say cooking:

  • Breaks down vitamins, thousands of micronutrients, and fiber, into useless, inert mush.
  • Leaches many vitamins and other nutrients into the cooking water, which is then discarded.
  • Breaks down enzymes nature put in the food to help us digest and assimilate it.
  • Transforms some food components to carcinogens.
  • Transforms healthy oils to harmful oils.
The anti-milk, anti-aspartame (Equal), and anti-carbohydrate purists list pages of frightening reasons to support their phobias, but many of their objections are based on reactionary, unsupported, sometimes distorted, claims. The raw produce advocates, however, are on to something. Their basic claims listed above are generally true, and should be considered in our diets. But who’s going to eat yams or corn raw? They enhance our nutritional profile, so cooking them beats not eating them, and candied yams are better than many desserts in every way. It can transform some vegetables from lumber only a beaver could endure to beneficial gastronomic pleasures your favorite meat’n’taters lumberjack will enjoy.

True, heat breaks down many vitamins, up to 30% in some cases. Boiling leaches another 10-20% of the vitamins, 5-15% of the minerals, and some of the fiber into the water. Phytochemicals, enzymes, and other important micronutrients only a microbiologist could love suffer the same fate, as the raw produce lobby correctly points out.

OK … and their point? Those effects are essentially inconsequential as long as we eat a wide variety of produce in a variety of ways. We don’t need every micronutrient every day, and the enzymes spared by eating our produce “live” quickly die a horrible death anyway the minute they hit our stomach acid.

A moment of silence for the departed enzymes.

Cooking, however, starts the digestive process by breaking down cell walls, often facilitating nutrient assimilation more than the poor, deceased enzymes would have. We may lose 30% of the vital carotenoids – important antioxidants in some entire classes of vegetables – to heat and water, but their bioavailability triples with cooking. Do the math: 100% minus 30% or 40% = 60 or 70%, times 3 … we essentially double the amount of antioxidants we absorb from those veggies by cooking them. Fresh home-grown tomatoes taste marvelous, but there’s nothing like long-simmered tomato sauce to free up their natural, cancer-inhibiting lycopene. We aren’t cows by nature, and become Californians by choice or (tragic) accident, but Mother Nature gave us fire, pizza dough, and tomato sauce by design.

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