6 Vegetables That Are Healthier Cooked Than Raw

Stir fry cooked in a wok

Carina Tjarnlund / Getty Images

As counterintuitive as it may seem, some fruits and vegetables get a nutritional boost upon cooking.

Most of us have all too many un-fond memories of vegetables cooked into a soggy gloppy mush. With their taste and texture and vibrancy cooked out of them, it’s no wonder that so many of their nutrients are obliterated as well. With that in mind, raw vegetables rose to rule the roost in terms of nutritional virtuosity.

But for some of us, raw-everything all the time isn’t that comforting; so it’s good to know that not every vegetable is necessarily healthier when uncooked. The following exceptions to the rule actually gain in benefits when put to the heat.

1. Pumpkin and Other Winter Squash

OK, so most people aren’t likely making raw pumpkin a staple on their menu. But if you’re forsaking cooked pumpkin (or other winter squash) in favor of something raw because you think it may be less nutritious, you can rethink that strategy. Cooked pumpkin has all kinds of wonderful antioxidants like beta-carotene which are easier to absorb once they’ve been heated up.

2. Asparagus

Raw asparagus is delicious shaved, but cooking helps break down the thick cell walls that make it hard for our bodies to absorb asparagus’ A, C, and E, and folate, according to Prevention magazine. In the case of asparagus, cooking also makes antioxidants, specifically ferulic acid, more available.

3. Tomatoes

Few things beat thick slabs of summer tomatoes fresh from the garden, but cooking them releases the potent antioxidant lycopene. A high intake of lycopene has been linked to a lower risk of cancer and heart attacks. Cooking tomatoes breaks down the cell walls and releases the lycopene for our bodies to enjoy. That said, cooking reduces the vitamin C content, but there are more sources of vitamin C commonly consumed, so the tradeoff is worth it.

4. Carrots

Research shows cooked carrots have higher levels of beta-carotene which belongs to a class of antioxidant substances called carotenoids They give fruits and vegetables their orange, red, and yellow colorings. The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which plays an important role in vision, growth and development, and immune function.

5. Mushrooms

Andrew Weil, MD writes for Prevention that mushrooms are essentially indigestible if you don't cook them, adding: “Thoroughly heating them releases the nutrients they contain, including protein, B vitamins, and minerals, as well as a wide range of novel compounds not found in other foods. In Asian traditions, mushrooms are regarded as both food and medicine because they can support the body's natural defenses by enhancing the immune system.”

6. Spinach

Raw versus cooked spinach offers a trade-off. Vegetarian Times writes that folate, vitamin C, niacin, riboflavin, and potassium are more available in raw spinach when it is eaten raw, cooking increases the vitamins A and E, protein, fiber, zinc, thiamin, calcium, and iron – as well, important carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, also become more absorbable when spinach is cooked.

Bottom Line

In the end, comparing nutrients in raw and cooked vegetables is complicated and there will be trade-offs. Given what we know, the best approach seems to be to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, and eat them in a variety of ways. This ensures that you’re getting a mix of nutrients delivered by various methods of preparation.

View Article Sources
  1. Van Loo-Bouwman, Carolien, et al. “Food Matrix Effects on Bioaccessibility of β-carotene Can Be Measured in an In Vitro Gastrointestinal Model.” J Agric Food Chem. 2014, vol. 62, pp. 950-5., doi:10.1021/jf403312v

  2. Yui, Y. H. and E. Özgül Evranuz. Handbook of Vegetable Preservation and Processing (Second Edition). CRC Press, 2016.

  3. Chen Jinyao, et al. “Effect of Lycopene Supplementation on Oxidative Stress: An Exploratory Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” J Med Food. vol.16, 2013, pp. 361-74., doi:10.1089/jmf.2012.2682

  4. Soares, Nathalia da Costa Pereira, et al. “Lycopene Extracts from Different Tomato-Based Food Products Induce Apoptosis in Cultured Human Primary Prostate Cancer Cells and Regulate TP53, Bax and Bcl-2 Transcript Expression.” Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, vol. 18, 2017, pp. 339-345., doi:10.22034/APJCP.2017.18.2.339

  5. Lee Seongeung, et al. “Effect of Different Cooking Methods on the Content of Vitamins and True Retention in Selected Vegetables.” Food Sci Biotechnol, vol. 27, 2018, pp. 333-342., doi:10.1007/s10068-017-0281-1

  6. Arscott Sara A, et al. “Carrots of Many Colors Provide Basic Nutrition and Bioavailable Phytochemicals Acting as a Functional Food.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science & Safety, vol. 9, 2010, pp. 223-239., doi:10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00103.x

  7. Grune, Tilman, et al. "Beta-Carotene is an Important Vitamin A Source for Humans." J Nutr. vol. 140, 2010, pp. 2268S-2285S., doi:10.3945/jn.109.119024