To Cook or Not to Cook
by Sandra Brandt
It is always appetizing to see a colourful veggie platter served as a snack or on a buffet table. Many people enjoy a crunchy green salad with a meal. Freshly pressed juices and smoothies are popular with those who like to combine a healthy kick with a refreshing beverage.
Raw vegetables can be enjoyed in many creative forms and combinations. Most people would agree, that generally we could all benefit, health wise, from consuming more raw veggies. Some health-conscious individuals and groups go so far as to recommend an all raw, or at least mostly raw diet, consisting mainly of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and sprouted legumes and seeds. So what is the healthiest way to consume vegetables—raw or cooked?
Sarah Pope, a popular health food blogger, recently published a blog post called, “How Green Smoothies Can Devastate Your Health.” According to her post, the substantial amounts of leafy greens, particularly kale and spinach, that have recently become popular ingredients in blended health drinks and freshly pressed juices may be doing more harm than good, largely because the oxalic acid content of these plants tends to contribute to gut imbalance and fungal issues, which can lead to a variety of other health challenges including autism, fibromyalgia, and oxalate stones in the kidneys and elsewhere in the body.
There is usually a backlash when anyone questions cherished notions of healthy eating or living. One subsequent blog post on another site, indignantly entitled, “Why Green Smoothies Will NOT Devastate Your Health,” took issue with the notion that we should shy away from habitually consuming large amounts of any well-recognized healthy food, such as raw kale or spinach, just because they contain potentially problematic anti-nutrients. This post makes the case that traces of toxic substances are present in all foods, that our bodies are naturally equipped to handle them, and that only a pre-existing health condition that is known to be aggravated by a particular substance would be reason to avoid regularly consuming large amounts of any particular food.
Raw food enthusiasts claim that cooking destroys the “life force” in plants, resulting in “dead” food matter, which can do little or no good for a living body that consumes it, and that heating foods above a certain temperature also destroys the enzymes and much of the nutritional value in the plant, as well as creating added toxins.
There is no similar movement claiming that only cooked, rather than uncooked, plant foods are good for us. But most people do consume some combination of cooked and raw foods, either by choice or by habit. Food scientists point out that cooking usually results in better digestion and absorption of the remaining nutrients. There is some loss of water soluble nutrients, such as vitamin C, for example, but it can generally be made up by eating a moderate amount of raw fruit, which is easier to digest than most raw vegetables.
Cooking also allows us to consume a larger volume of vegetables as they are softened and “cooked down,” breaking down tough fibres and freeing up more nutrients, so some of the nutrients that are destroyed by heating can be compensated for by consuming more of others that become more bioavailable through cooking. For example, beta-carotene in carrots becomes much easier to absorb when carrots are steamed than when eaten raw. The valuable nutrient lycopene in tomatoes becomes available for assimilation after cooking. Cooking also reduces some known “anti-nutrients” in foods that make minerals difficult to assimilate.
From a traditional viewpoint, cooking with fire has been estimated to have been part of our dietary evolution for probably 100,000 years, at least. Our enlarged brain size and capacity has been attributed to cooking, as it enables us to consume more calories and nutrients with less digestive effort, thus enhancing our mental energy potential. The question has also been posed, “If foods are made to digest themselves, why do we have such complicated digestive machinery?”
No historical/traditional cultures have been known to consume only raw foods, especially plant foods. A few northern Inuit groups that have been observed to consume raw whale and seal blubber and meat as a large part of their diet are probably the closest to a historically known raw food diet. Although we tend to think of a raw diet as consisting mainly of plant foods, in fact, there are many examples of healthy populations using raw animal foods, such as milk products, fish, and meat in various cultures. Fermented foods have also played a larger part in historical diets than they do today, which is an ideal way to consume raw foods, including vegetables, in terms of digestibility and nutrient availability.
It has been found that raw food enthusiasts often experience improved health to start with (which may be also partly due to eliminating highly processed food), but such improvements are often diminished in the long term. So while a raw plant food diet may be cleansing and detoxifying for some individuals, and has even been found effective in some natural cancer treatments, it does not necessarily follow that it is of benefit as a lifelong dietary protocol.
Other questions might also be asked, such as: Have electrically-powered conveniences such as juicers and blenders made it possible to consume more of some food forms than our bodies are traditionally adapted to? How about the artificial availability of fresh raw vegetables all year round rather than just during the local growing season? Traditional Chinese Medicine holds that raw plant foods are more cooling to the body—is this desirable during the colder season of the year? As is the case with most health and dietary questions, there may not be a definitive answer, so it is probably best to use moderation and careful observation. The best course, traditionally speaking, would be to eat fresh raw salad vegetables when they are in season and to preserve vegetables, especially by freezing or lacto-fermentation, for the rest of the year.
As an example, here are a number of ways to use kale—a hardy leafy green vegetable found at organic grocers, farmers’ markets, and not hard to grow in your own garden—which allows one to adapt this wonderfully nutritious but fairly fibrous plant to the seasons. The variety of preparation methods allows one to benefit from various nutritional aspects available in this food:
1. Add a few leaves of tender baby kale to a fresh early-summer salad.
2. Steam fresh kale leaves and top with butter, cream sauce, or nut butter (the fat aids in assimilating minerals from the vegetable). Discard the steaming water, as it contains the oxalic acid.
3. Saute chopped kale in butter or garlic butter and season simply with fresh seasonal herbs and unrefined salt, or top with chopped nuts or feta cheese for a fancier dish.
4. Chop and freeze fresh kale for use in soups, stews, lasagne and other cooked or baked winter dishes. Before using, thaw and drain the liquid to reduce oxalic acid content. Alternatively, you can chop and steam the kale fresh, drain well, and freeze in small containers or ice cube trays.
5. Add some chopped kale to cabbage when making sauerkraut for the winter.
6. Kale chips make a delicious snack food, or crunchy soup or salad topping: wash and dry an entire bunch of kale leaves, remove stems, and tear into bite-size pieces. Add 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp raw vinegar, and 1/4 tsp unrefined salt, and combine well to coat the leaves. Spread out on a large baking sheet and bake at 350ºF, stirring occasionally to bake evenly, about half an hour or until dry and crispy.
7. Here is an interesting take on kale which creates fermented kale leaves for use in a sushi roll type of application (see http://thegazette.com/2012/01/23/conquering-kale/ for extended recipe) or use instead of pickled grape leaves to hold a dolmas filling:
12 large kale leaves (flat-leafed kale works best, not curly kale)
1 tbsp sea salt (or 1/2 tbsp sea salt and 1 tbsp juice culture from an earlier ferment)
Cut off major portion of stem of kale leaves. Sprinkle with salt and let stand about 30 minutes to soften. (Note: one can use half the salt by spiking the culture with an earlier ferment.) Layer 4 kale leaves together. Roll tightly from leaf tip to stem, cigar-like. Repeat with remaining 8 leaves so that there are 3 bundles. Pack them into a 1 pint wide mouth jar. Fill with fresh water. (NOTE: do NOT use tap water; chlorination will retard microorganisms. Alternatively, boil the water to remove chlorine.) Let stand at room temperature for 3–5 days. Then refrigerate for storage.
Sandra Brandt has had a lifelong interest in whole natural foods. She lives in Regina, where she gives cooking classes, presentations, and dietary consultations. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see the colour display ad on page 13 of the 18.3 September/October issue of the WHOLifE Journal.