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Get the Most Nutrition Out of Your Fruits and Veggies

07/11/2016

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The most important way to cook nutritious foods at home is to start with the best ingredients. But there are things you can do to make sure you’re getting the most nutritional benefits from them.

Before you cook

Five factors affect the nutritional value of foods: exposure to air, light, temperature, moisture and time, according to Pam Patty, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with INTEGRIS. When a vegetable or fruit is harvested, the spoilage clock immediately starts ticking. But, if the produce is handled properly, the nutritional decline — along with appearance, texture and flavor loss — is kept to a minimum.

Fresh produce can provide amazing nutrition, but only when it is grown in nutrient-rich soils that have not been contaminated with artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, Patty says. “Most people might associate that with being ‘organic,’ but it’s more than that,” Patty adds. “It’s also about being grown locally, with practices that promote optimal nutritional outcomes, including crop rotation, companion planting and crop diversity. Which, by the way, may mean produce that is not necessarily the ‘prettiest’ produce, regardless of the nutritional profile.”

Cooking method

Cooking down your vegetables instead of eating them raw can help you consume more nutrients overall because you can often fit more of the cooked version of food into the same size container as raw food. “Pairing the right cooking technique with your given ingredients will allow for the highest amount of nutrition to come through and will create a more incredible flavor and appealing appearance,” Patty says.

There’s no “right” way to cook your vegetables, but certain methods of cooking are better than others when it comes to specific nutrients.

Some vitamins, like vitamin C, are heat-sensitive. As much as a third of the vitamin C in a tomato can be degraded when it’s cooked at 190 degrees for 30 minutes, according to Patty. However, tomatoes are also a good source of lycopene, the phytochemical which has antioxidant properties. Heating tomatoes enhances the lycopene content that can be absorbed by the body, according to scientists at Cornell University.

Frying vs. roasting

If you prefer to fry your ingredients, you’re likely losing nutrients. Heat-sensitive nutrients can be degraded or destroyed by prolonged contact with excessive heat. Instead, roast your ingredients in a slow-cooking oven at about 200 degrees, and you will preserve more of the nutrition.

Steaming vs. boiling

When in doubt, steam instead of boil your vegetables. Boiling causes water-soluble nutrients to leach into the cooking liquid that’s destined to be thrown out, instead of remaining in the food source. Vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin and niacin — also known as vitamins B1, B2 and B3 — are water-soluble, so they dissolve in liquid, like a pot of boiling water on the stovetop.

If you do boil your vegetables, consider saving the leftover water to use in stocks or soups so you’ll still benefit from the nutrients that were lost from cooking.

Microwaving

Microwaving your food not only diminishes the nutrient content of fresh foods, but it could lead to undesirable tastes, textures and appearances, Patty says.

The bright side? Because microwave cooking is so rapid, there’s very little loss of nutrition when using the microwave to steam vegetables, as long as you don’t use too much water to cook them.

What’s the best method?

Getting the most nutrition out of your vegetables is more complicated than “one way is the best way.” All cooking methods have upsides and downsides.

In the end, taste matters. Cook the vegetables in the way you’ll actually eat them. You’re not getting any nutritional benefits from something you won’t eat. If you eat a variety of vegetables and fruits regularly, the cooking method becomes even less important. You’ll get the nutrients you need.

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