Most of us are confused and overwhelmed by all of the tips and information out there about how to cook and care for vegetables. Is it healthier to eat your tomatoes raw, or enjoy them in a slow-cooked sauce? Should you refrigerate leafy greens?
Unless you're Popeye, you're probably not going to bulk up overnight by eating a can of spinach, no matter how it's prepared. But there are plenty of health benefits that you'll enjoy from careful care and preparation of your veggies.
The most striking benefit of plant foods is their disease-fighting potential, says Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, a nutritionist and the nutritional director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "Across the board, fruits and vegetables are beneficial for reducing chronic disease risk," she says. That's why we asked Lanou and nutritionist Christine Filardo to give us the scoop on proper veggie handling, so something insignificant doesn't come between you, your health, and your veggies. Here's a little food for thought.
To Cook or Not to Cook
There's plenty of conflicting information about whether vegetables and fruits are better enjoyed cooked or raw, and that's because there is no single answer. Some active nutrients in vegetables and fruits are more readily available when cooked, others are more prevalent when foods are eaten raw, says Lanou. For example, lycopene, an antioxidant, which may help prevent against prostate cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses, is more prevalent in cooked forms of tomatoes -- even ketchup.
On the flip side, many of the nutrients from vegetables can get leached during cooking. The key is to watch out for cooking vegetables too long, and with too much water, says Filardo. If you cook vegetables gently -- and without a great deal of water -- you will help protect the water-soluble vitamins. Filardo recommends blanching your veggies, which is when you quickly cook vegetables in boiling water, and remove them when they're still very crisp, to help preserve the color and nutrients. The same principle applies if you're going to steam or microwave vegetables.
Not all water is bad, however; it's only when you aren't consuming the liquids that the nutrients are leached into. That's the great thing about soup, says Lanou. "You consume the water-soluble vitamins that go into the broth," she says. For the most part, it's the leaching that causes the problem, not the heat.
The Fresher, the Better
Time is the most important factor when it comes to the nutrient breakdown of fruits and vegetables. You can slow down the process of nutrient depletion by your storage methods, but getting produce fresh to begin with is very important. Try finding markets that sell locally grown produce. "Farmers' markets are great, because usually you get produce the day after it was harvested," says Lanou. The sooner you eat a fruit or vegetable after it's picked, the better.
If the vegetable stays on the plant until it's ripe, it will have more nutrients in it than if it's picked early and allowed to ripen off the vine, says Lanou. It will often taste better as well, she says. "For example, sweet corn is super sweet the day it's picked, but a week later it tastes kind of like a potato, because the sugar has broken down." The same thing happens with other nutrients that you can't detect with taste.
You need to take proper care when it comes to cooking and serving your veggies. Here are some tips:
- Keep your cool. Don't keep vegetables in very hot environments -- like your car -- for a long time. Remember that certain vegetables should get stored on your counter, while others should get refrigerated. Onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables do better in cool, dry places, and the refrigerator is too wet for them. Most fruits -- including tomatoes -- are best kept on the counter and consumed once ripe. Most greens, mushrooms, and almost all other produce should get refrigerated.
- Take a breath. Some vegetables do a little better with air, says Lanou. Try storing mushrooms in a paper bag, instead of a plastic one. If the mushrooms came in a plastic or cellophane container, use a fork to poke some air holes in the lid.
- Go for frozen. Frozen vegetables are often just as healthy as fresh veggies, especially if the fresh ones have been collecting dust for a few days in your fridge. Filardo says frozen vegetables are still nutritious, because they often come right out of the field, and are blanched and frozen immediately.
- Dress it up. Use a little fat or salad dressing on your vegetables. Filardo says a little fat will improve the uptake of lycopene. "But that doesn't give people the license to put huge amounts of salad dressings on their foods."
- Try precooking. Blanch veggies before you pop them in the fridge, and you will save time. "It will also help kill some of the enzymes that can cause deterioration," says Filardo. Just don't overdue the reheating.
- Slow down. Take more time to chew and enjoy your vegetables. Filardo says the more you chew, the more you will break down vegetables, and that will result in better absorption of nutrients from the gut. "Sometimes people stuff things into their mouths without paying attention, and you can eat a lot that way," she says. "If you slow down, and savor the taste of foods, you are likely to eat less." You are also allowing more time for the message to get from your stomach to your brain that you're full.
- Spice things up. "People tend to eat the same fruits and vegetables over and over again. Every fruit and vegetable has a unique footprint -- a unique assortment of nutrients and phytochemicals," says Filardo. Variety will increase your enjoyment of fruits and vegetables, while also giving you more nutrients. She suggests that you use color as a guide when planning your meals. Instead of worrying about getting specific vitamins, for example, worry about getting your oranges, greens, and reds. It will also make for a more appetizing plate.