By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE
Eating nutritious foods can improve your health and energy levels.
Surprisingly, the way you cook your food has a major effect on the amount of nutrients in it.
This article will explore how the different cooking methods affect the nutrient content of foods.
Nutrient Content is Often Altered During Cooking
For example, protein in cooked eggs is 180% more digestible than in raw eggs (3).
However, several key nutrients are reduced with some cooking methods.
The following nutrients are often reduced during cooking:
Water-soluble vitamins: vitamin C and the B vitamins — thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B7) and cobalamin (B8).
Fat-soluble vitamins: vitamins A, D, E and K.
Minerals: primarily potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium.
Bottom Line: Although cooking improves digestion and the absorption of many nutrients, the levels of some vitamins and minerals may decrease.
Boiling, simmering and poaching are similar methods of water-based cooking.
These techniques differ by water temperature:
Poaching: less than 180°F/82°C.
Vegetables are generally a great source of vitamin C, but a large amount of it is lost when cooked in water.
Because vitamin C is water-soluble and sensitive to heat, it can leach out of vegetables when they’re immersed in hot water.
B vitamins are similarly heat sensitive. Up to 60% of thiamin, niacin and other B vitamins may be lost when meat is simmered and its juices run off.
However, when the liquid containing these juices is consumed, 100% of the minerals and 70-90% of B vitamins are retained (6).
On the other hand, boiling fish was shown to preserve omega-3 fatty acid content significantly more than frying or microwaving (7).
Bottom Line: While water-based cooking methods cause the greatest losses of water-soluble vitamins, they have very little effect on omega-3 fats.
Grilling and broiling are similar methods of cooking with dry heat.
When grilling, the heat source comes from below, but when broiling, it comes from above.
Grilling is one of the most popular cooking methods because of the great flavor it gives food.
However, up to 40% of B vitamins and minerals may be lost during grilling or broiling when the nutrient-rich juice drips from the meat (6).
There are also concerns about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are potentially cancer-causing substances that form when meat is grilled and fat drips onto a hot surface.
Luckily, researchers have found that PAHs can be decreased by 41-89% if drippings are removed and smoke is minimized (8).
Bottom Line: Grilling and broiling provide great flavor but also reduce B vitamins. Grilling generates potentially cancer-causing substances.
Microwaving is an easy, convenient and safe method of cooking.
About 20-30% of vitamin C in green vegetables is lost during microwaving, which is less than most cooking methods (5).
Bottom Line: Microwaving is a safe cooking method that preserves most nutrients due to short cooking times.
Roasting and baking refer to cooking food in an oven with dry heat.
Although these terms are somewhat interchangeable, the term “roasting” is typically used for meat while “baking” is used for bread, muffins, cake and similar foods.
Most vitamin losses are minimal with this cooking method, including vitamin C.
However, due to long cooking times at high temperatures, B vitamins in roasted meat may decline by as much as 40% (6).
Bottom Line: Roasting or baking does not have a significant effect on most vitamins and minerals, with the exception of B vitamins.
With sautéing and stir-frying, food is cooked in a saucepan over medium to high heat in a small amount of oil or butter.
These techniques are very similar, but with stir-frying the food is stirred often, the temperature is higher and the cooking time is shorter.
In general, this is a healthy way to prepare food.
One study found that absorption of beta-carotene was 6.5 times greater in stir-fried carrots than in raw (15).
In another study, blood lycopene levels increased 80% more when people consumed tomatoes sautéed in olive oil rather than without (16).
Bottom Line: Sautéing and stir-frying improve the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and some plant compounds, but they decrease the amount of vitamin C in vegetables.
Frying involves cooking food in a large amount of fat, usually oil, at a high temperature. The food is often coated with batter or bread crumbs.
It’s a popular way of preparing food because the skin or coating maintains a seal, which ensures that the inside remains moist and cooks evenly.
The fat used for frying also makes the food taste very good.
However, not all foods are appropriate for frying.
Fatty fish are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have many health benefits. These fats are very delicate and prone to damage at high temperatures.
When oil is heated to a high temperature for a long period of time, toxic substances called aldehydes are formed (21). Aldehydes have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and other diseases.
The type of oil, temperature and length of cooking time affect the amounts of aldehydes produced. Reheating oil also increases aldehyde formation.
If you’re going to fry food, don’t overcook it, and use one of the healthiest oils for frying.
Bottom Line: Frying makes food taste delicious, and it can provide some benefits when healthy oils are used. It’s best to avoid frying fatty fish and minimize frying time for other foods.
Researchers have found that steaming broccoli, spinach and lettuce reduces their vitamin C content by only 9-15% (5).
The downside is that steamed vegetables may taste bland. However, this is easy to remedy by adding some seasoning and oil or butter after cooking.
Bottom Line: Steaming is one of the best cooking methods for preserving nutrients, including water-soluble vitamins.
Here are 10 tips to reduce nutrient loss while cooking:
Use as little water as possible for poaching or boiling.
Consume the liquid left in the pan after cooking vegetables.
Add back juices from meat that drip into the pan.
Don’t peel vegetables until after cooking them. Better yet, don’t peel at all to maximize fiber and nutrient density.
Cook vegetables in smaller amounts of water to reduce loss of vitamin C and B vitamins.
Try to finish cooked vegetables within a day or two, as vitamin C content may continue to decline when the cooked food is exposed to air.
Cut food after rather than before cooking, if possible. When food is cooked whole, less of it is exposed to heat and water.
Cook vegetables for only a few minutes whenever possible.
When cooking meat, poultry and fish, use the shortest cooking time needed for safe consumption.
Don’t use baking soda when cooking vegetables. Although it helps maintain color, vitamin C will be lost in the alkaline environment produced by baking soda.
Bottom Line: There are many ways to preserve the nutrient content in foods without sacrificing taste or other qualities.
It’s important to select the right cooking method to maximize the nutritional quality of your meal.
However, there is no perfect method of cooking that retains all nutrients.
In general, cooking for shorter periods at lower temperatures with minimal water will produce the best results.
Don’t let the nutrients in your food go down the drain.