Have you ever wondered why we cook our food or why we heat its ingredients? Cooking is an exciting combination of biology, chemistry, and culture; cooking goes beyond the tempting smells and the chorus of sizzling sounds.
Let’s take a trip around the kitchen to learn the fundamentals of cooking methods and their relationship to our health. But first, let us understand why we cook our food.
Why Do We Cook Our Food?
Some scientists say the origin of cooking is around 2.3 million years ago; others estimate it to be closer to 40,000 years ago. Despite these differences of opinion, cooking has been around for a long time and plays a vital part in people’s lives worldwide, even now. While the original purpose of cooking was to ensure survival, many people now use it to relax and express their individuality.
There are many reasons for cooking the food, some of which are scientifically proven, as given below:
- For Enhancing Taste: Cooking enhances a food’s appeal by enhancing its sensory qualities, such as flavor and smell, making it more palatable, delicious, and tasty. It has been found that the nutritional value of a food is more likely to be consumed if its aroma and flavor entice the consumer to eat it.
- For Better Digestibility: The digestive system may have trouble digesting raw meals. Hard grains like wheat and rice and dried vegetables like beans cannot be easily digested. Different cooking methods break down complex substances like carbohydrates and proteins, making them easier for our bodies to absorb and use. Simplifying food this way lets you get the most out of its nutrients.
- For Food Safety: Cooking food makes eating safer because it kills harmful germs. These germs, like Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli, can make people very sick and are a big concern for the food industry. Foods we eat raw, like fruits and veggies in salads, are more likely to have these germs than food we cook. To ensure meat is safe, it should be cooked to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to kill these harmful germs.
- Increases the Shelf Life of Foods: Cooking generally increases the shelf life of food. Bacteria in food may swiftly multiply, even when refrigerated, and ruin it. Therefore, a smaller bacterial count guarantees a longer storage time for the food. It also inhibits several enzymes that induce unwanted taste changes, lowering the food’s appeal. Inactivating enzymes that promote chemical processes that result in a bitter or hay-like taste in vegetables, as in blanching, is one such example. In addition, drying and baking can lower the amount of water in food. Even if microorganisms aren’t fully killed by heat, they won’t be able to develop and ruin the food if there is less free water accessible in the meal.
- Gives You More Variety: Different cooking techniques can create unique flavors and appearances of the same food and can be combined with various ingredients to expand the variety of dishes they can use. The many recipes discovered in cookbooks demonstrate the efforts undertaken to create variety in cuisine through the amalgamation of distinct ingredients.
The Threats of Uncooked Food
The following are some of the main reasons why eating raw food is bad for your health:
The Presence Of Harmful Microorganisms
Consuming raw or undercooked meals, particularly meat, eggs, shellfish, and poultry, increases the risk of infection with hazardous bacteria, viruses, parasites, and diseases such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. These food-poisoning microbes can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach aches, and fever. Infants, senior citizens, and those with compromised immune systems are at a heightened risk of contracting these bacteria or microorganisms.
Types of Bacteria in Uncooked Food
- Salmonella: Found in raw poultry, eggs, beef, and sometimes on unwashed fruit and vegetables. Cooking food to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) can effectively eliminate Salmonella.
- E. coli: Present in raw or undercooked ground beef, raw milk, and fresh produce. To kill E. coli, beef should be cooked to at least 160°F (71°C), and all produce should be thoroughly washed.
- Listeria monocytogenes: Often found in deli meats, hot dogs, and soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk. Cooking at a temperature of 165°F (74°C) can kill Listeria.
- Campylobacter: Commonly found in raw or undercooked poultry. Cooking poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) is effective against Campylobacter.
- Staphylococcus aureus: Can be produced in food by handlers or cooks with poor personal hygiene. It is killed by cooking at temperatures of 165°F (74°C).
- Clostridium botulinum (Botulism): Found in improperly canned or preserved foods. Cooking food to an internal temperature of at least 185°F (85°C) for a minimum of 5 to 15 minutes can destroy the toxin these bacteria produce.
- Clostridium perfringens: Common in raw meat and poultry. Cooking meat and poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) can prevent illness.
- Bacillus cereus: found in starchy foods like rice and pasta, can survive average cooking temperatures. However, some strains can produce heat-resistant spores and toxins. To eliminate these, they must be exposed to 121°C for at least 3 minutes, a significantly higher heat level than typical cooking methods.
There is no guarantee that washing raw food will eliminate all microorganisms. It is best to cook to the specified temperatures mentioned above to destroy harmful bacteria.
Toxins and Anti-Nutrients
The heating process neutralizes or reduces the levels of some naturally occurring toxins or anti-nutrients in some meals. Raw kidney beans, for example, contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin, which can lead to severe gastrointestinal problems. Similarly, lectins and phytates in some legumes and grains might hinder digestion and nutritional absorption.
Risk of Parasitic Infections
Raw meats and fish, among other uncooked meals, can harbor parasites such as roundworms and tapeworms. Infections caused by these parasites can manifest in various ways, including problems with digestion, malnutrition, and, in the worst instances, organ damage.
Carbohydrates, fibres, and complex proteins are broken down during cooking, facilitating digestion. Ingestion of uncooked foods frequently necessitates increased digestive effort, which may result in complications such as discomfort and bloating.
While some foods are more nutritious and fresh, others require heating to make their nutrients more available. For example, cooking helps break down cellulose and fiber while simultaneously increasing the availability of certain antioxidants. Similarly, egg protein is 180% easier to absorb when cooked than uncooked.
Cooking changes the molecular bonds of proteins in food. Although heating usually eliminates any potential allergens in these proteins, they can cause problems in some people when consumed raw.
Good Bacteria and Pathogens Present in the Food
Probiotics, sometimes called beneficial bacteria, are vital for health promotion, unlike pathogenic bacteria that can cause food poisoning. As opposed to harmful bacteria, they contribute favourably to the body’s microbiome, protecting against numerous diseases and assisting in maintaining a healthy biological function.
Here is a table summarizing the good bacteria found in food, where they are commonly found, and their benefits:
|Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi
|Better digestive health, and helps with lactose intolerance
|Some dairy products like yogurt
|Eases IBS symptoms, aids in digestive disorders
|Kombucha and certain probiotic supplements
|Preventing and treating diarrhea
|Yogurt and cheese
|Fermentation of dairy products, helps lactose digestion
|Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi
|Contributes to taste, aids in digestion and gut health
|Buttermilk and cheese
|Used in dairy product fermentation, potential health benefits
|Fermented foods like cheese and sausage
|Contributes to gut health, also used in food fermentation
For detailed information on other additional types and benefits of the most researched probiotics and guidance on choosing the best one for your needs, refer to the article Here.
Types of Cooking Methods
The evolution of cooking methods, from ancient open fires to modern kitchen appliances, has a direct connection to the development of human civilization. The quantity of nutrients in food is greatly impacted by the cooking method.
Our food and cooking methods have evolved, displaying human creativity and flexibility. These include cooking over moist heat, dry heat, and combination cooking.
Moist Heat Cooking Methods
Moist cooking methods involve using water or other flavorful liquids, like broth or wine, to cook food. These techniques are well-known for locking in moisture, which makes for incredibly juicy and flavorful food. And since they usually don’t call for oil or butter, they are great for controlling calories if you’re trying to lose weight.
Some common ways to cook with moisture are:
1. Boiling & Steaming: Boiling and steaming are considered the most cost effective cooking methods because they utilize lower temperatures. Boiling involves submerging food in hot liquid at 205-212 degrees F and 96-100 C. It is best for vegetables, pasta, and rice.
And steaming, the food is not immersed in it. Instead, the steam’s heat accomplishes the cooking. When preparing vegetables, steaming is preferable to boiling because it preserves more nutrients, including carotenoids and phytochemicals. Steaming also keeps water-soluble nutrients, such as vitamins B and C, from leaching away during boiling.
2. Simmering: Submerging the food in a hot liquid between 185–200°F (85–93 °C), until it boils, the heat is reduced and left to cook is called simmering. It is the way to go when preparing meats that aren’t as soft .
3. Poaching is a very underappreciated yet healthful cooking method. It involves using a liquid such as broth or water, usually boiled at 140-180 Fahrenheit ( and then submerging the food. Poaching involves shorter cooking times and is usually preferred for delicate foods like chicken, fish and duck.
4. Blanching entails bringing food to a rapid boil and then placing it in cold water to halt the cooking process abruptly. Minimal nutrient loss occurs due to the brief cooking duration.
It helps via the following things,
- Eliminates surface microorganisms found on vegetables.
- Enhances the tenderness and hue and slows down the vitamin degradation of the vegetable.
- Inactivates enzymes that cause the frozen food to lose taste, color, and texture.
- Blanched vegetables can be easier for some people to digest than raw food.
5. Stewing (or braising) is a method of cooking in liquid, usually at a lower temperature, and is commonly used with meats, fish, and vegetables. Long, slow cooking yields the greatest results with the least evaporation and shrinking. The extended boiling time and heat exposure result in a significant loss of vitamin C, but any other nutrients leached into the cooking liquid will be maintained if served as a sauce, stew, or soup.
Dry Heat Cooking Methods
Heat in the absence of moisture is referred to as dry heat cooking. These techniques are adaptable and may be used on a variety of foods, producing distinct textures and tastes.
- Roasting: The heat of roasting destroys vitamin C and the majority of B-complex vitamins; additional fat may also destroy vitamins A and E.
- Grilling: Using charcoal, flames, or heating devices to cook food, with or without adding fat, is known as grilling. Not only do heat-sensitive vitamins evaporate, but some fat does as well. Grilling allows you to prepare various things, from seafood and meat to vegetables, potatoes, and certain fruits.
- Broiling: Food is broiled when cooked for a brief amount of time in a hot, direct oven. Although broiling is perfect for preparing tender meats, it might not be the best choice for cooking vegetables because they tend to get dry quickly. Increased nutritional loss occurs when the temperature is high enough to break down the enzymes in the produce.
- Baking is food preparation by applying dry heat within a confined space, such as in an oven. Popular baked goods include bread, pastries, casseroles, and desserts.
- Sautéing is a dry-heat cooking method that often calls for a bit of oil to prevent food from sticking. Due to the reduced cooking time and minimal fat addition, fewer nutrients are lost. And as per researches indicates that cooking vegetables with a small amount of olive oil can enhance their antioxidant potential.
- Frying: Frying is a method of cooking food that uses a lot of fat, often oil, at a high heat.
- Microwaving: Food cooked in a microwave is heated all the way through. By sending out radio waves, they “excite” the molecules in food, causing them to move around and produce heat, which cooks the meal.
While it’s true that heat exposure can lead to the breakdown and loss of essential vitamins in vegetables, particularly vitamin C, folate, and potassium, it’s important to note that cooking is also a crucial process for eliminating harmful bacteria.
Foods Perfect for Raw Consumption
While many foods are typically cooked to ensure safety and improve taste, several foods are safe and enjoyable to eat raw.
- Fruits and Vegetables: Eating fruits and vegetables raw preserves their nutritional goodness. The prime examples are apples, bananas, berries, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
- Leafy Greens: Raw spinach, kale, arugula, and other leafy greens are commonly enjoyed in salads or incorporated into wraps, offering a crisp and refreshing taste.
- Nuts and Seeds: The natural flavors and nutritional benefits of almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds shine when consumed in their raw state.
- Sushi: A globally appreciated dish, sushi often features raw fish, such as salmon or tuna, showcasing the delicate flavors of the sea.
- Tartare: Dishes like steak tartare or tuna tartare involve finely seasoned raw meat or fish, presenting a unique culinary experience without cooking.
- Ceviche: This dish involves curing raw fish or seafood in citrus juices like lime or lemon, resulting in a refreshing and tangy flavor.
- Certain Dairy Products: Enjoying certain cheeses, like mozzarella or feta raw, along with yogurt, provides a delicious and uncooked dairy experience.
- Sprouts: Whether it’s the crispness of alfalfa sprouts or the nutty taste of broccoli sprouts, these additions contribute a delightful crunch to salads or sandwiches when consumed raw.
To reduce the likelihood of food poisoning, handling raw foods carefully and adhering to good hygiene standards when eating them is essential. The most authentic method of washing raw foods, as per some research, is washing them with cold water, and any other method (using vinegar, baking soda, or lemon juice) has been found to be superfluous. (1)
Also, exercise caution when selecting fresh meats and seafood, washing fruits and vegetables meticulously, and remaining informed of any food recalls or advisories.
It’s not only about satisfying our appetites; it’s also about ensuring our bodies get the nutrients and protection they need.
The way you prepare your food has an impact on its health advantages and the amount of vitamins and nutrients it contains.