The downside of cooking veggies, Liu says: it can destroy the vitamin C in them. He found that vitamin C levels declined by 10 percent in tomatoes cooked for two minutes—and 29 percent in tomatoes that were cooked for half an hour at degrees F (88 degrees C). The reason is that Vitamin C, which is highly unstable, is easily degraded through oxidation, exposure to heat (it can increase the rate at which vitamin C reacts with oxygen in the air) and through cooking in water (it dissolves in water).
Liu notes, however, that the trade-off may be worth it since vitamin C is prevalent in far more fruits and vegetables than is lycopene. Among them: broccoli, oranges, cauliflower, kale and carrots. Besides, cooked vegetables retain some of their vitamin C content.
That said, research shows that some veggies, including broccoli, are healthier raw rather than cooked. According to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in November 2007, heat damages the enzyme myrosinase, which breaks down glucosinates (compounds derived from glucose and an amino acid) in broccoli into a compound known as sulforaphane.
Research published in the journal Carcinogenesis in December 2008 found that sulforaphane might block the proliferation of and kill precancerous cells. A 2002 study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that sulforaphane may help fight the bacterium Helicobacter pylori , which causes ulcers and increases a person's risk of stomach cancer.
On the other hand, indole, an organic compound, is formed when certain plants, particularly cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, are cooked. According to research in The Journal of Nutrition in 2001, indole helps kill precancerous cells before they turn malignant. And while boiling carrots was found to increase carotenoid levels, another study found that it leads to a total loss of polyphenols, a group of chemicals found in raw carrots. Specific polyphenols have been shown to have antioxidant properties and to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to a 2005 report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition .
Comparing the healthfulness of raw and cooked food is complicated, and there are still many mysteries surrounding how the different molecules in plants interact with the human body. The bottom line, says Liu, is to eat your veggies and fruits no matter how they're prepared.
"We cook them so they taste better," Liu says. "If they taste better, we're more likely to eat them." And that's the whole idea.