Nutrients aren’t built to last forever, but knowing how they degrade naturally can help us control how fast our food goes bad. There are three essential enemies of nutrients that cause them to break down quickly:
1) Light. All light is a form of energy, and energy makes chemical reactions happen. When nutrients are exposed to a lot of high energy light like ultraviolet radiation (sunlight), the nutrient molecules start to react with each other. This can make them useless to our bodies. If the food is still alive, like a growing vegetable, light is one of the most important factors for growth. But once the food is picked and loses its defenses, light can cause it to degrade quickly.
2) Heat. Heating food breaks down cell walls and exposes nutrients to a harsh, hot environment. At high temperatures nutrient molecules start to react with one another, breaking down, and forming new molecules that may not function as nutrients in our body. When food is heated to such an extreme that it burns, we’re left with a biologically useless carbon dust similar to what we find in No. 2 pencils. Controlling the heat we use with our food can give us delicious but also nutritious meals, if most of the nutrients are preserved.
3) Oxygen. All living things evolved beautiful defensive mechanisms called antioxidants to keep oxygen from destroying nutrients. However, once an organism has died, it loses the ability to defend itself from oxygen as the antioxidants are used up. This is why eating the freshest food possible will give the maximum nutritional benefit, before oxygen has a chance to react with precious vitamins, proteins, and other good stuff.
So how can you use this to your advantage? First, buy fresh, local, high quality food so that you start with the highest possible nutrient content. Then, learn how to control your cooking techniques to minimize nutrient loss. Third, store your food at the right temperature and in low light, and you can preserve the most nutrients in everything you eat.
By Chef Scientist Dan Cordaro