Spinach is packed with beneficial nutrients, some of which of are enhanced by cooking while others are better retained in raw spinach. The best way to reap the many benefits of this healthy vegetable is to enjoy it both raw and cooked. However, boiling is not a healthy way to cook spinach because the nutrients leach into the water. Instead, preserve nutrients in spinach by steaming, sauteing or cooking it in the microwave oven.
Beta-Carotene and Lutein
Beta-carotene and lutein are carotenoids, antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals, which are molecules that, over time, can damage the cells and lead to illness. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, evidence indicates that adding carotenoids to the diet may bolster the immune system and help protect the body from illness such as cancer and heart disease. While beta-carotene and lutein are abundant in spinach and other colorful vegetables, cooking spinach heats the cell walls of the spinach, releasing beta-carotene and lutein and making them more available to the body.
Folate and Vitamin C
Vitamin C has a number of beneficial functions in the human body. It helps maintain healthy bones, tendons, muscles and blood vessels, and like beta-carotene and lutein, acts as an antioxidant that protects the body from free radicals. Folate, a type of vitamin B, helps maintain healthy skin and supports various functions, including the immune system and production of red blood cells. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the high vitamin C and folate content of spinach begins to degrade when the spinach is exposed to heat and light, or when it is stored for long periods. To take advantage of vitamin C and folate, eat the spinach fresh, and as soon as possible.
To saute spinach, cook it quickly in a frying pan with a small amount of heart-healthy olive oil or canola oil. Heat the oil first. Otherwise, the spinach will be greasy and soggy. Saute the spinach, stirring constantly, until the leaves are crisp-tender, which takes about two to three minutes.
Steaming maintains the quality of spinach because the leaves cook in steam and not water. Place spinach in a steamer or heatproof colander, then put the steamer in a saucepan over about an inch of boiling water. Cover the pan and steam the spinach for no more than three to five minutes.
Microwaving spinach in very little moisture retains nearly all of the nutrients in spinach. To cook spinach in the microwave oven, place damp spinach in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover the bowl loosely with waxed paper or plastic wrap, and then cook the spinach until the leaves are tender, which takes about four or five minutes.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Beta-Carotene
- Iowa State University Nutrition Clinic for Employees; Super Foods; Sally Barclay
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Optimizing Your Diet
- University of the District of Columbia Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health: Spinach
- Oklahoma State University Extension: These Roots Run Deep