Asparagus is one of those vegetables that often gets overlooked and underappreciated. For one thing, it only appears seasonally at the market (during the spring and fall).
Not only is this green fibrous plant delicious when properly prepared, but it is also loaded with health-giving nutrients.
Asparagus is a member of the Asparagaceae family. Its name comes from the Greek word meaning “shoot” or “sprout.” This unique plant is thought to date back to 2,000 years ago in the eastern Meditteranean area where it was valued for both its culinary and medicinal properties.
We think of asparagus as being green (American and British), but there are also purple (French) and white (Spanish and Dutch) varieties. Did you know that asparagus plants are either male or female? The male plants yield more shoots since there is no energy directed toward seed production.
The edible spears grow from a crown that thrives in sandy soils. The plant cultivates well in places where the ground freezes during winter or there are dry seasons because asparagus does not like wet soil or mild temperatures. In ideal conditions, it can grow 10 inches in 24 hours!
Like most vegetables, asparagus is low in fat. A one-cup serving has only 32 calories, 4 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 404 milligrams of potassium. (As is often the case, fats and calories come from the butter, lemony mayonnaise, or Hollandaise sauce toppings.)
Some people call asparagus a superfood. It is high in vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6. Along with its high fiber content (which helps the body pass waste through the digestive system), this remarkable herbaceous plant also provides folate, iron, copper, calcium, chromium, glutathione, and protein.
Here’s a weight-loss tip: eat a high-protein hard-boiled egg with some fibrous asparagus to feel full without loading up on unwanted calories.
Asparagus contains an amino acid called asparaptine which improves blood flow and is a natural diuretic – it makes you pee. Regular flushing of excess fluid and salt from the body reduces edema (fluids that accumulate in body tissues) and lowers the chance of getting a urinary tract infection (UTI). Author of The Small Change Diet Keri Gans, RD a nutrition consultant in New York, wrote:
“When women are not urinating enough, they can get a UTI. It’s possible that a diet rich in asparagus could prevent these painful infections from developing, since going to the bathroom more frequently can help move bad bacteria out of the urinary tract.”
Purple asparagus is loaded with anthocyanins, the antioxidant pigments that give plants their red, blue, and purple colors.
Many people think they don’t like to eat asparagus because they never tried it well-prepared. Like most tough vegetables – such as broccoli – cooking too long or not long enough takes away from the culinary experience. In addition, cooking any veggie too long “could cause the vitamins to leech out into the water,” confirmed Gans.
Asparagus is quite high in another potent antioxidant, vitamin E, which bolsters the immune system and reduces the harmful effects of free radicals in the body, which promote aging and inflammation. This important vitamin activates the sex hormones, including estrogen in women and testosterone in men. Gans shared the health benefits of roasting asparagus with some olive oil:
“Our body absorbs vitamin E better if it’s eaten alongside some fat. And when you cook it with olive oil, you’re getting and vitamin E.”
The vitamin B6 and folate in asparagus are natural aphrodisiacs. These nutrients increase the sex drive in both men and women. In addition, folate combined with vitamin B12 may help the brain resist cognitive decline and impairment.
Asparagus contains prebiotics – undigestible carbohydrates that help balance the good bacteria in the digestive tract (probiotics). The result is reduced stomach bloating.
A mere four spears of asparagus provide a whopping 22 percent of the daily requirement of folic acid. According to Gans, “Folic acid is essential for women who are planning on getting pregnant since it can help protect against neural tube defect.”
The high vitamin K content in asparagus aid blood coagulation (clotting). It also supports healthy bones. Gans shared this secret: “Most people think of calcium for healthy bones, but vitamin K is also important. It can actually help your body absorb calcium.”
The B vitamin folate is a mood elevator and asparagus packs plenty of it. Feeling crabby? Eat some asparagus. Low levels of folate and vitamin B12 have been linked to depression. High concentrations of the amino acid tryptophan in this super veggie are also thought to improve mood.
Chromium is a trace element that boosts the ability of insulin to carry glucose from the bloodstream into cells which can be very helpful for people with diabetes who need to watch their blood sugar levels.
Asparagus, avocado, kale, and Brussels sprouts are all rich in glutathione, a detoxifying compound that breaks down free radicals and carcinogens. A diet that features these vegetables may prevent and fight some types of cancer: bone, breast, colon, larynx, and lung.
There is one peculiarity you should know about eating asparagus, especially young, tender stalks: the sulfuric compounds in it metabolize to produce a strong and distinctive odor. Rest assured that this smell is completely harmless, and many people never even notice it.
Asparagus can be roasted, grilled or stir-fried. Any quick-cooking, waterless method preserves the beneficial nutritional content and antioxidant power of asparagus.
At the grocery store, choose asparagus stalks that have strong spears and tight heads. The stalk is fresh if it snaps when bent. Before cooking, snap the tough ends off the stalks and rinse each spear well with water.
Asparagus is easy to cook. I prefer to steam it for 5 to 10 minutes. Others cook it in a pan with water, lemon, and olive oil, grill over medium heat, oven bake, or microwave with some water to create steam.
By itself, asparagus has a distinct taste that some people like to spice up with salt, pepper, garlic, lemon, or red pepper flakes. Just about any seasoning can enhance this wonderfully healthy vegetable – so treat yourself to some asparagus when it is in season.