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Asparagus: First Among Vegetables

A Springtime Superfood: Unveiling the Health Benefits and Culinary Versatility of Asparagus


Asparagus isn't just a delicious spring herald, it's a nutritional powerhouse. Packed with fiber, vitamins, and boasting prebiotics for gut health, asparagus is a friend to your digestive system. This versatile veggie can be enjoyed simply roasted or dressed up in a fancy dish, making it a perfect addition to any meal. Plus, learn the fascinating history and folklore surrounding this "vampire of the vegetable world."

Culinary Medicine

asparagus


Spring has sprung or at least the asparagus has. Asparagus is usually the first vegetable ready for harvest, popping its stalks up as early as March. It’s early because unlike most other vegetables that must be planted every year, asparagus is a perennial that sends up tender stalks from early spring until the end of June for 15 to 20 years! So, while you are waiting to even plant other garden vegetables like tomatoes and beans, enjoy some fresh asparagus. 


Asparagus is native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia, where it grew wild along riverbanks and coastal areas in sandy, salty soil. Cultivation began more than 2,000 years ago and it was prized by the Greeks and Romans for its flavor, texture, and medicinal properties.[1] Colonists are believed to have brought asparagus to North America in the 1700s, planting it initially in New England.[2] Wild asparagus can still be found growing in ditches and beach areas across the United States. It is recognizable because the uncut asparagus spears grow and branch into fern-like plants with yellow flowers and red berries that appear in the fall. Today Michigan, California, and Washington are the leaders in US asparagus production, but most of the 500 million pounds of asparagus Americans consume each year is imported from Mexico and Peru.[3]


Asparagus spears are harvested when they are about 6 to 10 inches tall. The spears can be thick or thin and green, white, or purple. The thickness of the asparagus spear is an indication of the plant’s age; they are thick or thin from the moment they sprout. Most asparagus is green.  Although white asparagus spears are more tender than green, they come from the same plant but are picked before they poke their heads out into the sun.[4] As a result, white asparagus never develops chlorophyll, which gives the green color to green asparagus. Since it spends its life in the dark, white asparagus has been called the vampire of the vegetable world.[5] The purple variety, developed in Italy, is sought after for its milder, slightly sweeter flavor. Unfortunately, most of the purple color disappears when it is cooked.


While asparagus doesn’t have specific medicinal or vampire-like properties, it is packed with nutrition. It is rich in fiber, vitamin K, and folate and is a source of B vitamins and vitamins A, E, C as well as iron and zinc. Asparagus is low in calories and sodium and for a green vegetable, high in protein, with 3 grams in a cup. The fiber in asparagus is rich in prebiotic fructooligosaccharides, which make their way to the colon where they are a food source for intestinal bacteria and thus promote the growth and maintenance of healthy microbiota.[6] There are slight nutritional differences between various colors of asparagus. The purple variety is higher in sugar and lower in fiber than green and white asparagus. But purple asparagus also has higher levels of anthocyanins, antioxidant phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. [7]


Despite asparagus’s nutritional clout, many may pass up this delicacy because it tends to be more expensive than other vegetables. This is mainly because it is difficult to harvest; each spear must be hand cut and it can’t be overharvested because the plant needs to maintain energy to send up spears the next year. Another reason some may shy away from asparagus is that it gives urine a distinctive smell. This odor comes from a compound called asparagusic acid, which the body converts into a group of volatile sulfur-containing compounds that appear in the urine as soon as soon as 15 to 30 minutes after eating. These compounds have an unpleasant smell but are harmless. Curiously, because of genetic variations, not everyone produces or can smell the odor.[8]


So, add some elegance along with nutrition to your meals. Asparagus makes a classy appetizer. It can be a simple vegetable boiled or roasted and then drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, or you can dress it up with hollandaise sauce. It is a delicious addition to a casserole.  And leftovers can be tossed into your salad or grain dishes. 


 
 

References


[1] Asparagus, Considered a Delicacy Since Ancient Times. Asparagus, Considered a Delicacy Since Ancient Times. Accessed April 10, 2024. https://www.uaex.uada.edu/counties/miller/news/fcs/fruits-veggies/asparagus.aspx#:~:text=The%20Greeks%20believed%20asparagus%20was



[5] White Asparagus: The Vampire Of The Vegetable World. HuffPost. Published April 10, 2012. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/white-asparagus_n_1412329

[6] Redondo-Cuenca A, García-Alonso A, Rodríguez-Arcos R, et al. Nutritional composition of green asparagus (Asparagus officinalis L.), edible part and by-products, and assessment of their effect on the growth of human gut-associated bacteria. Food Research International (Ottawa, Ont). 2023;163:112284. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2022.112284



[8] Pelchat ML, Bykowski C, Duke FF, Reed DR. Excretion and perception of a characteristic odor in urine after asparagus ingestion: a psychophysical and genetic study. Chem Senses. 2011;36(1):9-17. https://doi:10.1093/chemse/bjq081



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