Spring is just around the corner, which means it’s almost prime season for one of the most super of all foods: asparagus. These fibrous stalks, which are surprisingly a member of the Lily family, come in green, white, and purple varieties and boast tons of health benefits, from knocking out hangovers to lowering the risk of chronic diseases.
Lean, Green, Nutrient Machines — Why They’re Super
Asparagus is a nutritional powerhouse: It’s a good source of vitamin K (important for strong bones and blood clotting) and antioxidants, which repair damage done by free radicals and can help reduce risk of serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer Role of oxidative stress in cardiovascular diseases. Dhalla, NS., Temsah, R., Netticadan, T. Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences, St Boniface General Hospital Research Centre and Department of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. Journal of Hypertension 2000 June; 18(6):655-73. Oxidative stress and the use of antioxidants in diabetes: Linking basic science to clinical practice. Johansen, JS., Harris, AK., Rychly, DJ., et al. University of Tromso, Tromso, Norway; Medical College of Georgia Vascular Biology Center, Augusta, Georgia, USA. Cardiovascular Diabetology 2005 Apr 29; 4(1):5. Dietary Antioxidants: Immunity and Host Defense. Puertollano, M., Puertollano, E., de Cienfuegos, G., et al. Universidad de Jaén, Facultad de Ciencias Experimentales, Departamento de Ciencias de la Salud, Área de Microbiología, E-23071-Jaén, Spain. Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry 2011;11(14):1752-66..
With a very low calorie content — only 27 calories per cup, or about 12 small spears — asparagus is an ideal veggie to add to any plate. Plus, it's high in folate, which is key during pregnancy, and can also help prevent cancer and anemia in adults and children. One study showed that low-folate diets can also increase the risk of chronic diseases for the elderly Folate: a key to optimizing health and reducing disease risk in the elderly. Rampersaud, GC, Kauwell, GP, Bailey, LB. Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2003 Feb; 22(1):1-8.. So on the next trip over the river and through the woods, ditch the basket of muffins and bring Grandmother some asparagus!
Possibly the most super of asparagus’s superpowers? It may help ease hangovers! One study found liver cells treated with extract from asparagus plants had decreased toxicity and more active alcohol-metabolizing enzymes Effects of Asparagus officinalis extracts on liver cell toxicity and ethanol metabolism. Kim, BY, Cui, ZG, Lee, SR, et al. Institution of Medical Science, Jeju National University, Jeju, Korea. Journal of Food Science. 2009 Sep; 74(7):H204-8.. While the carryover to actual hangovers is still being looked into, it can't hurt to chomp on some asparagus with those scrambled eggs and ginger tea the next time the dog bites.
Three Cheers for Spears! — Your Action Plan
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Maybe. Asparagus, among other foods, is high in purines, which cause the body to produce uric acid when it breaks them down. Too much uric acid in the blood can lead to gout, a form of arthritis, or make symptoms worse for those who already suffer from it. There are many other risk factors for gout though, such as obesity and genetics, so most people needn’t really worry about adding asparagus to their diet.
But let’s attack the biggest elephant in the room: super-sulfurous asparagus pee. This smelly side effect has to do with how the body reacts with asparagusic acid (a sulfur-containing compound unique to asparagus) and also whether or not a person can detect the smell — research suggests not everyone can, as a specific gene must be present for a person to be able to smell it Excretion and perception of a characteristic odor in urine after asparagus ingestion: a psychophysical and genetic study. Pelchat, ML, Bykowski, C, Duke, FF, et al. Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, PA. Chemical Senses. 2001 Jan; 36(1):9-17.. While there's no surefire way to avoid the smell, small lifestyle changes like drinking more water or sipping on cranberry juice may help lessen the scent.
When shopping for asparagus, there’s no need to go organic: it’s on the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 list of fruits and vegetables with the lowest occurrence of pesticides. But be mindful of its relatively short shelf life — it’s best to use it within 48 hours of purchasing to avoid dry and withering stalks. Studies have shown that exposure to light further decreases its shelf life, so storing in a dark place is best. It’s also helpful to wrap the stalks in a wet paper towel to keep them from drying out.
Asparagus can be prepped basically any way, from roasting or grilling to sautéing or steaming. Plus, it's delicious on its own or in pastas and other dishes. But how to know where to trim off the tough root end when prepping this superfood? Asparagus has one final superpower: Each spear will show exactly where to trim when you when you hold it by each end and bend it until it snaps.
Now, will someone please pass the asparagus?
Our Favorite Asparagus Recipes from Around the Web:
Breakfast: Spring Veggie and Potato Frittata via Fit Sugar
Lunch: Asparagus Salad with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette via MyRecipes.com
Side: Oven-Roasted Asparagus via Everyday Food
Dinner: Ginger, Corn, and Asparagus Stir Fry via Cooking Light
What's your favorite spring veggie? Does asparagus make the cut? Share your thoughts in the comments below!