The Welsh believed the leeks they wore on their helmets back in the 6th century won them victories on the battlefield. Though we can’t promise superhuman strength, these veggies could offer some protective powers when it comes to cancer— and they’ve got a few more tricks up their sleeves, too!

Take It or Leek It — The Need-to-Know

Photo by Caitlin Covington

Leeks owe many of their superpowers to their organosulfur compounds, phytochemicals that may carry immune-boosting benefits. Those compounds have been credited with everything from boosting immunity to kicking cancer and can be found in other allium family vegetables too, including garlic, onions, and shallotsComposition and properties of biologically active pectic polysaccharides from leek (Allium porrum). Kratchanova, M., Nikolova, M., Pavlova, E., et al. Institute of Organic Chemistry with Center of Phytochemistry, Laboratory of Biologically Active Substances, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 4000 Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2010 Sep;90(12):2046-51.. Studies have shown leeks could help protect the digestive system from stomach and gastric cancers— though researchers believe garlic may be more powerful than other allium veggies— but further studies are needed to be sureConsumption of large amounts of Allium vegetables reduces risk for gastric cancer in a meta-analysis. Zhou, Y., Zhuang, W., Hu, W., et al. Department of Gastrointestinal Surgery, West China Hospital, Sichuan University, Chengdu, China. Gastroenterology, 2011 Jul;141(1):80-9.Allium vegetables and stomach cancer risk in China. Setiawan, V.W., Yu, G.P., Lu, Q.Y., et al. Department of Preventive Medicine, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, Los Angeles, CA. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 2005 Jul-Sep;6(3):387-95.. Getting a healthy dose of allium veggies could also protect against prostate cancerChemoprevention of prostate cancer: what can be recommended to patients? Colli, J.L., Amling, C.L. University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1530 3rd Avenue South, Birmingham, AL. Current Urology Reports, 2009 May;10(3):165-71.. Researchers are still uncertain exactly why leeks may help prevent cancer, but it’s been suggested they could stop the spread of cancer cells, foil carcinogens’ evil plots, and beat up damaging free radicals compounds in cancer chemoprevention. Moriarty, R.M., Naithani, R., Surve, B. Department of Chemistry, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL. Mini Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry, 2007 Aug;7(8):827-38.. These veggies know how to get down to business!

But leeks have more than just cancer-fighting skills. They’re low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals, too— just one cup packs more than 30 percent of the daily value of vitamins A and K, and about 15 percent of the daily recommended folate and manganese intakes. The vitamin A helps maintain healthy skin, teeth, and eyes, while upping folate may decrease the risk for heart disease (not to mention pregnancy complications). Manganese, meanwhile, could help alleviate symptoms of PMS (now if only they could combine the benefits of leeks with the deliciousness of Ben & Jerry’s…).

Get Your Leek On — Your Action Plan

Like its relatives onion and garlic, leeks are ultra-versatile. Their flavor is similar to an onion’s, but milder. And though not too yummy raw, they can be cooked in almost any way imaginable. (Candied? Probably not.) The white and light green portions of this scallion-like veggie are eaten; the darker leaves typically are not. Look for leeks that are stiff, white, and green— not wilted or yellow— and the smaller the stalk, the better the texture. Store them straight from the store (no trimming or washing) in a nice dark fridge, as light can shorten their lifespan.

While this greenery is safe for most people, those with kidney stones should pass, as the oxalates it contains could worsen some types of stones. On the other hand, those dealing with swelling due to water retention could give leeks a try— they’re a natural diuretic.

Are leeks too intimidating, or have you given them a shot? Any other favorite allium veggies out there?

Recipe: Baked Leek, Potato, and Spinach Frittata

By Kate Morin, adapted from Whole Living

Serves 4

What You’ll Need:

2 leeks (about 1/2 pound), white and pale-green parts only

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon olive oil (for pan)

1/2 pound Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Salt and pepper to taste

4 large eggs

1 cup spinach leaves, chopped

3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

What to Do:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush a small baking dish with oil.
  2. Bring water to a simmer in a medium pan over high heat. Add leeks, potatoes, and a sprinkle of salt.
  3. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook covered until potatoes are just tender (8 to 10 minutes). Set aside to cool.
  4. In a bowl, whisk together eggs, spinach, and a sprinkle of salt, if desired.
  5. Fold in the potato mixture.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese.
  7. Bake until edges are set, about 12 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 and continue cooking until set in the center— about 20 to 25 minutes.
  8. Let cook for 10 minutes. Cut and serve with a green salad for a perfect brunch or dinner!