Once classified as a member of the lily family, asparagus is no fragile flower. Its name is Greek for “spout” or “shoot,” and its spear-shaped form could be viewed as symbolic for its age- and disease-defying abilities.
Asparagus is loaded with nutrients and ranks among the top fruits and vegetables for its Oxygen Radical Absorbency Capacity (ORAC) -- a score measuring a food’s ability to neutralize cell-damaging free radicals in lab tests. We’re still not sure how this translates to the role of antioxidant-rich foods in our diet, but preliminary studies indicate they may also neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies, potentially slowing the aging process. Americans consume only about 4,500 to 5,500 ORAC units per day, according to government calculations. This is equal to about 2-1⁄2 servings of fruits and vegetables, less than half the recommendation for a healthy daily diet. One-half cup of raw asparagus has an ORAC score of 2,021 so it can help make up for a diet low in antioxidant-rich foods.
Another anti-aging property of this amazing veggie is that it may help our brains fight cognitive decline. Like leafy greens, asparagus delivers folate, which works with vitamin B12 (found in fish, poultry and meat) to help prevent cognitive impairment. In a study from Tufts University, older adults with healthy levels of folate and B12 performed better on a test of speed and mental flexibility. If you’re 50-plus, be sure you’re getting enough B12: Your ability to absorb it decreases with age.
This herbaceous plant, along with avocado and watermelon, is a particularly rich dietary source of glutathione, a detoxifying agent in the human body that helps break down carcinogens and other foreign compounds. Glutathione has been called the "master antioxidant" because it regulates the actions of lesser antioxidants, such as vitamin A and vitamin E, within the body. Dietary intake of glutathione from food sources such as asparagus may be associated with protection against certain forms of cancer.
Asparagus is also a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that enhances the ability of insulin to transport glucose from the bloodstream into cells. In addition to a host of other vital minerals and compounds, asparagus is also a good source of vitamin B6, key in helping the body’s immune system fight many diseases, calcium (bone health), magnesium (healthy muscles and energy production) and zinc (healing, proper metabolism).
Just one more benefit of asparagus: It contains high levels of the amino acid asparagine, which serves as a natural diuretic. This is especially beneficial for people who suffer from edema, an intense accumulation of fluids in the body's tissues, and those who suffer from high blood pressure or other heart-related diseases. Increased urination not only releases fluid but also helps rid the body of excess salts.[a]
And finally, to answer a question I often get regarding why eating asparagus causes a strong urinary odor: Asparagus has certain sulfur-containing compounds and amino acids that, when metabolized, give off a distinctive smell in the urine. Young asparagus contains higher concentrations of these compounds so the odor is stronger after eating these vernal shoots. There are, however, no harmful effects, either from the sulfuric compounds or the odor!
The most common type of asparagus is green, but you might see two others in supermarkets and restaurants: white, which is more delicate and difficult to harvest, and purple, which is smaller and fruitier in flavor. No matter the type you choose, asparagus is a tasty, versatile vegetable which can be cooked in myriad ways or enjoyed raw in salads.
Here’s an easy recipe to try:
PORTOBELLOS AND ASPARAGUS
Mushrooms add such meaty richness to this vegetable side dish. Feel free to substitute shiitakes or creminis for the portobellos, if you prefer. The earthiness of the vegetables goes especially nicely with grilled steak and a glass of red wine. Makes 4 (1/2-cup ) servings
2 teaspoons canola or olive oil
3 cups sliced portobello mushrooms (about 2 large portobellos, stems and black gills removed)
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
3 cups 1 1/2-inch asparagus pieces, from about 1 pound (see note)
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
In a nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 3 minutes, or until they just start to soften and release their liquid. Add the shallots and cook for another minute.
Add the asparagus and cook for 3 minutes longer, or until the asparagus is just crisp-tender.
Drizzle the soy sauce over the veggies and sprinkle with the cheese. Toss welland serve hot.
Instead of asparagus, you can substitute 1 (9-ounce) bag (12 cups) fresh spinach. Add to the mushrooms and cover for a few minutes until wilted. Stir well and add the remaining ingredients.
Per serving: 60 calories, 1 g total fat (<1 g saturated), 20 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 7 g total carbohydrates (2 g sugars), 2 g fiber, 6 g protein--