What’s long, thin, and shaped like a spear but tastes great and may be even better for you? Asparagus, that’s what! This delicious harbinger of spring, beloved by gourmet chefs and country cooks alike, is one of the healthiest veggies in the world. But what exactly are these asparagus health benefits, you ask? Come with us as we uncover all the ways asparagus can improve your health and well-being while sprucing up your diet too.
Asparagus: Nutrition Facts
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a flowering perennial that was once considered a member of the lily family (Liliaceae). However, genetic studies then revealed more differences than similarities, prompting its move to the Asparagaceae family.
When most of us think of asparagus, we probably think of the green asparagus spear. But did you know there are actually white and purple varieties too?
White asparagus, which is quite popular in Europe, is actually the same as green asparagus, with one crucial difference: the growing method. Instead of allowing the young shoots to rise up through the soil, white asparagus spears are covered with soil so photosynthesis can’t occur and chlorophyll can’t build up in the shoots.
By contrast, purple asparagus is a variety that was first cultivated in Italy. Unlike white asparagus, which is more bitter than green asparagus, purple asparagus has a higher sugar content and thus a sweeter flavor.
But when it comes to nutrition, green asparagus trumps both white and purple. In fact, just 1 cup of fresh asparagus contains an impressive array of dietary fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, including:
|11% of the RDA of fiber||6% of the RDA of protein|
|20% of the RDA of vitamin A||6% of the RDA of vitamin B6|
|13% of the RDA of vitamin C||8% of the RDA of vitamin E|
|70% of the RDA of vitamin K||13% of the RDA of thiamine|
|11% of the RDA of riboflavin||17% of the RDA of folate|
|7% of the RDA of niacin||16% of the RDA of iron|
|5% of the RDA of magnesium||7% of the RDA of phosphorus|
|8% of the RDA of potassium||5% of the RDA of zinc|
|13% of the RDA of copper||11% of the RDA of manganese|
Green asparagus is also a good source of phytonutrients, including steroidal saponins and the flavonoids quercetin, rutin, and kaempferol, while purple asparagus is especially rich in polyphenols called anthocyanins.
These essential nutrients act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and are known for their ability to fight free radicals and oxidative stress, which can lead to chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Asparagus Health Benefits
The use of asparagus dates back at least 5,000 years. Enjoyed by the ancient Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and Romans, asparagus was offered by the Egyptians to their gods, revered as medicine by the Greeks, and even hailed by the Kama Sutra as an aphrodisiac.
So what does modern science have to say about the health benefits of asparagus? Let’s find out.
The steroidal saponins in asparagus have been found in studies to possess a number of important properties. Beyond acting as antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-cancer agents, they’ve also been shown to have benefits for heart health, from inhibiting platelet aggregation to lowering lipid levels.
A study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine also found that asparagus improves cholesterol metabolism—an ability thought to be related to its steroidal saponins.
What’s more, the anthocyanins found in purple asparagus are associated with lower blood pressure, healthier arteries, and a reduced risk of heart attacks. And the flavonoid rutin has been found to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol.
Asparagus is also an excellent source of folate (often seen in dietary supplements in its synthetic form, folic acid), a deficiency of which is associated with elevated levels of homocysteine—an amino acid that’s linked to a higher risk of heart disease.
Asparagus is a good source of insoluble fiber, a form of fiber that helps keep your digestive tract strong and healthy by adding bulk to stools and increasing regularity. It’s also a good source of a type of soluble fiber called inulin. Inulin is considered a prebiotic because it passes undigested through the small intestine and becomes food for healthy gut bacteria. Eating prebiotics can actually increase levels of good bacteria in the large intestine, and this can aid digestion, boost the immune system, improve mental health, and help with weight loss.
What’s more, soluble fiber has the added benefit of supporting healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
Urinary Tract Health
If you’re experiencing bloating and water weight gain and don’t know what to do, try reaching for some asparagus. This spring shoot contains the amino acid asparagine, which is known for its natural diuretic effect. Getting rid of extra fluid and salt can not only reduce high blood pressure but also flush out toxins and help prevent kidney stones and urinary tract infections.
However, if you love asparagus, you’ve probably noticed the distinct smell it imparts to urine. If you’ve ever wondered where this smell comes from, you can blame it on asparagusic acid. After eating asparagus, the body breaks down asparagusic acid into sulfur-containing compounds that cause urine to smell like, well, sulfur. But the good news is that sulfur is an incredibly important nutrient your body needs, and the smell doesn’t really last long.
Along with calcium and vitamin D, healthy bones need plenty of vitamin K. This important vitamin works hand in hand with both calcium and vitamin D to increase bone density. In fact, low levels are associated with a greater risk of osteoporosis. But, with a whopping 70% of the RDA of vitamin K in every cup, adding more asparagus to your diet can help keep bones strong and lower your risk of fracture.
Folate is known for its ability to reduce the risk of neural tube defects—birth defects that affect the brain, spine, or spinal cord. And asparagus is a good source of this essential nutrient, so pregnant women who add some extra spears to their diet can help decrease this risk.
Cancer Treatment and Prevention
As mentioned, asparagus is loaded with important phytochemicals, many of which have been found in studies to help prevent and treat different forms of cancer.
For example, quercetin is widely recognized for its effectiveness against a variety of cancers, including breast, lung, kidney, colon, prostate, pancreatic, and ovarian cancers. It’s also been found to increase the effectiveness of traditional cancer treatment.
Likewise, kaempferol and steroidal saponins have been found to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and even cause cancer cell death.
Choosing Fresh Asparagus
If you’re interested in eating more asparagus, the good news is that it’s really easy to do. Not only is asparagus extremely versatile and easy to prepare, but it’s also delicious. And if you’re familiar with the canned variety but don’t know much about the fresh kind, we’ve got some tips to help you with that too.
When shopping for asparagus, look for bright, firm spears with tightly closed tips. Asparagus is also generally sold as a bundle, so give it a squeeze and see if it makes a squeaking sound. If it does, you know the asparagus is fresh. And be sure to avoid any bunches with woody stems—a sign the spears are overly mature.
It’s also important to remember that asparagus doesn’t store well, so it’s best to eat it the same day it’s purchased. But if that’s not possible, you can trim a little off the bottom of the spears, place them in water or wrap them in a damp paper towel, loosely cover the entire bunch with a plastic bag, and store them in the refrigerator for several days.
Cooking with Asparagus
Before cooking your asparagus, you first need to prepare it. While thin asparagus spears are quite tender, thicker ones may have a more fibrous outer coating that should be removed with a vegetable peeler.
Next, you need to remove the woody end. To do this, either snap it off where it naturally meets the tender flesh or peel the spear and cut off the white part.
Now it’s time to cook your asparagus—and we have just the recipe to get you started.
Garlic Salmon with Potatoes and Asparagus
- 4-6 ounces of fresh salmon
- 4-5 yellow potatoes
- 1 pound fresh asparagus
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Salt, black pepper, and smoked paprika to taste
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
- Cut potatoes into small cubes.
- Trim asparagus and cut into small pieces.
- Add potatoes, asparagus, salt, and pepper to skillet and cover, stirring frequently.
- Mince garlic cloves and mix in a bowl with the remaining 2 tablespoons of the olive oil as well as salt, pepper, and smoked paprika to taste.
- Pour mixture over the salmon and rub in.
- Place salmon on a large baking tray and bake for 30 minutes or until flaky.
Remember, asparagus is extremely versatile, so you can grill it, roast it, sauté it—even poach it. What’s more, you can pair it with just about anything. And when cooked until tender, we bet you’ll find that fresh is much better than the mushy canned stuff. Plus, you’ll be making the most out of the many health benefits of asparagus. And what can be better than that?