What grows faster than a speeding bullet and is able to supply half the day’s recommended intake of folate in a single serving? Asparagus! This superhero vegetable can grow up to seven inches in one day in warm temperatures and comes ready-loaded with a high concentration of nutrients. Asparagus receives ample attention for its abundance of folate; it’s one of the best sources of this important compound next to orange juice. Folate keeps down blood levels of homocysteine, which is a culprit in atherosclerosis and heart disease. It’s also essential for pregnant women, since folate deficiency can lead to birth defects like neural tube disorders.
The green, white, or sometimes purple spears boast high concentrations of cancer-fighting antioxidants, including vitamins A, C, and E (although green asparagus takes the prize over the other two varieties). In particular, according to the National Cancer Institute, asparagus contains more of the antioxidant glutathione than any other fruit or vegetable. Glutathione fulfills numerous cellular functions, including detoxifying the body of carcinogens, protecting cell membranes and DNA from toxic compounds, participating in immune function and recycling vitamins C and E, which are important for eye health, into active forms. Lightly steaming asparagus preserves the most glutathione. The tender tips hold the lion’s share of this immune-boosting antioxidant.
Asparagus also maintains digestive health by supplying a dose of fiber and a special carbohydrate called inulin. This carb is indigestible to us, but readily consumed by the friendly bacteria in our gut. It promotes the growth of these beneficial bacteria, who in turn keep harmful gut bacteria at bay. A compound in asparagus called asparagusic acid makes asparagus a natural diuretic. For this reason, asparagus can be helpful for problems related to swelling and water retention, such as arthritis, PMS, and some cardiovascular diseases. The same compound causes a distinct odor in the urine of some who consume the vegetable. Yes, it’s a documented phenomenon, and no—the smell doesn’t indicate anything harmful.
Food of the Kings
With such an abundance of benefits, the spring harvest of asparagus is definitely cause for rejoicing. In ancient times, the gathering of wild asparagus was a springtime ritual. In cultures such as Egypt, Greece and Rome, the vegetable was used to treat everything from bee stings to toothaches to infertility. When asparagus gained popularity in the 16th century, it was so adored by French King Louis XIV that he ordered special greenhouses built for a year-round supply. Known thereafter as the “Food of the Kings,” asparagus remains available (even to us commoners) year round. But there’s still something extra special about the sweet stalks of these spring superheroes in all their seasonal glory. Add asparagus to your spring table and watch it disappear as fast as it grows.