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Asparagus has been prized for its delicate taste and nutritional benefits for nearly 2000 years. It has the highest folic acid content of any vegetable, making it a perfect food during pregnancy. It is also a natural diuretic, laxative, and may promote cardiovascular health.

Asparagus is a member of the lily family and related to onions and garlic. The tender spears that we eat grow from an underground crown, which can take up to three years to develop enough to produce shoots; but once it begins, the crown can continue to produce spears for up to 20 years.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed asparagus could relieve toothaches and bee stings, and while these medicinal benefits have proven false, asparagus can help prevent and relieve other health conditions. Asparagus contains key minerals and amino acids that act as a natural diuretic, which may help relieve PMS-related water retention, arthritis and rheumatism. Its high fiber content may help prevent and relieve constipation, and it contains a particular type of amino acid that helps to neutralize ammonia in the body, which can be toxic and cause fatigue. It also contains rutin, a bioflavonoid, which strengthens blood vessels and prevents their rupture, and is a good source of potassium which can help fight hypertension and quell exercise-related nausea by balancing electrolyte levels.

The high folic acid content in asparagus may play a key role in promoting cardiovascular health. Folic acid has been shown to decrease homocysteine levels in the blood and to improve endothelial function (blood flow) in blood vessels. Homocysteine is a naturally-occurring amino acid, elevated levels of which have been linked to coronary heart disease and stroke. Some scientists estimate that consuming 400 mcg of folate daily could reduce the number of heart attacks suffered by Americans each year by 10 percent.

The folic acid found in asparagus is also necessary for new cell formation and maintenance as well as DNA replication, which are especially important during periods of rapid cell division and growth such as pregnancy. Folic acid deficiency has been linked with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Some studies show that folic acid may also help prevent stroke, some cancers, and possibly Alzheimer's disease.

The inulin content of asparagus may also promote intestinal tract health. We are unable to digest inulin, a certain type of carbohydrate, but the beneficial bacteria in our intestine can, which causes more of these good bacteria to grow and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. The proliferation of these good bacteria can help you to digest food and fight off illness.

It takes only one cup (approximately 5.3 ounces) of asparagus to supply 66 percent of the daily recommended dose of folic acid, and it is also a great source of vitamins C, E and A, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6, as well as dietary fiber, iron, manganese, copper, and phosphorous.

The first asparagus of the season is picked as early as February in California, but the bulk of the crop is picked in April and May, with crops in the Midwest and East harvested through July. Although the most common types of asparagus are green, white and purple varieties are also available.

When buying asparagus, look for rounded stalks that are not fat or twisted with tightly closed, dark green or purplish tips. Store spears in the refrigerator with the ends wrapped in a damp paper towel.

You can steam, stir-fry, grill or roast asparagus, or even eat it raw (although its raw taste and texture is not considered appetizing by most). Try tossing asparagus with pasta for a burst of flavor and nutrients, or sauté with garlic, mushrooms and tofu or meat for a flavorful stir-fry.

Note: Asparagus contains purines, a naturally occurring substance commonly found in plants, animals and humans. In people who are susceptible, consuming purines can cause health problems, such as gout and kidney stones, and they should be avoided.

Enjoy this spring vegetable and its many nutritional benefits this season!


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