Making the Argument for Arugula

Arugula (Eruca sativa), is an edible annual plant, commonly known as salad rocket, roquette, rucola, rugula, or colewort. It is a member of the Brassicaceae family that includes kale, collards, turnip, mustard, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, napa cabbage, rapini, and watercress, among other amazing vegetables. Arugula is  native to the Mediterranean region, from Morocco and Portugal in the west to Lebanon and Turkey in the east.

In addition to the leaves, the flowers (often used in salads as an edible garnish), young seed pods, and mature seeds are all edible. In ancient Rome, arugula was grown for both its leaves and seeds. Typical Roman meals included green salads, frequently comprising arugula, Romaine, chicory, mallow, and lavender. The seed was used for flavoring oils, and was mentioned by various Roman authors as an aphrodisiac, most famously in a poem long ascribed to Virgil, Moretum, which contains the line: “et veneris revocans eruca morantuem” (“arugula excites the sexual desire of drowsy people”). It may have been for this reason that during the Middle Ages, monks were forbidden to grow arugula.

In 802, Charlemagne decreed that arugula was one of the pot herbs suitable for growing in gardens. Gillian Reilly, author of the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, wrote that because of its reputation as a sexual stimulant, arugula was “prudently mixed with lettuce, which was the opposite.” Reilly continued that “nowadays rocket is enjoyed innocently in mixed salads, to which it adds a pleasing pungency.”

Arugula was traditionally collected in the wild or grown in home gardens along with other herbs such as parsley and basil. It is now grown commercially from Italy to Iowa to Brazil and is available in supermarkets and farmers’ markets throughout the world. It is also naturalized as a wild plant in temperate regions around the world, including northern Europe and North America. In India, the mature seeds are known as Gargeer.

In a 1960 New York Times article (“A Green by Any Name; Pungent Ingredient Is Cause of Confusion for City Shopper Arugula — or Rocket — Is the Secret of Experts’ Salads”) Craig Claiborne, the Times food critic, found the herb everywhere in New York City: “Most Italian chefs know [that Arugula] is the secret ingredient of their salads-about-town.” He listed a half-dozen stores in the area that sold bundles of the stuff for fifteen to nineteen cents, about the price of spinach.

Before the 1980s, arugula was comparatively unknown in the English-speaking world outside of immigrant Italian communities and among New York devotees of Italian cooking. Arugula first gained popularity in the United States in the 1990s during the mania for all things Mediterranean, but by 2006, Vanity Fair writer and editor David Kamp gave his book about the spread of American mass-media culinary sophistication the prophetic title: The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation.

Arugula has a rich, peppery taste and an exceptionally pungent flavor for a leafy green. It is frequently used in salads, often mixed with other greens in a mesclun. It is also used raw with pasta in northern Italy and in western Slovenia (especially in the Slovenian Istria). In Italy, raw arugula is often added to pizzas just before the baking period ends or immediately afterwards, so that it will not wilt in the heat. It is also used cooked in Puglia, in Southern Italy, to make the pasta dish cavatiéddi, in which large amounts of coarsely chopped arugula are added to pasta seasoned with a homemade reduced tomato sauce, as well as in many recipes in which it is added, chopped, to sauces and cooked dishes. In the Slovenian Littoral, it is often combined with boiled potatoes or used in a soup. A sweet, peppery digestive alcohol called rucolino is made from arugula on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. This liqueur is a local specialty enjoyed in small quantities following a meal in the same way as a limoncello or grappa.

In Brazil, where its use is widespread, arugula is eaten raw in salads. In Egypt, it is eaten with ful medames for breakfast. In West Asia and Northern India, arugula seeds are pressed to make taramira oil, used in pickling and (after aging to remove acridity) as a salad or cooking oil. The seed cake is also used as animal feed.

Arugula is a very low-calorie vegetable, with 100 grams of fresh leaves providing just 25 calories, along with many vital phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Arugula has an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity, a measure of antioxidant strength) value of about 1904 µmol TE per 100 grams. Arugula contains about eight times the calcium, fives times the vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K, and four times the iron as the same amount of iceberg lettuce.

Arugula is rich source of certain phytochemicals such as indoles, thiocyanates, sulforaphane, and iso­thiocyanates. Together, they counter the carcinogenic effects of estrogen and help fight prostate, breast, cervical, colon, and ovarian cancers by inhibiting cancer cell growth and killing cancer cells. In addition, di-indolyl-methane (DIM), a fat-soluble metabolite of indole, has immune modulator, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties (by activating Interferon-Gamma production and receptors). DIM has been used to treat recurring respiratory papillomatosis caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and may be useful for cervical dysplasia. Arugula also contains compounds called glucosinolates. In your body, glucosinolates are converted to isothiocyanates, which regulate immune function and play a role in cancer prevention. Sulforaphane has excellent chemoprotective effects and helps to fight carcinogens. Arugula contains beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, fat-soluble carotenoid pigmanets that act as antioxidants and prevent diseases like cancer and macular degeneration. 

Arugula is rich with valuable antioxidants, considered essential in preventing free radical activity in your body. Arugula is dense with the natural antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin K, and vitamin A. In addition to fighting free radical activity, these vitamins offer great immune system support. Vitamin A and flavonoid compounds in arugula may help protect your body from skin cancer, lung cancer, and oral cancer. 

Like kale, arugula is an excellent source of vitamin A, with 100 g fresh leaves providing 1424 µg of beta-carotene, and 2373 IU of vitamin A. Vitamin A and flavonoid compounds in green leafy vegetables help protect from skin, lung and oral cavity cancers. Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant, boosts immunity and is great for the eyes, skin, bones and teeth.

Arugula is also rich in B-complex vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), and pantothenic acid, all of which are essential for optimum cellular enzymatic and metabolic functions.  Fresh arugula is a very good source of folate, with 100 g of fresh greens providing 97 µg or 24% of the Daily Value (DV) for folic acid.

Fresh arugula leaves contain good levels of vitamin C. Vitamin C is a well known as a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cancer, boosts the immune system, fight the common cold, and prevent cataracts.

Arugula is an excellent source of vitamin K; 100 g provides about 90% of recommended intake. Vitamin K promotes bone health and brain function while acting as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

Arugula contains adequate levels of minerals, especially copper and iron. In addition, it has small amounts of some other essential minerals and electrolytes such as calcium, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus, all essential minerals that offer their own unique health benefits. Oxalates inhibit mineral absorption in the body. Other healthy leafy greens, such as spinach, have high levels of oxalate. However, arugula appears to offer relatively low levels of oxalate, making it a healthier alternative for people seeking foods high in calcium and other essential minerals.

Eating arugula and other cruciferous vegetables in raw form is good for getting the most isothiocyanates, those compounds being studied for their role in cancer prevention. When arugula is cooked, the enzymes that produce isothiocyanates are less active. Eating raw arugula will likely provide your body with more of the healthy isothiocyanates than eating cooked arugula. Cooking arugula has its advantages, however. By eating gently cooked arugula, you can absorb more of certain nutrients and carotenoids than you would from raw arugula.

Nutrients in 100 grams of raw arugula

Nutrient Amount DV
Vitamin K 108.6 µg 90%
Vitamin A 2373 IU 79%
Vitamin C 15 mg 25%
Folate 97 µg 24%
Iron 1.46 mg 18%
Calcium 160 mg 16%
Manganese 0.321 mg 14%
Magnesium 47 mg 12%
Pantothenic acid 0.437 mg 8%
Copper 0.076 mg 8%
Potassium 369 mg 7.50%
Phosphorus 52 mg 7.50%
Riboflavin 0.086 mg 7%
Pyridoxine 0.073 mg 6%
Protein 2.58 g 5%
Zinc 0.47 mg 5%
Fiber 1.6 g 4%
Thiamine 0.044 mg 4%
Carbohydrates 3.65 g 3%
Fat 0.66 g 3%
Vitamin E 0.43 mg 3%
Niacin 0.305 mg 2%
Sodium 27 mg 2%
Energy 25 Kcal 1%
Selenium 0.3 µg <1%
Carotene-ß 1424 µg  
Carotene-α 0 µg  
Lutein-zeaxanthin 3555 µg  

Fresh arugula is available year-round. When buying, look for crispy green color young leaves. Field-grown arugula may is often sold in the local markets with root attached. Cut open the bushel and trim the lower stems. Discard yellow, wilted, bruised leaves. Avoid flowered harvest, as its leaves are tough and bitter in taste. Store the herb as you do for other greens like spinach, purslane, or kale. Place it in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator set at high relative humidity.

Place the leaves in a large bowl of cold water and swish thoroughly as you do with other greens like spinach in order to remove sand, soil, and dirt. Then drain the water, gently pat dry using moisture absorbent cloth before use in cooking. Young tender arugula leaves are excellent in salads and sandwiches. Fresh greens are used in soups, stews, juices, and cooked as a vegetable. You can prepare Italian style arugula pasta or enjoy garlic toasts dipped in leek-arugula vichyssoise.

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

7 thoughts on “Making the Argument for Arugula

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