Parsing the Benefits of Parsley

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is in the Apiaceae family, along with other mostly aromatic plants with hollow stems and umbrella-like flower clusters. Included in this family are anise, caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, coriander (including cilantro), cumin, dill, fennel, hemlock, Queen Anne’s lace, parsley, and parsnip. The word “parsley” comes from the Latin petros selinon, meaning “rock celery.”

Parsley is native to the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe. While it has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years, parsley was used medicinally prior to being consumed as a food. As far back as Hippocrates (c. 460 BC – c. 370 BC), parsley was used in medicinal recipes for cure-alls, general tonics, poison antidotes, anti-rheumetics, and formulas to relieve kidney and bladder stones. The ancient Greeks held parsley to be sacred, making crowns of parsley to bestow upon the winners of the Nemena and Isthmian sports games, in the same manner that bay wreaths honored the Olympians. They also used them to decorate tombs.  De’eis thai selinon, “to need only parsley,” was an expression equivalent to “one foot in the grave.” Parsley was never served at Greek dining tables. Greek gardens often had borders of parsley and rue, which led to the saying “Oh! we are only at the Parsley and Rue” to signify when an undertaking was in contemplation and not fully acted upon.

Pliny (23 – 79 AD) mentioned parsley as a cure for ailing fish and listed it as a popular flavoring for broths and sauces. He also made mention of a curled variety. The Romans wore garlands of parsley on their heads during feasts to ward off intoxication. At Roman weddings, wreaths of parsley were given to protect against evil spirits. The practice of using parsley as a garnish can be traced back to the ancient Romans, although parsley was kept away from nursing mothers because it was thought to cause epilepsy in their babies.

According to Dr. May Berenbaum, former chair of the University of Illinois Entomology Department, “Parsley’s long association with death led naturally to an association with evil, a fact that did not increase its popularity among medieval home gardeners. Dire consequences awaited those who were not fully aware of its powers. Virgins could not plant it without risking impregnation by Satan; a male head of household could plant it safely only on Good Friday, so that the Devil might have his share with impunity. Germination was slow because the seeds had to travel to hell and back two, three, seven, or nine times (depending on sources) before they could grow.” The ungerminated seeds were thought to be the ones that the Devil kept for himself. In some areas, the belief claimed that only if the woman was master of the household would parsley start to grow.

Parsley is used in the Hebrew celebration of Passover as a symbol of spring and rebirth.

Parsley probably began to be consumed as a seasoning, sometime in the Middle Ages in Europe. Some historians credit Charlemagne with its popularization because he had it grown on his estates. It was later said to be a favorite of Catherine de Medici and Henry VII. Starting in Tudor times, parsley was thought to be a remedy for baldness. John Gerard, author of Herball or Historie of Plants (1597), grew both the smooth and curled leaf varieties and described the curled variety as “fannes of curled feathers.” Nicholas Culpepper (1616 – 1654), a physician-astrologer, said “it brings urine and women’s curses,” referring to parsley’s diuretic effect and the belief it could both bring on a woman’s menstrual cycle. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656 – 1708), despite being perhaps the greatest European botanist of his century, believed parsley to contain an acrid and corrosive salt. That salt, when wet with water and left in contact with a glass, would cause the glass to become extremely fragile and easily be broken. The Gardener’s Dictionary, published in 1805 by Phillip Miller, identified parsley as being fatal to small birds. It goes on to say that parsley can injure the sight and aggravate or even cause epilepsy.

Parsley was also associated with death in England. In Surrey and in other southern English counties it was said, “Where parsley’s grown in the garden, there’ll be a death before the year’s out.” It was believed if someone cut parsley that they would be later crossed in love. In Devonshire, it was believed that anyone who transplanted parsley (or a member of his family) would be punished within a year. In Hampshire, peasants feared giving away any parsley as it would bring bad luck. In Suffolk, it was thought sowing Parsley seed on Good Friday would ensure the herb coming up “double.”

Apiol (also known as parsley apiol, apiole or parsley camphor), found in celery and parsley, was used to treat lack of menstruation in women and was also used in the Middle Ages as a method to terminate pregnancies.

Functional as well as decorative, parsley contains two types of compounds that provide unique health benefits. The first type includes volatile oils, such as myristicin, limonene, eugenol, and alpha-thujene. The second type includes flavonoids such as apiin, apigenin, crisoeriol, and luteolin. Parsley can:

  • Fight cancer: Parsley’s volatile oils, particularly myristicin, can inhibit tumor formation, and particularly, lung tumors. Myristicin can also activate the enzyme glutathione-S-transferase, which helps attach the molecule glutathione to oxidized molecules that would otherwise do damage in your body. The activity of parsley’s volatile oils qualifies it as a “chemoprotective” food, and in particular, a food that can help neutralize particular types of carcinogens (like the benzopyrenes that are part of cigarette smoke and charcoal grill smoke). The chlorophyll in parsley can bond tightly to certain carcinogens, such as those in tobacco smoke, cooked meats, and aflatoxins. Apigenin exerts anxiety-reducing effects along with being a very potent anti-cancer compound. Oxalic acid is believed to be successful in fighting several kinds of tumor cells.
  • Fight free radicals: The flavonoids in parsley, especially luteolin, function as antioxidants that combine with highly reactive oxygen-containing molecules (called oxygen radicals) and help prevent oxygen-based damage to cells. High levels of free radicals contribute to the development and progression of a wide variety of diseases, including atherosclerosis, colon cancer, diabetes, and asthma. In addition, extracts from parsley can help increase the antioxidant capacity of blood. In addition to its volatile oils and flavonoids, parsley is an excellent source of two vital nutrients that are also important for the prevention of many diseases: vitamin C and vitamin A (notably via beta-carotene). Vitamin C has many different functions. It is the body’s primary water-soluble antioxidant, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, and it promotes a healthy immune system. Beta-carotene is a fat-soluble antioxidant. And beta-carotene is converted by the body to vitamin A, a nutrient vital to a strong immune system.
  • Promote a healthy heart: Parsley is a good source of folate, which is essential to the process through which the body converts homocysteine into benign molecules. Homocysteine can directly damage blood vessels, and high levels of homocysteine are associated with a significantly increased risk of heart attack and stroke in people with atherosclerosis or diabetic heart disease. Folate is also vitally important for cancer-prevention in areas of the body that contain rapidly dividing cells, including the esophagus, lungs, uterus and cervix, and intestines (especially the colon).
  • Protect against rheumatoid arthritis: Vitamin C-rich foods, such as parsley, provide protection against inflammatory polyarthritis, a form of rheumatoid arthritis involving two or more joints. 

Enjoy parsley often, along with its abilities to improve your health. As an added bonus, you’ll also enjoy parsley’s ability to cleanse your palate and your breath at the end of your meal.

Nutrients in 2 tablespoons (7.6 grams) of parsley

Nutrient

Amount

DV

vitamin K

124.64 mcg

155.81%

vitamin C

10.11 mg

16.91%

vitamin A

640.22 IU

12.81%

folate

11.55 mcg

2.91%

iron

0.47 mg

2.61%

potassium

41.6 mg

1.19%

calcium

10.4mg

1.04%

Calories

2.74

0.1%

Whenever possible, choose fresh, organic parsley over the dried form of the herb, because it is superior in flavor. Choose fresh parsley that is deep green in color and looks fresh and crisp. Avoid bunches that have leaves that are wilted or yellow, as this indicates that they are either over-mature or damaged. As with other dried herbs, if you choose to purchase dried parsley flakes, try to select organically grown parsley, because this will give you more assurance that the herbs have not been irradiated.

Fresh parsley should be kept in the refrigerator in a sealed container. If the parsley is slightly wilted, either sprinkle it lightly with some water or wash it without completely drying it before storing it in the refrigerator. If you have excess flat leaf parsley, you can easily dry it by laying it out in a single layer on a clean kitchen cloth. Once dried, it should be kept in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark and dry place. Curly leaf parsley is best preserved by freezing, as opposed to drying. Although it will retain most of its flavor, it has a tendency to lose its crispness, so it is best used in recipes without first thawing.

Fresh parsley should be washed right before using since it is highly fragile. The best way to clean it is just like you would spinach. Place it in a bowl of cold water and swish it around with your hands. This will allow any sand or dirt to dislodge. Remove the leaves from the water, empty the bowl, refill it with clean water and repeat this process until no dirt remains in the water.

Because it has a stronger flavor than the curly variety, Italian flat leaf parsley holds up better to cooking and therefore is usually the type preferred for hot dishes. It should be added towards the end of the cooking process so that it can best retain its taste, color and nutritional value. If you are making a light colored sauce, use the stems from this variety as opposed to the leaves, so the sauce will take on the flavor of parsley but will not pick up its green color.

Serving ideas include:

  • Add parsley to veggie burgers, loaves, and patties.
  • Combine chopped parsley with bulgur wheat, chopped scallions, mint leaves, and lemon juice to make the Middle Eastern classic dish, tabouli.
  • Add parsley to pesto sauce to add more texture to its green color.
  • Use parsley in soups and tomato sauces.
  • Serve a colorful salad of fennel, orange, cherry tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, and parsley leaves.
  • Sprinkle chopped parsley on salads, vegetable sautés, or grilled vegetables.
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