Appreciating Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) belongs to the Asparagaceae. They share the order Asparagales with the Amaryllidaceae family, which includes chivesscallionsleeksgarlic, onions, shallots, and elephant garlic.

Asparagus likely originated along the coastal regions of the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. By around 20,000 BC, people were eating asparagus near Aswan in what is now Egypt. It has been used as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavor, diuretic properties, and more. Asparagus is pictured as an offering on an Egyptian frieze dating to 3000 BC.

Ancient Greeks and Romans ate asparagus fresh when in season and dried it for use in winter. Romans would even freeze asparagus high in the Alps, for the Feast of Epicurius. Emperor Augustus reserved the Asparagus Fleet for hauling the vegetable. Greek physician Galen mentioned asparagus as a beneficial herb during the 2nd Century AD. There is a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest surviving book of recipes by Apicius in the third century AD.  Still in ancient times, asparagus was known in Syria and in Spain, but it lost popularity after the Roman empire ended.

By 1469, asparagus was cultivated in French monasteries. It was introduced in England in 1538, and in Germany in 1542. France’s Louis XIV had special greenhouses built for growing asparagus. The finest texture and the strongest and yet delicate taste is in the tips, which were known as points d’amour or “love tips” for their supposed power as an aphrodisiac.

Asparagus became available to the New World around 1850, in the United States.

Asparagus can:

  1. Fight chronic inflammation. Asparagus provides a unique combination of anti-inflammatory nutrients. Among these are saponins, including asparanin A, sarsasapogenin, protodioscin, and diosgenin. Chronic inflammation may play an important role in the death of certain motor nerve cells in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)  also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” and sarsasapogenin may be able to prevent the inflammation that leads to such nerve death. Other anti-inflammatory nutrients in asparagus include the flavonoids quercetin, rutin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin. Saponins also lower blood cholesterol, decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, prevent cancer cells from growing and mutating, neutralize free radicals to prevent disease, stimulate your immune system by increasing the production of antibodies, fight bacterial and fungal infections, lower blood glucose responses, prevent tooth decay, protect against bone loss, and increase the effectiveness of certain vaccines.
  2. Fight free radicals. Asparagus provides a wide variety of antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and the minerals manganese, zinc, and selenium. Along with avocado, kale, and Brussels sprouts, asparagus also contains the antioxidant glutathione, which consists of three amino acids (glutamic acid, glycine, and cysteine) combined into one molecule. Fresh asparagus spears are a good source of antioxidants such as lutein, zeaxanthin, carotenes, and crypto-xanthins. Tannic acid in asparagus is a powerful antibacterial, antimutagenic, antioxidantantitoxic, and astringent that can prevent diarrhea, and may prevent Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and diabetes. Ferulic acid in asparagus is potent antioxidant that may also prevent bone degeneration and cancer, protect your skin from ultraviolet damage, reduce blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol, reduce hot flashes associated with menopause, and treat diabetes. Together, these antioxidants help remove harmful free radicals from your body and protect it from possible cancer, neuro-degenerative diseases, and viral infections. The total antioxidant strength of asparagus, measured in terms of oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC value), is 2150 µmol TE/100 grams.
  3. Support digestion. Asparagus contains 2.5 grams of inulin and 2.5 grams of oligofructose per 100 grams. Inulin and oligofructose are carbohydrates called polyfructans, which are prebiotics. Unlike most other carbohydrates, these polyfructans don’t get broken down in the first part of your digestive tract. They pass undigested all the way to your large intestine, where they feed certain types of bacteria (like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli) that help you absorb nutrients, prevent constipation, promote enzyme activity, improve pH levels, and lower your risk for allergies and colon cancer. In addition, inulin promotes Lactobacillus acidophilus to produce butyrate, a beneficial short-chain fatty acid that helps inhibit inflammation in your intestinal tract. Asparagus is also rich in fiber and protein, both of which help stabilize your digestion and keep food moving through you at the proper rate. (By contrast, too much fat can slow down your digestion rate, and too much sugar or simple starch can speed it up.)
  4. Support heart health and regulate blood sugar. Asparagus is as an excellent source of folate and thiamine and a very good source of riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6. Asparagus also contains the B vitamins choline, biotin, and pantothenic acid. Because B vitamins play a key role in the metabolism of sugars and starches, they are critical for healthy blood sugar management. And because they play a key role in regulation of the amino acid homocysteine, they are critical in heart health has well, because too much homocysteine is a strong risk factor for heart disease. Asparagus also provides you with about 3 grams of fiber per cup, including more than 1 gram of soluble fiber, which lowers your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Finally, chronic inflammation and oxidative stress can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Asparagus contains saponins, including asparanin A, sarsasapogenin, protodioscin, and diosgenin, which can improve blood pressure, and help regulate blood sugar and blood fat levels. Asparagus contains high levels of the amino acid asparagine, which serves as a natural diuretic, and increased urination not only releases fluid but helps rid the body of excess salts. This is especially beneficial for people who suffer from edema (an accumulation of fluids) and those who have high blood pressure or other heart-related diseases.
  5. Fight cancerChronic inflammation and oxidative stress are also risk factors for cancer, and both are caused by a deficiency of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients, which asparagus provides. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients in asparagus and asparagus extracts can negatively affect the metabolic activity of cancer cells, particularly liver cancer cells. The saponins in asparagus also have anti-cancer properties. The fiber in asparagus also helps cut down colon-rectal cancer risks by preventing toxic compounds in your food from being absorbed. Asparagus is a rich source of the antioxidant glutathione, a detoxifying compound that helps break down carcinogens and other harmful compounds like free radicals. This is why eating asparagus may help fight certain forms of cancer, such as bone, breast, colon, larynx, and lung cancers. Oxalic acid in asparagus is believed to be successful in fighting several kinds of tumor cells.
  6. Prevent hangover. If you plan on drinking alcohol, this is the vegetable for you. The enzymes in asparagus are highly effective in breaking down alcohol in your system, preventing a hangover.
  7. Improve your mood. Asparagus is a great source of mood-improving tryptophan, folate, and thiamine.  Asparagus even helps stabilize mood swings.

Asparagus is a very low-calorie vegetable: 100 grams of fresh spears provide only 20 calories. In fact, you will burn more calories digesting asparagus than it contains, which makes it a negative-calorie vegetable. Asparagus is a very good source of fiber (100 grams provides 2.1 grams of fiber).  Fresh asparagus is rich in folate; 100 grams provides about 54 micrograms or 14% of Daily Value (DV). Asparagus also contains fair amounts of antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin Avitamin C, and vitamin E. Asparagus is also a good source of vitamin K (about 35% of DV). It is rich in minerals, especially iodinecopper and iron. In addition, it has small amounts of some other essential minerals such as phosphorusmanganesecalcium, and potassium.

Nutrients in 100 Grams Fresh Asparagus

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

iodine 109.8 µg 74%
vitamin K 41.6 µg 35%
choline 16 mg 26%
vitamin A 756 IU 25%
copper 0.189 mg 21%
iron 1.14 mg 14%
folate 52 µg 13%
thiamine 0.143 mg 12%
riboflavin 0.141 mg 11%
vitamin C 5.6 mg 9%
phosphorus 52 mg 7.5%
vitamin E 1.13 mg 7.5%
manganese 0.158 mg 7%
vitamin B6 0.091 mg 7%
niacin 0.978 mg 6%
fiber 2.1 g 5.5%
zinc 0.54 mg 5%
pantothenic acid 0.274 mg 5%
potassium 202 mg 4%
selenium 2.3 µg 4%
protein 2.20 g 4%
calcium 24 mg 2.5%
carbohydrates 3.38 g 2.5%
magnesium 14 mg 1%
Calories 20 1%
fat 0.12 g 0.5%
sodium 2 mg 0.08%
cholesterol 0 mg 0%
lutein-zeaxanthin 710 µg
carotene-ß 449 µg
carotene-α 9 µg

Growers harvest asparagus in the spring when it is 6 to 8 inches tall. While the most common variety of asparagus is green in color, two other edible varieties are available. However, asparagus growers are able to take these same varieties of asparagus, pile soil on top of the shoots when they start to poke through the ground, and then allow the shoots to continue growing beneath the soil. This process prevents sunlight from falling on the shoots, inhibiting chlorophyll development, and resulting in white asparagus, with its more delicate flavor and tender texture. You can usually find it in cans, although you may find it fresh in some gourmet shops, and it is generally more expensive than the green variety because its production is more labor-intensive. The other edible variety of asparagus is purple in color. It is much smaller than the green or white variety (usually just 2 to 3 inches tall) and features a fruitier flavor. It also provides benefits from phytochemicals called anthocyanins that give it its purple color. These varieties typically have a higher sugar content than green and white varieties and for this reason have a sweeter taste, although at 3 grams of total sugar per cup of fresh purple asparagus, it still contains less than half of the amount of sugar in an extra small apple.  With prolonged cooking, the purple color may disappear.

Purchase asparagus from local farms or farmers markets whenever possible, as it tends to be fresher and more appetizing. Select tender, firm, thin, straight, smooth, rounded, uniform sized, dark green or purple stalks with tightly-closed deep green or purplish tips. Avoid thick stalks with wide ridges in the stems, or stalks that are sunken, flat, twisted, or dull-colored, as they indicate an old stalk. The cut ends should not be too woody, although a little woodiness at the base prevents the stalk from drying out.

If you grow your own asparagus, harvest it in the morning hours when air temperatures are cool. After picking, immerse the spears in ice cold water to remove the heat; then drain the water and place the spears in plastic or cloth bags and store in the refrigerator at 38 to 40 degrees F with 90 to 95% relative humidity. At higher temperatures, asparagus loses natural sugar and vitamin C, as well as flavor, and it becomes tough and begins to decay.

Like all vegetables, asparagus doesn’t instantly “die” when it is picked, but continues to intake oxygen, break down starches and sugars, and release carbon dioxide. The speed at which these processes occur is called “respiration rate.” Compared to most other vegetables, asparagus has a very high respiration rate. At 60 milligrams of carbon dioxide released per hour per 100 grams of food (at a refrigerator temperature of 41°F), this rate is five times greater than the rate for onions and potatoes; three times greater than the rate for lettuce and tomato; and twice as great as the rate for cauliflower and avocado. Asparagus’ very high respiration rate makes it more perishable than its fellow vegetables, and also much more likely to lose water, wrinkle, and harden. By wrapping the ends of the asparagus in a damp paper or cloth towel, you can help offset this very high respiration rate during refrigerator storage.

Use asparagus as soon as possible after harvesting, and ideally within 48 hours. Otherwise, it loses flavor because most of its sugar will be converted to starch.  If you have to hold onto the asparagus longer than a few days, placing the base ends in an inch of water will keep the spears hydrated and fresh in the refrigerator. The spears will continue to grow.

Thin asparagus does not require peeling. Asparagus with thick stems should be peeled because the stems are usually tough and stringy. Remove the tough outer skin of the bottom portion of the stem (not the tips) with a vegetable peeler.

To prepare asparagus, separate the spears and rinse them well in cold water with a gentle scrub to remove any sand or soil residues. Snap or trim tough, woody, white ends off, close to the base of each spear. Leave whole, or cut each spear into bite size, 2- to 4-inch sections. Microwaving preserves the most nutrients and is really easy. Put the spears in a microwave-safe dish. Cover tightly and microwave about 5 minutes. To steam, bring an inch or two of water to a boil in a pot. Arrange asparagus in a steamer basket, making sure the water doesn’t seep into the bottom of the basket. Cover and steam for about 3 minutes. In some households, traditional pots are used to cook asparagus where in its stalks immersed in boiling water while tips just allowed cooking by steam only. To sauté, place the asparagus in a skillet or wok lightly coated with olive oil. Cover and sauté slowly on medium-low heat for about 3 minutes or until tender. To grill, lightly brush or spritz prepared asparagus spears with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, or garlic salt, to taste. Grill over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or to desired tenderness. To bake, arrange a bunch of clean and trimmed asparagus in a shallow baking dish. Top with salt and pepper to your taste preference. Bake until tender or crunchy, depending upon your preference, about 12 to 20 minutes.

Here are some serving ideas:

  • Enjoy asparagus spears raw, steamed, sautéed, stir-fried or mixed with vegetables or beans.
  • Serve steamed spears with vegan hollandaise sauce, melted margarine, or No-Harm Parm.
  • Serve grilled scallions and asparagus stalks as an appetizer.
  • Stir-fry tender stalks of asparagus with sesame seeds, and season with garlic, ginger, and pepper.
  • Add cold asparagus to your favorite salad.
  • Toss freshly cooked pasta with asparagus, thyme, tarragon, and rosemary.
  • Chopped asparagus makes a flavorful and colorful addition to tofu scrambles.
  • Sauté asparagus with garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and tofu for a complete meal.

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 blog 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.

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