Asparagus Benefits + History and Cooking

Asparagus Benefits + History and Cooking

Many varieties of asparagus exist, but only 1 is readily available today: green asparagus.  If you are lucky, you may occasionally spot a purple or white variety.  Asparagus, a vibrant, spring vegetable, has some serious health benefits. With over 100 known potent compounds, asparagus may be just what the doctor ordered.  Find out my journey to loving asparagus, the history of this cool plant, asparagus health benefits, and how to cook and prepare it.

Taste training for asparagus

“You need to eat at least one,”  said my parents every time we sat down in the spring to eat asparagus.  With reluctance, I would muster up the will to chew up that bite of the distinctly agonizing flavor of none other than asparagus.

Now I hear those same words coming out of my mouth with dictum of “you need to eat at least one spear.”

Mom and Dad got it right. Whether it was intentional or not, they were training our taste buds to have a broad palate for healthy things.

Learning to Love Asparagus

One day, I overcame the loathing of this speared vegetable, almost as if a flip switched.

By the time I was in high school, one of my best friends, Kathleen, decided I should have a band called Heidi Loves Asparagus.  It was the 90’s when everyone came up with some kitschy name for a band that they dreamed of being in.

My taste buds had developed in my teens.  Thank you, Mom and Dad. I never had the fortitude to start that band, but the inspiration of asparagus still holds my attention today.

Asparagus is really like no other when it comes to vegetables. And I mean that in a good way.

How To Buy Asparagus

Unlike most vegetables, where the smaller and thinner are the more tender, thick asparagus stalks have a more tender volume to the proportion of skin. Try to find compact tips that are not shriveled.

Tender purple asparagus spears by The Healthy RD

Asparagus Varieties

There are an estimated 432 species of Asparagus, or Asparagaceae, but only one readily available in stores today:  Asparagus officinalis [1].

Purple asparagus was originally developed in Italy and was commercialized under the variety name “Violetto d’Albenga.” Purple asparagus is the same species of asparagus as the green asparagus, but is a slightly different variant of this species.  It has a more mild and sweet flavor.

White asparagus is just green asparagus that is deprived of light during its growing period.  Its harvest is very labor-intensive.

History of Asparagus

Asparagus is Greek term, but it may have been borrowed from the Persian word asparag, meaning sprout or shoot.

Asparagus has been eaten since antiquity.  Asparagus appears in the oldest surviving cookbook as well, known as Apicius’s 3rd century CE De re coquinaria, Book III.

Asparagus Sexual Function and Sexual Habit

Male and female asparagus are different: the females produce little berries later in the season (they are not edible).   The male plants have more prolific stalks.

Queen Nefertiti proclaimed asparagus to be the food of the Gods.  It also has been proclaimed an aphrodisiac throughout history, with its spear-shape exemplifying this legend.

Legend has it that if asparagus is eaten for three consecutive days, it has more potent sexual effects.

Asparagus Taste and Potency

Asparagus is seriously nutritious.

But the “nutrients” in no way explain its out-of-this-world taste.  How did it get this potent taste?  Potency in nature in regards to taste usually translates to potency in health.

Asparagusic acid is a sulfur compound that is thought to be responsible for its pungent taste and also its pungent effect on the smell of your urine.

Don’t smell it?  It’s likely because of your genes. Less than 10% of people are unable to smell the distinct asparagus smell when they urinate  [2].

Asparagusic acid is unique to asparagus in nature.  Pretty amazing.

Green asparagus spears by The Healthy RD

Asparagus Benefits for Health

Asparagus has at least 100 known beneficial compounds.  Of those, one of the largest components in asparagus are saponins.

Saponins may have a lot of health benefits including [3]:

  • Antioxidant activity
  • Immunostimulating activity
  • Reducing liver toxicity
  • Antibacterial activity
  • Reduced risk of diabetic retinopathy
  • Anti-cancer activity
  • Reduction of diarrhea
  • Reduction of ulcers
  • Phytoanticipins (protect the body from microbes)
  • Phytoprotectants.(enhance disease resistance)

An example of the protective effect of saponins includes the cell death of liver cancer cells in culture study [4].

Asparagus Nutrition [5]:

Asparagus is very low calorie and yet very nutrient-dense.  Aspargus nutrients include:

  • Pre-Vitamin A
  • Thiamine
  • Riboflavin
  • Folate:  60% daily value!
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Arginine
  • Tyrosine
  • Fiber
  • Inulin

Other beneficial compounds in asparagus include:

  • Sterols
  • Polyphenols
  • Flavonoids (kaempferol, quercetin, and rutin)
  • Resins
  • Tannins
  • Asparagusic acid
  • Sarsasopgenin
  • Glutathione: a potent antioxidant

Glutathione is necessary for the liver and brain to detoxify harmful substances.

Asparagus Metabolic Syndrome Benefits

In a small study, asparagus powder reduced all of the following [6]:

  • Blood Glucose
  • Total Cholesterol
  • Blood Pressure (both systolic and diastolic)

Asparagus May Improve Mood

In mice, a compound in asparagus called sarsasopgenin had anti-depressant activity [7].  Another mouse study found that asparagus may reduce anxiety symptoms [8].

Asparagus May Reduce Cancer

Asparagus compounds also  caused cancer cell death in mice [9].

Cancer cell growth by The Healthy RD

Asparagus Benefits for Liver

Asparagus helped protect the liver from alcohol-induced toxicity and protected liver cells from oxidative stress in cell culture study [10].

Asparagus Aphrodisiac Potential

As with all non-starchy, green vegetables, asparagus may indeed improve sexual function by helping increase blood flow.  Read more in my heart-health blog.

Does Asparagus Have a Dark Side?

For all intents and purposes, no.  But the headlines in February were setting off alarms about asparagus and breast cancer triple negative cells [11].

Why were these headlines problematic?

Asparagus has not one, but over 100 compounds in it, most are linked to reducing cancer risk.  the compound they studied isolated asparagine.  This compound is never seen isolated in real life.  It isn’t even available as an isolated compound for public use.

Asparagus is one of many foods that contain this particular amino acid.

Keeping it in Perspective

Asparagus has asparagine, a perfectly fine compound. that is present in many foods, not exploited the way it was in the study that caught all the headlines.

Asparagine may be required for proper growth and development during lactation [12].

Vegetables get a gold star for cancer reduction risk, and asparagus is no exception. When extracts of the WHOLE plant are given in animal models, it causes cancer cell death [13].

Asparagus Recipes

Here are a couple of easy asparagus recipes to try:

Asparagus salad by The Healthy RD

Roasted Asparagus and Potato Salad

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts and Asparagus

Summary

With over 100 beneficial compounds, asparagus is hard to beat for health benefits.  Spring is their peak season, so grab the best spears while you can and reap important gains in vitality.

The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.

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