Asparagus officinalis

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Asparagus is a member of the Asparagaceae family, originally the lily family. Other members of this family include: garlic, onions, turnips, and leeks. It is a hardy perennial plant with more than two hundred species known to exist all the way from Siberia to South Africa. Many of the species grown in Africa are used for ornamental purposes, providing tantalizing greenery in floral presentations,   while the most common garden variety Asparagus officinalisis cultivated for consumption. The name “asparagus” originates from the Greek word asparagos (originally the Persian asparag) meaning “sprout” or “shoot”.The term officinalis means ‘of the dispensary’ in Latin, a reference to the medicinal properties of asparagus.

The wild asparagus usually has rather thin shoots, even thinner than a pencil, and it is significantly different than the variety found in the local grocery store. Selective breeding techniques have led to a variety with thicker shoots which contain more edible flesh. The ancient Greeks valued asparagus highly, but the Romans were the first cultivators of the vegetable.

Asparagus is grown by sowing the seeds in beds during early spring, and allowed to grow for one full year before harvesting. The new plants have compressed buds in the middle known as the crown, and many hanging roots.  While green asparagus is the most commonly seen variety in the supermarkets, purple and white varieties also exist. The white asparagus is delicate and difficult to harvest, and the purple variety is smaller in size with a fruiter taste. Nutrition wise they are all very similar.

A carefully planted and cared for bed can continue to generate the vegetable for up to 20 years without the need to replant. The first plants are not usually harvested until three years old. This is to allow them to develop a strong fibrous root system.  Once the harvesting is completed, the remaining spears develop into ferns, which then produce red berries that provide nutrients needed for the next year’s crop.

Asparagus contains a distinctive compound which gives off a very characteristic smell in urine when metabolized. The younger shoots have a greater concentration of this sulphuric compound, and eating them gives an even stronger odour. While practically all people develop the odour in their urine after eating asparagus, most do not have the ability to detect it. No harmful effects arise due to the odour or the breakdown of the sulphuric compound.

History of Asparagus

According to most accounts, asparagus originated in the Middle East, where it still grows along the sand dunes and in river valleys. From here it spread into Europe and further west. Asparagus has a long history; it is believed that the Chinese were acquainted with the plant as far back as 4,000 years.  Egyptians were growing asparagus more than 2,000 years ago, for its medicinal attributes. In fact, they valued it so highly that Pharaoh Ikhnaton and Nefertiti proclaimed it to be food of the gods, and so made offerings of asparagus in rituals to their deities.

There are records of Romans and Greeks growing asparagus in the first century.  M. Porcius Cato, the Elder, wrote a detailed description of asparagus in his book ‘De Agricultura' approximately 160 BCE. He described methods of growing the plant in home gardens, sowing times, duration, best ways to harvest the vegetable, weed control, and how to remove the dried fern from asparagus.  They valued the vegetable for its distinctive flavour and supposed medicinal qualities. The Romans went so far as to start freezing the plant so that it could be enjoyed out of season.  High-speed chariots and runners were employed to transport it to the snow laden Alps, where it stayed frozen until needed. Asparagus fleets guaranteed the delivery of the delicacy to all parts of the Empire.

Asparagus is pictured in murals found in Pompeii and was deemed to be a fine delicacy. Around the year 1100, Byzantine physicians declared asparagus as a medicinal plant for the first time, and derived the nameAsparagus officinalis. The diuretic effect of the plant was employed to eliminate hip pains. At this time it was also considered to be an aphrodisiac and dedicated by the Romans to Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.

Asparagus was not used much during the middle ages but recaptured its popularity during the 16th century when it gained acceptance in Europe’s royal courts. France’s Louis XIV called asparagus the “king of vegetables” and ordered the construction of greenhouses so that he could enjoy it year-round. In the 17th century, cultivation started in England where it was called sparrowgrass. Colonists carried it to the New World, where it was initially known by the same name.

Health Benefits of Asparagus

The medicinal value of Asparagus officinalis has been known since ancient Roman and Greek times. Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the first century, advocated asparagus root extracts for flushing out the kidney, jaundice, and sciatica. It was also referred to in the Gerard’s Herbal for cleansing the system without causing dryness, increasing sperm, and to promote desires. In Ayurvedic medicine it is used in female infertility, and in Asian medicine it is given for diarrhoea, coughs, and nervous system issues.

In modern times, Asparagus officinalis is considered a strong diuretic and used for treating urinary problems like cystitis. It is also used in treating rheumatic problems, and also known to work as a gentle sedative and a laxative. Furthermore, it is beneficial in treating a number of ills, including arthrosis and tuberculosis.

The high content of glutathione found in asparagus is a strong antioxidant that is known to enhance the immune system, cut down inflammation, and preserve liver health. Glutathione breaks down carcinogens and free radicals which are responsible for causing cell damage, and also detoxifies the body. This is why it can be beneficial in fighting against certain cancers like bone, breast, larynx, and colon. The folate in asparagus works in conjunction with vitamin B12 to ward off cognitive decline. It also contains elevated levels of asparagines, an amino acid which serves as a natural diuretic helping to eliminate body’s excess salts. This is particularly beneficial for people suffering from oedema (build-up of fluids in body tissues), and those with high blood pressure.

Nutritional Value Asparagus

Asparagus is a gold mine of nutrients that contribute to good health. Being a low calorie food, with only twenty calories in every 100 grams of fresh vegetable, it is the perfect complement to any weight loss program. In fact, most of those calories are burned off while digesting the vegetable itself. Out of the 100 grams, 2.1 grams make up dietary-fibre, which benefits ailments like constipation, regulating blood sugar, and lowering LDL (the bad cholesterol). A high fibre diet lowers the risks of colon-rectal cancer by putting an end to absorption of toxic compounds from food.

Asparagus spears are also a rich source of anti-oxidants like lutein, zeaxanthin, carotenes, and cryptoxanthins. The flavonoids help to eliminate the body of free radicals and possibly protect it against neuro-degenerative diseases, cancer, and viral infections. Asparagus also provides 14% of the RDA of folic acid. Folates are needed for DNA synthesis, and help to prevent neural tube defects in newborn babies.

Asparagus shoots are a good source of the B-complex vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and pantothenic acid. They also contain anti-oxidant vitamins like Vitamins C, A, and E.  This group of vitamins help the body to build resistance against infectious diseases and remove harmful, inflammatory free-radicals. The ample amounts of vitamin K in asparagus promotes bone health, limits the brain neuron damage, and plays a positive role in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Regular consumption of asparagus also supplies the body with important minerals like copper and iron, and trace amounts of calcium, manganese, potassium, and phosphorus. Copper is used in red blood production, and iron is needed for cell respiration and formation of red blood cells. Manganese is used as a co-factor for superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme. Potassium helps to control the heart rate and blood pressure by negating the effects of sodium.

How to Use Asparagus

To attain peak flavour, it is best to use asparagus at the time of purchase, as the spears begin to lose taste and moisture immediately after harvest. To prepare the vegetable, start by washing it with cool running water and trim roughly one inch off of the end (if you bend the asparagus, it usually breaks off where the shoot starts to become less woody).  You can add the woody stems and peelings to cooking water. This makes the water quiet palatable and is great for using as a stock for soups.

Asparagus may be eaten raw, steamed, grilled, boiled, roasted, stir-fried, or even worked into casseroles and salads. The key to cooking asparagus perfectly is to “cook it briefly.” Waterless methods of cooking are best for preserving the nutritional value and antioxidant power of the vegetable.

Asparagus blends well with a number of different ingredients, but it can be tasty on its own dressed with only lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. It can be served raw as crudités with a dipping sauce. In a salads, it is best to hold the asparagus back until it's time to serve and then add it at the very last minute. Adding it too soon, will result in the high acidic content of salad dressings turning the spears an unsightly yellow. Fresh chives, thyme, tarragon, and savoury added to asparagus helps to enhance the flavour of its shoots.

Clinical Trials

While traditional Chinese and Korean medicine has used Asparagus cochinchinensis Merrill (ACE) as a treatment for inflammatory diseases, a 2009 published study showed ACE to be an effective anti-inflammatory agent and having therapeutic value against immune-linked cutaneous infections.

In another study published in 2006, it was found that plants like asparagus are a good source of anti-diabetic compounds. Extracts from asparagus helped to increase production of insulin. This can provide opportunities in new treatments for diabetic patients.

Check out out Asparagus divinity juice recipe here.

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About Andy Williams

In a processed food culture, simply eating may not be enough. Dr. Andy Williams is a scientist with a strong interest in Juicing and how it can supply the body with the nutrients it needs to thrive in modern society. You can subscribe to his free daily paper called Juicing The Rainbow and follow him on Facebook orTwitter.

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