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Turnips belong to the species Brassica rapa. Brassicsa is cabbage in Latin, and rapa translates to turnip. The ancient Roman author used the words ‘rapa’, ‘napus’ to depict long, round or flat turnips. According to Middle-Ages English, ‘napus’ became ‘naep’ in Anglo-Saxon, and combined with the word turn (‘made round’) the name turnip emerged. Turnip specifically is a root vegetable belonging to the Crucifer (mustard) family. However, technically speaking, turnips are not roots but swollen stems that happen grow underground.

The Brassica genus is known for housing more significant agricultural and horticultural crops than any other. Most parts of certain species have been cultivated for food, including roots (rutabagas, turnips), stems (kohlrabi), leaves (cabbage, Brussels sprouts), flower (broccoli, cauliflower), and seeds (mustard and oilseed rape). Some members of the genus with purple/white foliage, or flower heads, are cultivated purely for ornamental purposes.

Turnips are biennial plants meaning they take two years to complete their lifecycles, but are normally grown as annual plants. In the first year of growth they store what humans consume as food. If left underground for a second year, the plants produce flowers which turn into seed pods after being fertilized. Turnips are close relatives of Rutabagas, which are actually produced by crossing a turnip with a cabbage. Nutritionally, both are very similar.

Turnips have white or yellowish flesh with a slightly flattened globe like shape. The root is not as dense as that of rutabaga and it's also missing the neck. Furthermore, turnips do not have secondary roots like the rutabaga.  The leaves of a turnip have hair like growth on them, whereas the rutabaga has waxy leaves. While commonly cultivated in temperate climates, turnips can resist drought and frost and are easily grown in extreme weather conditions. The small versions of turnips are used for human consumption while the larger ones, including Rutabaga, are cultivated as livestock feed.

The History of Turnip

The precise history of turnip is not known, but it is believed that it originated in Asia and then found its way into Ancient Greece and Rome. Primitive varieties of turnip, and its relative plants mustard and radish, can be found growing all over West Asia and parts of Europe, supplying sufficient evidence of turnip’s beginnings in the area.

Turnips had a bad reputation in Roman times, as they were used to throw at people not well liked in society. It is believed that the low esteem came from the fact that turnips were considered food for the poorer country population of Ancient Greece and Rome. The upper class that did eat turnips would always season it with expensive condiments like cumin or honey.

Livestock has been fed on turnips for more than 600 years, especially after Charles Townshend brought them to the United Kingdom. Due to the expense of storing hay in winter months, in 1730 farmers were forced to kill their livestock before the advent of winter. Townshend realized that animals fed on turnips not only thrived, but could be fattened too, and what's more, the vegetable grew in cold, moist climates. Thanks to the turnip, livestock no longer needed to be slaughtered unnecessarily.

Turnips were taken to North America by the colonists and have been in use there ever since. For a large part, initially turnips were managed as forage. Then, in the early 1900s farmers realized its potential as a valuable energy source for ruminant animals. At this time, farmers were generally turning away from Brassica root crops due to the extensive manual labour they required. However, development of new varieties with partially exposed roots made the crops more easily accessible for grazing animals, and so turnips became a more feasible food source for livestock. Grazing animals removed the need for manual labour, harvesting, and storage. The fact that Brassicas grew quickly, yielded large quantities per acre, and easily adapted to existing pastures without much tillage, made them very economical for farmers as well.

Health Benefits of Turnips

Both Turnip greens and roots can be consumed. The greens contain an even greater concentration of nutritional compounds than the roots. Pliny the Elder, the well-known Roman philosopher, regarded turnips as an essential food of his time. Turnips contain elevated amounts of antioxidants and phytonutrients, which are linked to lowering risks of cancer. The glucosinolates in turnips help the liver to manage toxins, ward off the effects of carcinogens, and perhaps even hinder tumour growth.

The anti-inflammatory properties of turnips are thought to be a key element in averting heart disease. The ample amounts of folate (a B-vitamin) found in the vegetable, plays a critical role in maintaining cardiovascular health. Two outstanding anti-inflammatory agents (vitamin K and omega-3 fatty acids) are found in turnip greens. Vitamin K is a powerful regulator of the body’s inflammatory response system, while omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks, and aid in reducing the risk of arthritis, heart disease, and other disorders related to chronic inflammation.

Turnips provide a wide variety of antioxidants which include vitamin C, A, and E, beta-carotene, and manganese. They also contain phytonutrients which help to promote antioxidant activity which fights free radicals within the body, thus saving the cells form unnecessary damage. Turnips provide hefty amounts of fibre which regulates metabolism and keeps the digestive system in good working order. It is believed that the glucosinolates might aid in the processing of Helicobacter pylori bacteria in the stomach. The significant amounts of calcium and potassium found in turnips help to maintain good bone health and avert diseases like osteoporosis. Finally, the low calorie content makes turnips a great addition to any weight loss program, regardless of whether they are enjoyed raw in salads or prepared as a side dish.

Nutritional Value

Due to their super nutritious greens and juicy roots, turnips offer many health benefits both for human and animal consumption. One cup (156 grams) of cut, boiled, and drained turnips provides the following:

  • 146g of water
  • 34 calories
  • 1.11g of protein
  • 0.2g of fat
  • 7.89g of carbohydrates
  • 3.1g of fibre
  • 4.66g of sugar


In addition, turnips contain a host of vitamins and minerals. There are 51 mg of calcium, 0.28 mg iron, 14 mg magnesium, 41 mg phosphorus, 276 mg potassium, 25 mg sodium, 0.19 mg zinc, 0.003 mg copper, 0.111 mg manganese, 0.3 mg selenium, 18.1 mg Vitamin C, 0.042 mg thiamine, 0.036 mg riboflavin, 0.46 mg niacin, 0.22 mg pantothenic acid, 0.10 mg Vitamin B-6, 14 mcg folate, 13.6 mcg chlorine, 0.03 mg. Vitamin E, and 0.2 mg Vitamin K7.

How to Use Turnips

While many people prefer to add turnips as an ingredient in soups or stews that are usually consumed in winter months, they can also be enjoyed all year round in other ways. Turnips can be baked, mashed, roasted, boiled, steamed, deep fried, and even juiced. The tops and roots can be added to salads, while the roots may be used to make wine. Some foods that mix well with turnips include apples, sweet potatoes, peaches, lentils, chicken & rice, and potatoes.

Scrumptious Apple-Turnip Salad

1 cup of  apples grated

1 cup of turnips grated

2 – 4 tbsp. of  parsley finely chopped

1 tbsp. of olive oil

1/3 cup of  raisins and walnuts (roughly half and half of each)

Add Pepper, basil, nutmeg to taste

Steam the grated apple and turnips for approximately ten minutes or until lightly tender. Allow to cool off and then toss into a large salad bowl. Add in the remaining ingredients and mix.

Clinical Trials

Turnips specifically, have not been directly used in too many health related studies, but turnip greens have been inducted in several dozen studies, establishing probable health benefits using cruciferous vegetables, of which turnips are a part of. Turnip greens standout as cancer preventing agents. In some studies, the compounds lutein and zeaxanthin found in turnip greens have shown promise in combating muscular degeneration and cataracts1. Other studies show that turnips could protect against lung, colon, stomach, and prostate cancers. Studies found that a compound in turnips “induces the death of cancer cells”.

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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