Seeing fresh asparagus on your grocer’s produce counter is like hearing a trumpeter herald the arrival of spring. The asparagus season usually lasts until the end of July, and during the season this gift from nature should be a feature on your table. This is because asparagus provides protection against cancer that rivals that of broccoli and the other cruciferous vegetables, along with powerful anti-inflammatory properties, heart health, blood sugar regulation and digestive support.
The medicinal properties of asparagus have been prized for thousands of years, and it has been a staple of Ayurvedic medicine. The Egyptians cultivated asparagus as early as 3000 B.C., and that practice was continued by the Greeks and Romans. Asparagus has been highly valued by gourmets since ancient times for its delightful taste and texture. Clearly it has stood the test of time. Today China, Peru, the U.S. and Mexico are the world’s largest producers and exporters.
Amazing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits
Inflammation is often behind many degenerative diseases, cancer included. Asparagus provides a unique combination of anti-inflammatory compounds, including saponins. The saponin sarsasapogenin has been of interest to scientists in relation to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gerhrig’s Disease, a chronic neurodegenerative disease. Inflammation may play an important role in the death of motor neurons in ALS. Asparagus is also rich in the well know flavonoids, such as quercetin, rutin and kaempferol.
In addition to these anti-inflammatory agents, asparagus has a treasure chest of antioxidants, including pro vitamin A as beta carotene, vitamins C and E, and minerals in which the typical American is low, such as magnesium, zinc, selenium, and manganese. It has a significant amount (28 milligrams per 3.5 ounces) of one of the body’s endogenous antioxidants, glutathione. Since levels of the body’s glutathione drop as aging sets in, asparagus is especially important in the diets of older people.
The antioxidant activity of asparagus is impressive when compared to the traditional antioxidant vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, and it makes a great diet replacement for people not liking the taste of those vegetables
Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients are some of the main medicinal constituents in fruits and vegetables. They are known to reduce the risk of many common chronic health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Help for the digestive tract
Asparagus supports the digestive tract because it is high in inulin, a unique type of carbohydrate that many refer to as a prebiotic, meaning that it provides the ideal food for certain types of beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive tracts. These bacteria families, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, provide improved nutrient absorption, boost immunity, and lower the risk of allergies and colon cancer.
Asparagus is rich in fiber, providing about 3 grams per cup. Fiber helps regulate digestion and move food through the intestinal tract at the desired rate.
Protection against diabetes and heart disease
Asparagus is a repository of the B complex vitamins, containing excellent amounts of B1, B2, B3, B4, B6, folic acid, choline and biotin. These B vitamins are essential for the proper metabolism of sugars and starches, and they are critical for maintaining optimal blood sugar levels. They keep overproduction of homocysteine in check as well. Excessive homocysteine is associated with heart disease. The high levels of dietary fiber in asparagus also contribute to prevention and treatment of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Because heart disease and type 2 diabetes are fueled by chronic inflammation, the exceptional anti-inflammatory and antioxidant profile of asparagus means it should be a feature in the diet of anyone at risk.
Asparagus protects against cancer
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are risk factors for many types of cancer. Both are a direct result of dietary choices. The fact that asparagus provides protection against inflammation and is a powerful antioxidant makes it a first class cancer fighter. Research so far has shown that asparagus and asparagus extracts can change the metabolic activity of cancer cell types. One of the ways it does this is with sulforaphane, an organo-sulfur compound that in addition to stopping several types of cancer, exhibits significant anti-diabetic and antimicrobial properties. This compound is typically sought in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, but asparagus is also an excellent source.
Buying and using asparagus
Fresh organic asparagus is the best asparagus in terms of nutritional value. But if you have no access to it, it’s good to know that conventional asparagus ranks very low on the Environmental Working Group’s list of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesicide loads. Look for spears that are thin and not woody at the bottom for a real tender treat. Even canned asparagus is better than no asparagus, and many of its nutrients will have survived the canning process.
Fresh vegetables maintain their quality as live food with metabolic activity for several days after being picked. But recent research has shown that asparagus has a high respiration rate, five times greater than the rate for onions and potatoes, three times greater than the rate for tomatoes and lettuce, and twice as great as the rate for cauliflower and avocado. This means it is more perishable, so care must be taken to eat it within a couple of days after it is purchased, or stalks will shrivel and harden. You can slow this process somewhat by wrapping it in damp paper or a cloth towel and putting it in the refrigerator.
Asparagus is fabulous when grilled. Simply wash the spears and lay them on the grill until they are just soft enough to eat. Baste with butter or olive oil if you like.
If you’re in a hurry, put washed spears in a pan and sprinkle with water. Cook in the toaster over for 2 to 3 minutes. Eat with butter or olive oil, sea salt and pepper when the spears have just begun to soften.