Beauty and the Asparagus

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There are good health and beauty reasons to add asparagus to your next salad or summer soup: its proven anti-inflammatory properties may prevent certain types of cancer, while providing natural digestive support.

Sautéed, steamed, boiled or braised, asparagus makes for a tasty summer treat in myriad dishes. Yet, it also boasts potent health and beauty benefits that make this perennial vegetable a must amongst culinary stalwarts and health buffs alike.

A Healthy Food

Rich in B vitamin folate, as well as vitamins A, C, E and K, asparagus is also known for chromium, a trace mineral, which may aid diabetics, thanks to its ability to assist insulin in carrying glucose from the bloodstream into cells.

Yet, there’s another health reason to add this member of the lily family to your diet. Asparagus also contains glutathione: a powerful detoxifier that has been shown to destroy health-depleting free radicals, which can lead to cancer.

According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, combining Vitamin B6 with folate (both found in asparagus) with methionine, an amino acid found in foods such as cottage cheese, beans, eggs and peanuts can reduce the likelihood of contracting lung cancer by two thirds.

However, the American Association for Naturopathic Physicians found that asparagus consumption may do harm to leukaemia patients due to amino acid asparagine, which may cause adverse reactions.

Beauty and the Stalk

With its ability to ward off cell-damaging free radicals, asparagus stalks have also become known as potent beauty food, thanks to their ability to slow the ageing process, while cleansing and healing the digestive tract.

Of the 20 edible varieties of asparagus, it’s the commonly found green stalks that are said to bring the biggest beautifying benefits, thanks to its Vitamin C content, which has been found to aid collagen production.

Milder in flavour, white asparagus is grown with minimal sunlight, thus diminishing its beauty boosting chlorophyll content. Also known to be tenderer than its green counterpart, purple asparagus is sweeter, boasting approximately 20 percent higher sugar content.

Revered Through History

While its modern-day popularity continues, the culinary benefits and healing properties of this herbaceous plant have been long revered throughout history, with Egyptians offering it as a delicacy dating back to 3000 BC. Meanwhile, Romans and Greeks would dry it come winter in order to enjoy its benefits and taste year round. One of the world’s oldest recipe books, De re Coquinaria, Book III, shows how to cook asparagus.

Ayurvedic tradition also reveres the plant, calling it Shatavari, or “women with a thousand husbands”, referring to its aphrodisiac properties and is prescribed to treat loss of libido, while also used for healing menopause and infertility. It has also been used by some cultures to treat fatigue.

What’s that Smell?

Those who have eaten asparagus may be aware of a strong odour that affects their urine shortly after consumption. This is simply due to sulphuric compounds, which when metabolised by the body, result in the distinct, yet harmless, smell.

Grow Your Own

Known as one of the “Clean 15”, the asparagus is a vegetable that is grown with minimal chemical interference; however, growing your own can garner the best health and culinary benefits of this hardy crop, with stalks often more flavourful and tender than supermarket-bought varieties.

Planting asparagus seeds means harvest will be three or four years later, so buying established plants (one to two years old) is a better bet if you’re in a hurry to reap its many benefits.

Male plants produce more shoots, while the female provides red berries. Be sure to plant asparagus 45cm apart, with one metre between rows.

How to Prepare

Great as a snack on their own, either raw or cooked, asparagus spears lend a distinct, and sometimes delicate, flavour to countless dishes, from soups and salads to garnishes.

Thicker spears are known to have woodier ends, so be sure to trim before or after cooking.

Originally printed in Nourish magazine. To sign up for your very own Nourish subscription, click here.

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