Asparagus

What's New and Beneficial about Asparagus

WHFoods Recommendations

Our outstanding level of green vegetable intake at WHFoods is 8 servings of green vegetables per day. Many days on our 7-Day Menu reach or exceed this amount and can be used as guidelines for your personal green vegetable choices. The many different types of green vegetables available to provide you with exceptional nourishment are nothing short of astonishing! Not only can you choose from dark green leafy vegetables from the cruciferous group (for example, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale, or collards), but you can also choose from the leguminous vegetable group (like green beans or green peas), the squash/gourd group (including zucchini and cucumber), the parsley/umbelliferous group (like fennel and celery), green allium vegetables like leeks, green lettuces like romaine, and finally, of course, the asparagus group that includes asparagus. Rather than relying exclusively on any one of these green vegetable subgroups, we recommend that you consider including green vegetables across all of these subgroups when putting together your weekly meal plan.

Asparagus, cooked
1.00 cup
(180.00 grams)
Calories: 40
GI: very low

NutrientDRI/DV

 vitamin K101%

 folate67%

 copper33%

 vitamin B124%

 selenium20%

 vitamin B219%

 vitamin C18%

 vitamin E18%

 manganese14%

 phosphorus14%

 fiber14%

 potassium12%

 vitamin B312%

 choline11%

 zinc10%

 vitamin A10%

 iron9%

 protein9%

 pantothenic acid8%

 vitamin B68%

 magnesium6%

 calcium4%

Health Benefits

Asparagus Has A Nutritional Uniqueness that is Second to None

A former member of the lily family of plants, asparagus now has its own plant family named after it—the Asparagaceae family. This fact alone should tell you something about the uniqueness of this vegetable, a uniqueness that we believe has been fully earned.

Many people might associate this uniqueness with the unusual urine odor that can often be so quickly detected when asparagus is consumed. And while we will provide you with more information about this unique aspect of asparagus later in this section, for now let's focus on the nutritional uniqueness of this food. Researchers have identified nearly 100 phytonutrient compounds in asparagus, and you will find some of these spotlight compounds listed below.

Of course, not shown in the list above are more common flavonoids (like quercetin and rutin) as well as the "conventional" nutrients that we rank in our WHFoods rating system. For asparagus, excellent rankings go to 8 nutrients: vitamin K, folate, copper, vitamin B1, selenium, vitamin B2, vitamin C, and vitamin E; very good rankings go to 12 additional nutrients: fiber, manganese, phosphorus, vitamin B3, potassium, choline, vitamin A, zinc, iron, protein, vitamin B6, and pantothenic acid; and good rankings go to 2 additional nutrients: magnesium and calcium. In other words, not only does asparagus contain the unusual list of phytonutrients presented in the chart above, but it also ranks as a good, very good, or excellent source of 22 of the 29 nutrients that we rank at WHFoods! (This ratio—22 out of 29—is the same as 76%, meaning that asparagus can provide you with a concentrated amount of all but seven nutrients that we analyze on our website.)

One of the unique phytonutrients in asparagus listed in the chart above is asparagusic acid. Asparagusic acid is the compound responsible for the urine odor that many people associated with asparagus. In chemical terms, asparagus acid (1,2-dithiolane-4-carboxylic acid) is unusually reactive due to the two sulfur atoms that are positioned adjacent to each other in the molecule. Among other things, this increased reactivity helps asparagusic acid break down rapidly and its derivatives are what researchers believe we smell after asparagus has been consumed. However, it's important to note that people differ in three basic ways in terms of asparagus consumption and urine odor. First, there are differences in digestion while asparagus is inside our GI tract and differences in the absorption of asparagusic acid. Second, there are differences in the way we metabolize asparagusic acid if it gets absorbed up into our bloodsteam. And finally, there are differences in our ability to detect the presence of asparagusic acid derivatives. These factors can combine in such a way as to produce some unusual results. For example, one person might end up with significant amounts of asparagusic acid derivatives in his or her urine, but be unable to detect the odor, even when another person can!

There is one further important point that we would like to make about the urine odor of asparagus and asparagusic acid. This molecule has as its core component a sulfur-containing structure called 1,2-dithiolane. We have included asparagusic acid as a key nutrient in asparagus and we have placed this content about asparagus odor within our Health Benefits section because 1,2-dithiolane is a key structure for the formation of a key sulfur-containing organic acid and antioxidant called alpha-lipoic acid. In fact, it is the presence of 1,2-dithiolane that allows alpha-lipoic acid to participate as a cofactor in the enzyme activities of pyruvate dehydrogenase and alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase. Both of these enzymes and their activities help provide a critical doorway into the pathways of aerobic metabolism, which requires special antioxidant protection. While researchers do not yet have a complete picture of asparagusic acid in terms of its antioxdant function, the presence of 1,2-dithiolane in its structure suggests that this function will be involved in a major way.

Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Benefits of Asparagus

It's not surprising to see asparagus being heralded as an anti-inflammatory food because it provides a truly unique combination of anti-inflammatory nutrients. Among these anti-inflammatory nutrients are asparagus saponins, including asparanin A, sarsasapogenin, protodioscin, and diosgenin. One of these saponins (sarsasapogenin) has been of special interest in relationship to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." Even though ALS is classified as a chronic, neurodegenerative disease and is not currently accepted as an autoimmune disorder, excessive, unwanted inflammation may play an important role in the death of certain nerve cells (motor neurons) in ALS. In this anti-inflammatory context, it is worth noting that recent research on the shatavarins in asparagus (shatavarin I, II, III, and IV) has revealed another group of saponins that influence inflammation through cytokine messaging. These asparagus saponins are able to inhibit production of cytokines IL-6 (interleukin-6) and TNF (tumor necrosis factor) and in this way help reduce excessive inflammatory processes.

In the antioxidant category of health benefits provided by asparagus we would place glutathione (GSH) and rutin at the top of the list. GSH is one of the body's premiere antioxidant molecules, which consists of three amino acids—glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine—linked together; GSH is known as a trippeptide because it composed of three amino acids. GSH is so important as an antioxidant that its depletion within our cells is sometimes used to measure overall oxidative stress. GSH also plays a critical role in phase 2 of our body's detoxification processes. Most of the profiled foods that we include on our website do not contain freely available, preformed GSH—but asparagus is one of the foods that does.

Asparagus is also rich in one particular antioxidant flavonoid called rutin. Many of our WHFoods contain rutin—just not in the same amount as provided by asparagus. (Buckwheat would be an exception here as it is actually higher in this flavonoid.) Rutin has been especially interesting to researchers because of the special role it may play in Maillard reactions. In the kichen, Maillard reactions are familiar to us as the browning reactions that take place when the sugars in food react with amino acids. (The browning of bread when toasted is a good example here.) When rutin is present during the Maillard reaction process, it may become involved with the Maillard reaction products in such a way as to increase free radical scavenging and to lower risk of oxidative stress.

The overall antioxidant capacity of asparagus has recently been measured by researchers in Brazil. These researchers analyzed 23 commonly eaten vegetables in Brazil (including asparagus). Their overall results showed turmeric, watercress, lettuces, and broccoli to provide the greatest overall antioxidant capacity. However, in some of the vegetables testing, asparagus came out in the top 10 among all 23 vegetables for overall antioxidant capacity. This finding is not surprising, given the many conventional and unconventional antioxidants present in asparagus. It's worth remembering here that asparagus ranks as an excellent source of both vitamin E and vitamin C—two spotlight antioxidants—as well as the mineral selenium, which plays a key role in the function of glutathione peroxidase (one of the most-studied antioxidant enzymes in the body).

The polysaccharides in asparagus are also important to include in this section on antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits. Polysaccharides are a very common type of complex carbohydrates, and you will sometimes hear them being referred to simply as "starches." Most of the polysaccharides analyzed in asparagus to date involve the inulins and heteroxylans. These two large families of polysaccharides are not as common in foods, especially in concentrated amounts. In animal studies, the polysaccharides in asparagus have been show to have both antioxidant and antitumor properties. With respect to the inulins, it is also worth noting here that while asparagus is not quite as rich in these polysaccharides as chicory root or Jerusalem artichoke, it is still a quite concentrate source.

Other Health Benefits of Asparagus

There is a considerable amount of animal research (involving almost exclusively rats and mice) involving asparagus extracts and the development of three types of chronic disease: cancers, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. In the area of cancers, most of the research has focused on the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of asparagus extracts, even though some of the compounds in these extracts have been found to have direct antitumor properties. In the area of type 2 diabetes, the focus has been on better overall functioning of the beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin—typically leading to better insulin secretion and better regulation of blood sugar. In the area of high blood pressure, one particular compound in the asparagus extracts—called 2"-dihydroxynicotianamine—has been shown to inhibit the function of an enzyme called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE). Because ACE activity results in a constricting of our blood vessels (including our arterial blood vessels), inhibition of ACE can help prevent this constriction. By preventing blood vessel constriction, the blood vessels keep a wider diameter and there is less pressure on our blood.

We would emphasize that the vast majority of studies that we have seen in all three of these areas involve rats and mice provided with asparagus extracts rather than humans enjoying asparagus in their meal plans. Hopefully, future researchers will look at these same types of events in large-scale studies on human participants who include differing amounts of asparagus in their diets.

Description

A former member of the lily (Lilaceae) family, asparagus has fairly recently been assigned a unique family of plants bears its name—the Asparagaceae family. Many plants in this family are non-edible—and in fact, so are many varieties of asparagus itself. However, there are some very welcomed exceptions here and one of these exceptions is what we simply called "garden asparagus" (Asparagus officinalis).

When you find asparagus in the grocery, what you are looking at are the spears (also called "stalks" or "shoots") of the plant. These spears are produced by the crown of the plant, which is a consolidated uppermost portion of the roots. When asparagus is grown commercially, it is often the crowns that are planted.

At the tip of the asparagus spears you will notice a petal-shaped head. The asparagus tips are actually buds, and if the spears are left unharvested on the plant, these buds will open into a delicate and extensive fern-like structure. This fern-like structure is what allows the asparagus plants to capture sunlight, and store up enough carbohydrates in the crown to generate healthy new shoots. This fascinating growth cycle of asparagus has to be managed by asparagus farmers in such a way that the result is a multitude of delicious asparagus spears for us to enjoy.

The color naming of asparagus can be confusing. The asparagus that we typically find in the grocery store is green because the shoots of the plant have grown upward from the soil and into the sunlight, and they have used their chlorophyll pigments to gather energy from the sun. Most any of these green asparagus varieties can be transformed into white asparagus if the soil around the asparagus plants is gathered up into a mound that surrounds the growing shoots. The mound of soil surrounding the shoots will block the shoots from the sunlight and alter metabolic activities associated with the green chlorophyll pigments. So to a certain extent, "green asparagus" is a term that refers to the way in which the asparagus plants have been grown, with plenty of sunlight available for the growing shoots. And in just the same way, "white asparagus" is a term that refers to the way asparagus plants have been grown using mounds of soil to shield the growing shoots from the sun. However, over time, growers have developed specific varieties of asparagus, some of which thrive with their shoots in the sun and others that thrive with their shoots surrounded by soil. So it is possible to purchase asparagus seeds for green asparagus and for white asparagus as well, even though most of the green asparagus seeds could be grown to produce white asparagus if the soil mound technique was used.

In addition to green and white versions of asparagus are purple versions. These purple varieties have increased in popularity among some consumers of asparagus and you are likely to be seeing more of them in supermarkets. Anthocyanin pigments are responsible for the rich purple shades in these asparagus varieties (and anthocyanins themselves belong to the larger family of phytonutrients called flavonoids).

Popular varieties of green asparagus include Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight, and Mary Washington. Popular varieties of purple asparagus include Purple Passion, Sweet Purple, and Pacific Purple.

Before closing this Description section, it is important to note that wild asparagus (whose scientific genus/species is Asparagus racemosus), is a different species of asparagus than the asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) that you will find in the supermarket. Wild asparagus has a long history of use in plant medicines, including Ayurvedic medicine, which was originally developed in India over 5,000 years ago. In fact, a name often used for wild asparagus—Shatavari—comes from the Sanskit words "shat"—which is related to the "cent-" that we use in "century" to refer to the number 100—and "vari"—which is related to streams and the flow of water. In other words, this name for wild asparagus was chosen in a way that suggests "one hundred streams"—perhaps referring to the many different ways in which Shatavari could be used as a medicinal plant. Today, one active area of interest in wild asparagus involves the steroidal saponins found in this particular species of asparagus, appropriately named "shatavarins."

History

Asparagus (including all its different species) is native to Africa, Asia, and Europe. Over time, it has also become adapted to and become naturalized in North America, South America, Australia and New Zealand. One species of asparagus, typically referred to as wild asparagus (Asparagus racemosus), played a special role in the development of Ayurvedic medicine in India, beginning over 5,000 years ago. Asparagus is presently cultivated in all parts of the world listed above.

At present, China is by far the largest commercial asparagus-producing country in the world with about 7 million metric tons of total production. Peru and Mexico are second and third in terms of global asparagus production, each with production in the range of 175,000-400,000 metric tons. Although U.S. per capita consumption of asparagus has somewhat increased in the last decade, planted acreage in the U.S. has actually decreased, with additional supplies coming from Peru and Mexico, along with several other countries in Central and South America.

While California remains the largest asparagus-producing state within the United States (followed by Washington and Michigan), the total amount of California acreage planted with asparagus has decreased significantly over the past decade. This is in part related to issues involving the unique growth cycle of this plant and the non-guaranteed available of water needed for crop growth.

How to Select and Store

As noted above, in the store you will generally find asparagus that is green, white or has purple hues. Generally, you'll most likely to find white asparagus in canned form, although you can also find it fresh in some select gourmet shops; it is usually more expensive than the green variety.

Asparagus stalks should be rounded, and neither fat nor twisted. Look for firm, thin stems with closed tips (the tips of the green and purple varieties should be deeply colored). The cut ends should not be too woody, although a little woodiness at the base prevents the stalk from drying out. Once trimmed and cooked, asparagus loses about half its total weight. Use asparagus within a day or two after purchasing for best flavor and texture.

At WHFoods, we encourage the purchase of certified organically grown foods, and asparagus is no exception. Repeated research studies on organic foods as a group show that your likelihood of exposure to contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals can be greatly reduced through the purchased of certified organic foods, including asparagus. In many cases, you may be able to find a local organic grower who sells asparagus but has not applied for formal organic certification either through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or through a state agency. (Examples of states offering state-certified organic foods include California, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.) However, if you are shopping in a large supermarket, your most reliable source of organically grown asparagus is very likely to be asparagus that display the USDA organic logo.

Store in the refrigerator with the ends wrapped in a damp paper towel.

How to Enjoy

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

WHFoods Recipes That Feature Asparagus

If you'd like even more recipes and ways to prepare asparagus the Nutrient-Rich Way, you may want to explore The World's Healthiest Foods book.

Safety

Contrary to popular belief, persons who experience a strong odor coming from their urine after eating asparagus are not in any danger from eating this vegetable. In fact, the key substance that is involved with the urine odor produced by asparagus is an antioxidant nutrient that can provide us with health benefits. The nutrient is asparagusic acid (which also goes by the chemical name 1,2-dithiolane-4-carboxylic acid). Because we consider the asparagusic acid in asparagus to be a provider of health benefits, we've provided you with much more detailed information about the urine odor from asparagus in our Health Benefits section of this profile. You will find this information toward the end of the first subsection within Health Benefits, which goes by the header, "Asparagus Has a Nutritional Uniqueness that is Second to None."

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read detailed information on our
Food and Recipe Rating System.

Asparagus, cooked
1.00 cup
180.00 grams
Calories: 40
GI: very low
NutrientAmountDRI/DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
vitamin K91.08 mcg10146.0excellent
folate268.20 mcg6730.5excellent
copper0.30 mg3315.2excellent
vitamin B10.29 mg2411.0excellent
selenium10.98 mcg209.1excellent
vitamin B20.25 mg198.7excellent
vitamin C13.86 mg188.4excellent
vitamin E2.70 mg (ATE)188.2excellent
fiber3.60 g146.5very good
manganese0.28 mg146.4very good
phosphorus97.20 mg146.3very good
vitamin B31.95 mg125.5very good
potassium403.20 mg125.2very good
choline46.98 mg115.0very good
vitamin A90.54 mcg RAE104.6very good
zinc1.08 mg104.5very good
iron1.64 mg94.1very good
protein4.32 g93.9very good
vitamin B60.14 mg83.7very good
pantothenic acid0.40 mg83.6very good
magnesium25.20 mg62.9good
calcium41.40 mg41.9good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DRI/DV>=75% OR
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
very good DRI/DV>=50% OR
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
good DRI/DV>=25% OR
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%

References

privacy policy and visitor agreement | who we are | site map | what's new
For education only, consult a healthcare practitioner for any health problems.
© 2001-2017 The George Mateljan Foundation, All Rights Reserved