Seasonal Produce Spotlight: Health Benefits of Asparagus

There are many reasons to look forward to late April and May but getting to have fresh asparagus is right at the top of the list as far as I’m concerned. For a few brief weeks each year in most areas of the United States, fresh asparagus is at its best. Not only is it a delicious way of getting to put a check in the vegetable column, the nutrition and health benefits of asparagus are numerous.

Photo of roasted asparagus laying in a dish as an example of the health benefits of asparagus

What is Asparagus?

Asparagus is part of the lily family, which includes garlic, onions, leeks and chives. They come in white, green and purple varieties. Green asparagus has a slight woody taste, the white variety is milder, and purple is a bit sweeter. According to the University of Illinois Extension’s Watch Your Garden Grow series, if you’re eating it in Europe, you should expect white asparagus. If you’re eating it in the U.S., you should expect the green or purple varieties. The health benefits of each of these is about the same.

Nutrients in Asparagus

Asparagus is low-calorie and packed with nutrients – especially Vitamin K and Folate.

Nutrition Facts(2):
(.5 cup or about 6 medium spears)

Calories 20
Protein 2 grams
Fat 0.2 g
Carbohydrate 4 grams
Fiber 2 grams
Vitamin C 7 mg (8% of DV)
Vitamin A 45 ug (6% of DV)
Potassium 202 mg (4% of DV)
Folate 134 ug (34% of DV; 22% of DV for women who are planning pregnancy or who are pregnant)
Vitamin K 46 ug (28% of DV)

Health Benefits of Asparagus

Because of all of these nutrients, there are many health benefits of asparagus. One of the most significant of these is the amount of Folate it contains. Folate is a major player in making DNA and other genetic material 3. That’s why eating vegetables high in this vitamin, like asparagus, is so important if you’re planning to become pregnant or during early pregnancy. Folate helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects,4 which are birth defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord5.

According to Ohio State University Extension’s Live Smart Ohio series, Asparagus also provides antioxidants to help prevent cancer, and it contains substances that reduce inflammation, which can lead to heart disease6.

It’s important to know that studies show there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to Folate. The established upper level for Folate is 1,000 mcg (or ug) per day. Beyond this, high amounts of folic acid could lower immune system defenses needed to fight viral infections and cancer7.

How to Buy and Retain the Health Benefits of Asparagus

There are several things to consider when you’re buying asparagus. These tips are a combination of my experience and suggestions from Ohio State University’s Live Smart Ohio series.

  1. Stalks and spears should be firm – not limp or drooping. If they are limp or flexible and rubbery feeling, don’t buy them.
  2. Buy local if at all possible because asparagus is highly perishable. While it’s kept chilled in transport, the shorter distance your asparagus has to travel, the better.
  3. Don’t be scared off by the tough, woody base of each stalk. These can be removed before you cook them.
  4. Don’t buy asparagus that doesn’t have a small and pointed tip. If the tip is flaring out at all, don’t buy it.

How to Prepare Asparagus

Asparagus can be boiled, steamed or roasted. It can also be served raw, but I’ve never tried it that way, so I can’t recommend it one way or the other. My favorite way to fix it to retain the health benefits of asparagus is roasting.

  1. Simply, snap the ends off by holding toward the bottom with both hands. You’ll feel where it automatically gives, and that’s where you snap.
  2. Lay it out in a single layer in a baking dish or baking sheet.
  3. Drizzle some olive oil on it and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Cover with tin foil
  5. Cook it at 400° Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.
  6. Remove the foil and let it cook for another 10 minutes.

**This is for thicker spears. For thin spears, check after 5 minutes of cooking while they’re covered. If it looks like they’re cooking fairly quickly, go ahead and take the foil off and cook for another 5 minutes.

Cost of Asparagus

I’m going to say it right here. Asparagus is not cheap. It takes a long time to grow and has a relatively short season. It’s a springtime delicacy that’s perfect for a healthy splurge. Asparagus can be served by itself on the side, or it can be paired with brown rice to make it a little heartier. Either way, even in my frugal (cheap!) estimation, I think its wonderful taste and many health benefits are worth the extra price I pay for the 3-4 weeks that it’s available.

The Environmental Working Group includes asparagus on its Clean Fifteen list, which means it’s not high in the amount of pesticide residue that it contains. That’s important to know if you’re having to be cost-conscious about which vegetables to buy organic.

The cost of organic asparagus is usually around $4.50/lb and conventionally grown is usually about $4/lb. Since a pound is about 12 spears or so (if they’re thick), it would take 1.5-2 lbs to make four .5 cup servings. If you buy conventional, that’s about $6-$8 to have asparagus as a side dish for a family of four.

Lean on Your Community

Do you love asparagus? If so, be sure and let us know in the comments below how you like to fix it.

Sources:

  1. University of Illinois Extension. Watch Your Garden Grow
  2. S. Department of Agriculture. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168390/nutrients
  3. S. Department of Health & Human Services. National Institutes of Health. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-Consumer/
  4. Wilson RD; GENETICS COMMITTEE; MOTHERISK. Pre-conceptional vitamin/folic acid supplementation 2007: the use of folic acid in combination with a multivitamin supplement for the prevention of neural tube defects and other congenital anomalies [published correction appears in J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2008 Mar;30(3):193. Goh, Ingrid [corrected to Goh, Y Ingrid]].J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2007;29(12):1003‐ doi:10.1016/S1701-2163(16)32685-8 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18053387/?from_term=health+benefits+of+asparagus&from_pos=6
  5. S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/neuraltubedefects.html
  6. Ohio State University Extension. Family and Consumer Sciences Live Smart Ohio. https://livesmartohio.osu.edu/food/williams-973osu-edu/appetizing-asparagus/
  7. Tufts University. https://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/high-folic-acid-intake-aged-mice-causes-lowered-immune-response

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