The Benefits of Plant-Based Iron

Iron is an essential mineral that your body requires to maintain optimal health. There is a common misconception that iron is only obtained by eating meat and that iron deficiency is more prevalent amongst vegans and vegetarians. Natural, plant-based iron supplements and food can provide the iron your body needs and in some cases may even help prevent iron toxicity. If you need to shore up your iron levels, then consider the benefits of plant-based iron.

Optimal Absorption

There are two primary sources of dietary iron—plant and animal foods. The technical terms for these are heme iron and nonheme iron, respectively. There has been a lot of investigation into the absorption differences between these two types of iron. Although animal, or heme, iron is absorbed faster, it can actually overwhelm your body and even lead to a serious iron imbalance known as iron toxicity. In contrast, the body absorbs plant, or nonheme, iron at a more controlled rate. Slow, regulated absorption helps keep your body’s iron levels optimal and in balance.

Fewer Health Risks

Low iron levels can lead to fatigue, chills, brain fog, or worse: iron deficiency anemia. Too much iron can lead to vomiting, intense abdominal pain, and even organ failure. Plant-based iron is absorbed more slowly and that helps maintain normal iron balance, which translates to fewer health concerns. In contrast, heme iron from animal sources (blood and tissue) has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and colon cancer. One study reported that increasing your heme iron intake by just one milligram per day could increase your risk of heart disease by 27 percent.

Cofactors and Co-nutrients

Your body has a complex set of mechanisms that work together to absorb, store, utilize, and monitor iron. Vitamin C, for example, supports your body’s ability to absorb iron. Likewise, gut health significantly influences iron uptake. By obtaining your iron from dark leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, you will also get the added benefit of vitamins, trace minerals, probiotics, and antioxidants. A healthy and consistent intake of fruit and vegetables ensures you don’t miss out on these vital nutrients.

Environmental Impact

There are reasons that extend beyond health concerns why someone may prefer a plant-based diet or lifestyle. Many people prefer to minimize their environmental impact. A diet that includes meat requires more energy, land, and water resources to support. Sticking with plant-based supplements and food for your nutritional needs reduces your environmental impact.

Best Sources of Plant-Based Iron

There are several options when it comes to plant-based sources of iron. Spinach, kidney beans, and pumpkin seeds are just a few that are good sources of iron and other vital micronutrients. However, when it comes to iron supplements, there are fewer plant-based choices. Global Healing Center is trying to change that. We’re in the final stages of development of a new vegan supplement that provides an ideal serving of plant-based iron from organic curry tree leaves.

What Are Micronutrients?

Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals required by your body. Unlike macronutrients, you only need minuscule amounts of micronutrients to maintain good health. Micronutrients are essential to the production of enzymes, hormones, proteins, and other products created by your body. Some micronutrients have a specialized role, while others fulfill a broad range of functions.

Micronutrients are incredibly important for health and wellness. Mineral deficiencies can have lasting, detrimental health consequences in children and adults of all ages. Unborn children and older adults are especially susceptible to micronutrient deficiencies, which is why many nutritional supplements are optimized for specific age groups and many staple foods, like flour, are fortified with vitamins and minerals.

However, you might be surprised to learn that food fortification can be misleading as it’s often accomplished with synthetic vitamin variants. These manufactured vitamin forms often lack the cofactors and nutrients required for proper absorption in the body. As always, it’s best to obtain naturally occurring vitamins and minerals from quality, whole-food dietary sources to ensure your body can properly utilize these essential nutrients.

What Are Vitamins?

Vitamins are organic compounds primarily derived from food that the body needs in small amounts. With the exception of vitamin D, vitamins cannot be produced by the organism that requires them. Vitamins serve a variety of purposes. Some, like vitamins A, C, and E, are antioxidants. Others, like the B vitamins, are vital for fetal brain development and healthy brain aging. There are two categories of vitamins—fat-soluble and water-soluble.

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins. Your body stores fat-soluble vitamins in fatty tissues for reserves in case you don’t meet your daily recommended intake. These vitamins are best consumed with healthy fats to ensure absorption.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is essential for eye and brain health. It also regulates growth and keeps the immune system healthy. Plant sources are the safest method of meeting your daily vitamin A requirement. Consumption of vitamin A from animal sources could lead to vitamin A toxicity.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is both a hormone and a micronutrient. Though it’s famous for its role in preserving and promoting bone health, it also helps keep your respiratory system healthy, enhances your mental and emotional well-being, and keeps your immune system functioning at peak efficiency.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a powerhouse antioxidant. The various forms of the vitamin all have similar antioxidant properties, but one in particular, alpha-tocopherol, is what the body prefers most. Vitamin E protects delicate lipids from oxidation and, in the case of food, rancidity. Its actions protect your DNA by stopping free radicals from damaging the fragile structure of your chromosomes.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is named after the German spelling of coagulation (coagulation) because it activates the proteins in the blood that are responsible for clotting.

Water-Soluble Vitamins

In humans, the water-soluble vitamins are limited to the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. These vitamins need to be replaced on a daily basis because they are not easily stored in the body. Rather, the body excretes excess water-soluble vitamins in urine.

B-Complex Vitamins

The B-complex vitamins include thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), and cobalamin (B-12). These vitamins regulate the release of energy in cells (metabolism), serve as cofactors, and affect mood and immune health. Additionally, a healthy microbiome is essential because some probiotics actually generate B-vitamins in the gut.

Vitamin B-12 and B9 are vitally important to brain health. Research into the role of vitamin B-12 suggests it’s a powerful force in preserving memory and cognitive function as you age.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C’s role as an antioxidant is well known (and highly marketed), but it has other roles, too. Vitamin C is incredibly important for growth and healing. The strength of connective tissue and bones and skin elasticity all depend on sufficient levels of vitamin C. It also enhances the absorption of iron from food in the small intestine.

What Are Minerals?

In general, minerals are inorganic, naturally occurring substances. In your diet, they are important nutrients that enable your cells to carry out essential functions. Minerals are divided into macrominerals and trace minerals, also known as microminerals. Predictably, your body requires macrominerals in much larger amounts than the trace minerals.

Macrominerals

The macrominerals include magnesium, sulfur, and the electrolytes: potassium, calcium, sodium, chlorine, and phosphorous. Most people get much more sodium chloride (table salt) than they need—to the detriment of their health. While some salt is essential, you don’t need nearly as much as most Americans consume. Try to limit your salt intake whenever possible.

Magnesium

Magnesium is not one of the celebrity micronutrients, but it is essential to many vital processes. It plays an important role in metabolism, acting as a cofactor in hundreds of chemical reactions in the body. Magnesium is also vital to the proper bone formation and the synthesis of genetic material.

Calcium

Of all the minerals, you may be most familiar with calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body. Far beyond bone strength, calcium is responsible for muscle and blood vessel relaxation and contraction, nerve firing, and communication between cells.

Potassium

Most Americans, an astounding 98 percent, fall woefully short on potassium intake. Potassium is responsible for muscle and nerve function, a steady heartbeat, and cell detoxification. It acts as the inverse of sodium, which is why it’s vital to balance your sodium and potassium intake.

Trace Minerals

The body requires significantly fewer essential trace minerals (microminerals) than macrominerals. Macrominerals are measured in grams, while trace minerals are measured in milligrams and micrograms. The top microminerals you need are chromium, iron, iodine, selenium, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, and copper. You also need exceptionally small amounts of nickel, silicon, vanadium, and cobalt.

Though you need less of these micronutrients, they are extremely important to your health. Many of the most pernicious health conditions are related to deficiencies in trace minerals like iodine and iron. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide have a reduced ability to work due to iron deficiency anemia. Annually, nearly 20 million children are born to mothers with insufficient iodine levels—a condition that leads to severe cognitive impairment.

Micronutrients and Nutrition

There are only a few ways to meet your micronutrient needs: a nutrient-rich diet, quality supplementation, and, to a lesser degree, eating some types of clay or cooking in cast iron. Vitamins and minerals are easily synthesized in labs and pressed into tablets, but it’s always best to obtain your nutrition naturally from plant sources like fruits and vegetables.

At Global Healing Center, we focus on isolating the best micronutrients from natural, organic, and wildcrafted plant sources. Some of our favorite micronutrient supplements include:

  • Our Selenium supplement is sourced from organic mustard seeds. It provides the selenium that is essential to the thyroid and overall health.
  • Detoxadine® is an essential nascent iodine supplement produced from natural salt deposits. It’s nutritional support for immune health and the thyroid, and it promotes the detoxification of halogens such as fluoride and bromine.
  • Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, is sourced from the sesbania plant; it supports healthy hair and nails at the cellular level.
  • Suntrex D3™ is a vegan, lichen-derived vitamin D3 that supports the nervous system, calcium absorption, and a healthy mood.

What Are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients are the largest class of nutrients the body requires and include protein, carbohydrates, and fats. If you’ve heard anyone talking about “macros,” they’re referring to these major nutrients. The amounts and ratio of macronutrients a person needs every day vary by age, lifestyle (sedentary, active, or very active), gender, health status, and health goals.

The USDA provides general recommendations for how Americans should allocate calories per macronutrient.The nutrition facts label included on food packaging echoes these ratios and is based on a 2,000 calorie diet for the average American, including children and adults. Many diets try to optimize macronutrient ratios to produce certain results, like consuming protein (along with weight training) to gain muscle mass, or consuming fewer carbohydrates to help lose weight.

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates include starches, sugars, and fiber. Carbohydrates contain four calories (kcal) per gram. Your body uses carbohydrates to fuel your body. Carbohydrates come in two forms: complex and simple. Simple carbohydrates include sugars like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Technically, honey and maple syrup also fall into this category. Complex carbohydrates are usually only described as starches that contain fiber, but this simplistic definition includes foods like whole wheat pasta and white potatoes.

How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans should get between 45-65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates.

Humans don’t produce the necessary enzymes to digest fiber, but it’s nonetheless required by the body. Your microbiota breaks down fiber by fermenting it and using it as their energy source. Your health relies on a balanced, well-nourished microbial gut community for many different functions, so make sure you get plenty of fiber-rich foods in your diet every day.

Sources of Carbohydrates

The best carbohydrates are micronutrient-dense whole foods that contain sugars or starches along with fiber. This definition leaves no room for confusion about whole fruit, which is considered a simple carbohydrate under some definitions. Fruit is an essential part of a healthy diet and 76% of Americans don’t eat enough. Other excellent sources of carbohydrates include winter squash, beans, and ancient grains like quinoa.

What Is Protein?

Protein is the building block responsible for the growth and maintenance of your eyes, skin, hair, nails, organs, and muscle tissue. During digestion, protein is broken down into smaller chains called peptides and individual units called amino acids for absorption. Of the 22 amino acids, nine are essential to humans. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Histidine is unique in that it’s only required during infancy.

Proteins do a lot of work throughout the body. They embed themselves in your cells to regulate what goes in and out. They even envelop and transport some molecules to other locations in the body. Enzymes that catalyze the various chemical reactions in your body are made of folded chains of amino acids. The body creates hormones like leptin, immune proteins like interferon, and antibodies using amino acids.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The USDA recommends that Americans get 5-35% of their calories from protein. This range is set to cover 97-98% of the population, and your needs may vary based on age and health status. Protein, like carbohydrates, provides four calories (kcal) of energy per gram.

Sources of Protein

Whole, nutrient-dense foods are the best sources of protein. Notice I did not say they are the most concentrated sources of protein. So-called “high-quality” sources are very concentrated sources of peptides that share similar amino acid ratios with humans. Essentially, the more a source of protein resembles human tissue in amino acid composition, the better its “quality.” Regularly eating meat, just like regularly consuming concentrated sources of sugar, leads to several serious, and completely preventable health consequences. If you think eating organic, free-range, grass-fed meat is significantly better than factory farmed meat, then wouldn’t it also follow that soda with 100% organic high-fructose corn syrup is equally healthy when compared to regular soda? That’s clearly not the case. It’s important to understand that some foods have few redeeming qualities, organic or not. Just because something is less bad for you than the standard option doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Many people believe that plants only supply “incomplete proteins.” The need for protein complementation is a myth perpetuated in poorly researched literature. To be clear, all plant foods contain the nine essential amino acids. You won’t develop a protein deficiency on a plant-based diet. In fact, protein deficiencies only occur in those who have gone long periods without eating anything at all.

What Is Fat?

Weighing in at nine calories (kcal) per gram, fat is the densest source of energy in the diet. In the body, fats make up cell membranes, steroids, cholesterol, and 60% of your brain. Fats support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, cushion your organs, and act as your largest form of energy storage.

Dietary fats include saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats tend to come from animal sources, while most plant fats are unsaturated. There are also important essential fatty acids, namely omega-3 and omega-6.

There’s another type of fat, an unnatural type, known as trans fats. Trans fats are a product of food manufacturing and are created by hydrogenating less stable unsaturated fats to be more shelf stable. This process prolongs the life of processed food products. Trans fats are often described as poison, and it’s a description that’s fairly accurate. Trans fats raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol and have no place in a healthy diet.

How Much Fat Do You Need?

Like carbohydrates, the popularity of fat waxes and wanes with public opinion and even medical opinion as new diets and research emerge. Currently, according to the USDA, fats should account for 20-40% of your daily calories. Essential fats are undoubtedly a necessary component of a healthy diet. Some of the best sources of healthy fats are nuts, seeds, coconuts, avocados, and olives. Like the most healthy sources of proteins and carbohydrates, the fats in nuts and fatty fruits contain fiber, beneficial micronutrients, and phytonutrients that keep you healthy.

Sources of Fat

Just like with carbohydrates and protein, the best sources of fat are plant-based and nutrient dense. Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, coconut, and unsweetened dark chocolate are all excellent sources of fat that come with a healthy serving of phytonutrients and fiber. As always, I recommend whole foods over processed.

However, if you’re looking for healthy oils you have quite a few options: flaxseed, hemp seed, avocado, grapeseed, sunflower, walnut, sesame, and coconut oils. I highly recommend flaxseed oil for room temperature or colder dishes like salad dressings or hummus. For cooking, use oils that have a higher smoke point like grapeseed, coconut, avocado and sesame oil. When purchasing oils, always make sure the label says “expeller-pressed” and “unrefined.” Otherwise, the oil may have been extracted using chemicals and subjected to extensive processing, which disturbs the delicate essential fatty acids in the oil.

The Problem With Focusing on Macros

When you focus on optimizing the ratios or percentages of your macronutrients, you might forget to concentrate on the quality of the food itself. Make sure to eat a balanced combination of whole, plant-based foods that contribute to your health. Your macros may vary from one day to the next, but your body’s needs may differ based on your activity level, health status, schedule, or other factors. If you’re trying to make a big change in your diet and lifestyle, consider working with a certified dietician or nutrition counselor that can evaluate your needs, help you set achievable goals, and create a personalized diet plan for you.

The ultimate goal of any good diet is to fuel your day-to-day activities while keeping yourself properly nourished. Make sure the foods you chose are micronutrient dense. These nutrients are required in significantly smaller amounts, but they have a much larger impact on your health.

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Food as Medicine: Spinach (Spinacia oleracea, Chenopodiaceae)

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea, Chenopodiaceae) is an annual plant that grows up to 23 inches tall (60 cm). Spinach plants produce an edible rosette and toothed fleshy leaves. There are two main types of spinach: crinkled savory leaf spinach and smooth or flat-leaf spinach. Spinach leaves are fleshy, deep green, and rich in essential nutrients and phytochemicals. Spinach requires deep and nitrogen-rich soil to grow, and prefers a cool climate, with spring and autumn being optimal growth seasons for the leaves. The hot weather of summer may cause the spinach to bolt quickly, which causes the leaves to deteriorate. The plant produces greenish-yellow flowers when ready to set seed.

Spinach is native to southwest Asia, in the area of present-day Iran. Spinach cultivation spread to China in 647 BCE and spread across Europe by the 12th century CE. Now, spinach is cultivated throughout the world in temperate climate zones. In the United States, California is the largest producer of spinach, followed by Arizona and New Jersey. The annual per capita consumption of spinach in the United States was estimated to be 1.7 pounds in 2014.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Spinach is one of the most nutritious leafy vegetables and ranks second behind kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephela, Brassicaceae) in total carotenoids and folate content. Spinach is high in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat.

The plant is a nutrient-dense source of vitamins and minerals and maintains its nutritional value well after cooking. Spinach provides an array of B vitamins, which are important for carbohydrate metabolism, the nervous system, and the brain. Spinach contains other important minerals including calcium, magnesium, zinc, and selenium, and is a significant source of potassium, copper, iodine, and iron. It also contains abundant amounts of vitamins A, K, and C.

The flavonoid, phenolic acid, and carotenoid content of spinach make it a healthy, therapeutic food. These compounds are effective at neutralizing free radicals in the body and are able to protect the body from damage and disease by reducing inflammation.

The two major carotenoids present in spinach leaves are lutein and beta-carotene, and they compose more than 65% of the total carotenoids content. Lutein may help prevent vision loss from age-related degenerative disorders such as macular degeneration and cataracts. A yellow pigment, lutein is found in high amounts in the retina and absorbs blue light emitted by back-lit devices such as smartphones and computer screens. Other carotenoids in spinach include violaxanthin and neoxanthin.

The carotenoids in spinach are very delicate and highly susceptible to degradation over time. Post-harvest handling of spinach from a field to freezer does alter the phytochemical profile of the leaves. In one study, storing fresh spinach leaves for 24 hours at 39°F (4°C) did not impact the carotenoids content in fresh spinach. However, storing fresh spinach for 72 hours at the same temperature resulted in a reduction of the carotenoids content by almost 15%. Blanching fresh leaves for two minutes at 212°F (100°C) followed by freezing effectively preserved the carotenoid content of spinach.

Historical and Commercial Uses

Historically, spinach leaves have been used as a laxative, diuretic, antidote against poison or infection, and as a treatment for asthma and other breathing difficulties, sore throat, and kidney stones. Spinach also has potential effects against hyperglycemia and inflammation. The seeds were used to control fever, to address back pain, and as a diuretic. In the Indian traditional medicine, the plant is known as palak and was used to treat liver injury or infection and jaundice. Spinach was prescribed and used in traditional Iranian medicine as an antidepressant. Due to its high iron and chlorophyll content, spinach often is used as a therapeutic food for patients with anemia.

Spinach leaves are available commercially fresh, frozen, or canned. Depending on the spinach cultivar and method of preservation, the nutrients and phytochemical profile of spinach may vary. Spinach leaves can be eaten fresh or cooked. Several popular spinach-based dishes are said to be prepared “a la Florentine,” supposedly in honor of Catherine de Medici (1519-1589), who was born in Florence and introduced the vegetable to the French court upon her marriage to King Henry II.

Modern Research

There are limited data regarding the effect of whole spinach leaves on diseases, metabolic pathways, and conditions. Most of the available literature reports the effects of leaf extracts or specific isolated phytonutrient components.

Oxidative Damage and Inflammation

The antioxidant content of spinach leaf, which contains high amounts of vitamins A and C, suggests protective effects against damage from cellular oxidation. A mouse study found that supplementation with 1,100 mg/kg per day of methanolic spinach leaf extract significantly decreased radiation-induced lipid peroxidation in the liver. This study further demonstrated that the leaf extract decreased the negative impact of radiation on glutathione levels.

A 2017 rat study used a different methanolic spinach leaf extract with high levels of lutein, luteolin, quercetin, and coumarin. High-performance liquid chromatography analysis of the extract confirmed the presence of these compounds in active amounts. The study reported that intraperitoneal injection of the extract showed a protective anti-inflammatory effect in mice that were given isoproterenol to induce a heart attack. Spinach extract intake led to changes in activities of multiple enzymes, including paraoxonase, lecithin-cholesterol acyltransferase, C-reactive protein, myeloperoxidase, and caspase-3. Furthermore, the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the heart tissue were significantly lower in mice pretreated with spinach extract than the control group. These results indicate the potential protective effects of spinach against inflammation and atherogenesis (the formation of abnormal fatty masses in arterial walls) when used as a concentrated leaf extract.

Cancer Chemoprevention

An in vitro study demonstrated that neoxanthin significantly suppressed inflammation and proliferation of prostate cancer cells. Additionally, in a bacteria-based model, flavonoids found in spinach leaves showed antimutagenic potential.

A study in mice reported that the antioxidants extracted from spinach leaves have protective effects against benign epithelial tumors. The potential mechanism of action was linked to the direct and indirect abilities of antioxidant compounds in spinach leaves to act as free-radical scavengers that inhibit the progression of carcinogenesis.

The abundant glycolipids in spinach leaves were found to possess inhibitory effects on the gastric cancer cell and promyelocytic leukemia cell proliferation in vitro. These findings are considered positive, but preliminary, results of the potential therapeutic effects of spinach glycolipids to prevent cancer proliferation.

Cardiovascular Disease

In a semi-randomized crossover study in humans, the consumption of a fortified spinach beverage resulted in a significant increase in plasma nitrate concentration, which correlated with lower diastolic blood pressure within 150 minutes post-consumption and persisted for five hours thereafter. This study suggests the possible therapeutic uses of spinach as a safe alternative and effective carrier for nitrate medications.

Supplementation

Spinach, like most dark, leafy greens, contains a high amount of folate: 100 grams of raw spinach provides almost half of an average person’s daily recommended intake. Daily intake of spinach for three weeks showed a significant increase in plasma folate concentrations, and processing spinach leaves did not affect the bioavailability of folate when compared to fresh whole-leaf spinach. Frozen whole-leaf spinach, minced spinach, and liquefied spinach have similar effects in terms of increasing plasma folate concentration.

Researchers currently are examining the potential benefits of fortifying flour with dehydrated spinach, with a goal to improve total folate content in bread.21 Fortification of white bread and whole grain bread with spinach (40 g spinach per 100 g of other ingredients) increased the total folate content, despite the effect of processing factors such as kneading and baking.

Diabetes

Spinach leaves contain many beneficial compounds such as vitamin C, iron, zinc, folic acid, polyphenols, and fatty acids. These compounds have protective effects topically as well as internally. In a study, diabetic rats were fed an aqueous spinach leaf extract to determine its effects on wound healing. The results showed that the spinach group had better wound-healing outcomes as indicated by significant improvements in epithelial and granulation tissue formation and blood vessels. These results indicate the potential beneficial effects of supplementation with spinach juice or other types of spinach extracts to treat wounds and ulcers in patients with diabetes.

Consumer Considerations

In August 2008, The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would allow the irradiation of spinach in order to kill the harmful bacteria Escherichia coli and Salmonella after numerous outbreaks of foodborne illness. Strains of E. coli have the ability to survive and multiply in the absence of an animal host when soil, water, and plants become contaminated. Pathogenic bacteria can grow inside the leaf tissues of spinach, rendering typical antimicrobial surface treatments ineffective. Uniformity of crop management practices as well as environmental factors not only impact the vegetable quality, but also the survival rate of E. coli in the soil and on the leaf crops. There are concerns, however, about the irradiation of food crops. Research indicates that the process generates harmful reactive oxygen species and decreases the phytonutrient content of the food in the process of eliminating foodborne pathogens.

The primary source of spinach leaf contamination with heavy metals is from pesticides containing lead arsenate, environmental pollution, contaminated irrigation water and rainwater, and runoff from nearby areas treated with plant pesticides and fertilizers. Leaf crops are most sensitive to lead contamination and bioaccumulation. Commercially farmed spinach is most susceptible to heavy metal and pathogen contamination due to the reliance on pesticides and poor land management techniques such as continual replanting in contaminated soil.

Caution with spinach consumption may be warranted in populations susceptible to kidney stones. Spinach is one of a number of foods that naturally contains oxalates. The oxalate content in spinach is estimated to be about 0.77 mg/100 g. Oxalates bind to many minerals, including calcium, zinc, and magnesium, inhibiting their absorption. Approximately 80% of kidney stones contain calcium and predominately consist of calcium oxalate. High levels of urinary oxalate are a major risk factor and precursor to the formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. Observational data indicate an inverse relationship between dietary calcium and the risk of kidney stone formation, since dietary calcium may bind to oxalates in the gut, and thereby limit the absorption of intestinal oxalates and subsequent excretion of urinary oxalates. However, a study of three diverse populations noted only a small association between oxalate and spinach consumption and the risk of kidney stone formation.

Nutrient Profile

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 100 grams raw spinach)

23 calories

2.9 g protein

3.6 g carbohydrate

0.4 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 100 grams raw spinach)

Excellent source of:

Vitamin K: 482.9 mcg (603.6% DV)

Vitamin A: 9377 IU (187.5% DV)

Folate: 194 mcg (48.5% DV)

Vitamin C: 28.1 mg (46.8% DV)

Manganese: 0.9 mg (45% DV)

Magnesium: 79 mg (19.8% DV)

Potassium: 558 mg (15.9% DV)

Iron: 2.7 mg (15% DV)

Very good source of:

Riboflavin: 0.19 mg (11.2% DV)

Vitamin E: 2.03 mg (10.1% DV)

Vitamin B6: 0.2 mg (10% DV)

Calcium: 99 mg (9.9% DV)

Dietary Fiber: 2.2 g (8.8% DV)

Good source of:

Thiamin: 0.08 mg (5.3% DV)

Also, provides:

Phosphorus: 49 mg (4.9% DV)

Niacin: 0.72 mg (3.6% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Recipe: Savory Spinach-Onion Pastry

Courtesy of Mariam Alhado

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon ground sumac or za’atar spice blend
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 package frozen puff pastry

Directions:

  1. Heat oven to 350°F. Using several layers of paper towels, squeeze as much excess water from the frozen spinach as possible.
  2. In a large bowl, combine spinach, onion, lemon juice, olive oil, sumac, and salt and form a uniform mixture.
  3. Roll out the pastry until it is smooth and of even thickness. Divide into three-inch squares. Add a few tablespoons of the spinach mixture into the center of each square, then fold the corners in and press to seal.
  4. Arrange the pastries on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown and heated through.

Food as Medicine: Mustard (Brassica juncea and B. nigra, Brassicaceae)

Mustard plants are herbaceous perennials (though often grown as annuals or biennials) and belong to the Brassicaceae, or cabbage, family. The three types of mustard most commonly consumed today are brown mustard (Brassica juncea), black mustard (B. nigra), and white mustard (Sinapis alba). This paper is concerned only with the brown and black species.

Native to temperate regions in Europe, mustard was one of the continent’s first domesticated crops, and thereafter became a cultivated food crop in Asia, North Africa, and North America. All species yield edible leaves, while their seeds are used whole, powdered, or pressed to produce oil. Annually, the United States produces 160,000 tons of mustard seed. Mustard plants have alternate leaves with ruffled margins and produce the small, yellow four-petaled flowers typical of members of the Brassicaceae family (formerly referred to as the Cruciferae family due to the cross-like pattern of the four petals). Upon pollination, each seedpod elongates into an oblong fruit capsule that contains up to 20 spherical seeds, which can be dark brown or yellow depending on the species.

Black mustard is sparsely branched and erect. It grows up to three meters in height and produces very small, pungent seeds (1.5 grams per 1,000 seeds) that are shed by the plant as the seedpod matures. Black mustard is grown for its edible greens in Argentina, Chile, and the United States, but it is rarely cultivated as a seed crop due to difficulties with the harvesting process and has largely been replaced by brown mustard because of this. Brown mustard, also known as Indian or Oriental mustard, originated in the Himalayan region of central Asia. Brown mustard grows 1-2 meters tall, has larger seeds (three grams per 1,000 seeds), and produces seedpods that are easier to mechanically collect and process. Brown mustard is commercially grown in North America, specifically in parts of the United States and Canada.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Phytochemical differences in black mustard and brown mustard are minor since B. juncea evolved from its ancestor B. nigra. The primary components of interest in mustard are the glucosinolates such as sinigrin, which are believed to be responsible for many of mustard’s health benefits. Mustard seed oil contains 90% allyl isothiocyanate (AITC). The seed contains 27% non-volatile oils (fixed oils), 30% proteins, and small amounts of lecithin, inositol, albumin, gums, mucilage, and pigments. Sinapine, an alkaloid, is also present in trace amounts. The fixed oils are composed of oleic, stearic, erucic, or brassic acids. Mustard seeds also contain terpenes, which have anti-inflammatory properties and are the primary constituents of mustard essential oil.

Other constituents in significant amounts include flavonoids and other phenolic compounds. The concentrations of these compounds can vary widely based on the growing conditions of the mustard plant. Pathogenic attacks on the plant also result in an altered phytochemical profile. Thus, it is possible that the health effects of mustard can vary due to the different farming practices used to grow the mustard. It would be beneficial to standardize farming practices to maximize yields of specific plant chemicals.

Mustard greens are nutrient dense and contain high amounts of vitamins, such as vitamin A, vitamin K, and vitamin C, and minerals, such as calcium. Mustard seeds contain fewer vitamins but are a good source of iron, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. Mustard seeds are also a good source of omega fatty acids, as they contain an almost 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both the seeds and greens can offer health-protective effects through their impressive nutrient profiles, although prepared mustard as a condiment should be used sparingly since many commercial brands can contain high amounts of sodium.

Historical and Commercial Uses

The recorded use of mustard as a medicinal plant dates back to the first century CE in Greece, where the physician Dioscorides recommended the topical application of a mustard seed poultice to reduce inflammation in his herbal medicine encyclopedia De Materia Medica. In Unani literature (the Greco-Arabic system of traditional medicine), mustard seed is recommended for a variety of conditions, including neuralgia, epilepsy, sciatica, leprosy, gout, pleurisy, and pneumonia.

In Ayurveda, the system of traditional medicine practiced for thousands of years in India, the therapeutic uses of mustard is well documented. The Ayurvedic practice considers mustard seed oil derived from the brown mustard plant to be pungent and warming, and documents external uses such as a massage oil and a hair tonic; for skin diseases like vitiligo; skin infections like acne; and hemorrhoids. Mustard seeds were processed into a paste and used as a poultice to treat internal conditions such as tumors of the thyroid gland and lymphadenitis (swelling of lymph nodes). Mustard seeds were also decocted in water and used as a poultice for cracked skin, leprosy, rheumatoid arthritis, acne, and as a rinse for mouth sores.

Internally, mustard oil traditionally was used to lower blood lipid levels, reduce the build-up of fat or adipose tissue, treat intestinal worms, and assist detoxification of the body. Mustard seeds were also included in traditional herbal formulas used to induce vomiting and cleanse the cranial cavity via nasal irrigation, and as a decoction in an enema therapy. Though mustard leaves were more commonly consumed as a vegetable, they were also used as an ingredient for steam fomentation and to cleanse the cranial cavity.

Other ethnobotanical uses of the mustard plant exist in cultures around the world.1 In Africa, the roots are used as a galactagogue to stimulate milk production. Dried leaves and flowers are burned in Tanzania in spiritual rituals. The essential oil has been used to relieve constipation and as a counterirritant. In Java, the leaves are used internally to treat syphilis and stimulate blood flow to the pelvic area and topically to treat headaches. In Korea, the seeds are used for abscesses, colds, lower back pain, rheumatism, and stomach disorders. The oil of mustard has been used to treat skin eruptions and ulcers throughout Asia.

In North America, black mustard has a history of use among indigenous tribes. It was used by the Cherokee to stimulate the appetite, treat fever and “nervous fever,” heal the kidneys and treat various other diseases such as malaria. It was also used to treat palsy and asthma, and as a tonic for overall wellness. The Meskwaki used mustard due to its pungent nature to treat head colds. The Mohegan tribe applied mustard leaf poultices as an analgesic for body pains, headaches, and toothaches. The Shinnecock used it similarly to the Mohegan but also mixed it with flour and water to induce vomiting. Brown mustard seed powder also has a widespread use as an emetic to treat acute and narcotic poisoning.

Modern Research

In recent studies, mustard has shown antitumor effects and other beneficial properties against chronic conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, weight gain, and neuropathic disease. It might also act as a protective agent against acute conditions such as fungal infection and influenza.

Cytotoxic and Anti-Tumor Effects

The anticancer effect of mustard may be due to the anti-proliferative activity of constituents such as sinigrin, the precursor to AITC. Many cytotoxicity studies have been performed in vitro to investigate how mustard and its constituents act against cancer cell proliferation. A hydrolyzed mustard seed powder that contained AITC caused cell cycle arrest and apoptosis (programmed cell death) in bladder cancer cell lines. This was further observed in rats, where an oral dose of the hydrolyzed mustard seed powder inhibited bladder cancer growth and blocked muscle invasion of cancerous cells. AITC specifically is thought to be selectively delivered to the bladder through urinary excretion. The mustard powder produced more significant results than pure AITC, suggesting that ingestion of the whole seed is more beneficial than ingestion of any isolated constituents. In an animal model, injections of mustard essential oil rich in AITC inhibited cell proliferation and blood vessel creation (angiogenesis, which is required for tumor growth). The oil also induced apoptosis, a pathway for cancer chemoprevention.

Another study examined the effects of sinigrin on liver tumors in rats. This three-month study found that oral sinigrin administration significantly inhibited proliferation of tumor cells in the liver and reduced the number of tumors in the rat liver. The response was dose dependent, with the highest tumor suppression at 25 mg/kg of body weight. However, the lowest dose, 10 mg/kg, still caused a significant reduction of tumors on the liver surface compared to the positive control, reducing tumor size by half.

An in vitro study examined the effects of several mustard extracts and found a dose-dependent protective response in human hepatocytes, colorectal cells, cervical cells, breast cancer cells, and larynx cells. The juice of the mustard leaf was also found to protect against induced DNA damage in human cells, again in a dose-dependent manner. These cancer chemopreventive effects were thought to be mediated not through inherent antioxidant properties of mustard extract, as is often seen with many plant materials, but by increasing expression of detoxification enzymes.

Isothiocyanates may also decrease multidrug resistance in human cancer cell lines and inhibit the efflux (simply put, the removal of compounds from cells) of cancer-treating drugs, which enhances the effect of chemotherapy treatment. In an in vitro study, isolated compounds, including isothiocyanates and sulforaphane, increased the accumulation of chemotherapeutic drugs in multidrug resistant cancer cells through the inhibition of efflux of these drugs. Researchers also found that the isothiocyanates inhibited tumor formation in breast, colon, lung, and skin tissue.

Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Neuropathic Effects

Mustard leaves and seeds both can induce hypoglycemic effects in animals with type 2 diabetes. One rodent study found that administration of an extract made from mustard leaves significantly reduced lipid peroxidation, reduced free radicals, and ameliorated the damage caused by oxidative stress. Researchers speculated that mustard enhances glycolysis and glycogenesis, and decreases glycogenosis. These data were further confirmed by a follow-up study that also showed reduced levels of superoxide and nitrite/nitrates in a dose-dependent manner after oral administration of a mustard extract. Mustard may also delay or prevent the onset of diabetes in addition to mitigating its effects. A study examined the effects of feeding high-fructose diets to rodents for 30 days and found that the inclusion of mustard powder over the study period significantly decreased fasting serum glucose, insulin, and cholesterol levels, although not enough to normalize them. Researchers concluded that mustard powder may be beneficial for pre-diabetic patients and those who are genetically prone to the disease.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is often studied in tandem with diabetes, as individuals with diabetes tend to suffer from CVD as well. One study examined the effects of two doses of mustard seed powder on serum cholesterol and triglycerides in diabetic rats. The lower dose did not significantly affect these markers; however, a higher dose (8 g/kg of body weight) significantly and consistently lowered both. The authors suggested that mustard might mimic or enhance the effectiveness of insulin, lowering the necessary amount and reducing insulin’s anabolic effect.

There are often neurological complications associated with diabetes. In a rat model, researchers examined the effects of an ethanol mustard extract and found dose-dependent improvements in brain chemistry and cognitive function, and speculated that non-diabetes-induced neurological problems could be improved with mustard consumption or supplementation. The effect of mustard on the depletion of neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine was further researched. Mustard was found to compensate for depleted levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, resulting in improvement of behavioral outcomes such as feelings of helplessness and despair, as well as impaired locomotion. Mustard’s rich polyphenol content may be the source of its therapeutic effects on cognitive issues.

Antimicrobial Properties

Mustard has antimicrobial and antiviral properties and shows protective effects against microbe- and virus-induced damage. One rodent study on viral hepatitis found that mustard extract protected against liver and kidney damage. The mechanism of this protective action is thought to be related to the anti-inflammatory activity of the compounds in mustard such as terpenes. This is of specific interest because it shows that the protective properties of mustard go beyond antibiotic properties and may protect against viruses as well.

Mustard has also been shown to have antifungal properties. Mustard essential oil was able to inhibit or delay the growth of several types of fungi and prevent further growth even if mustard essential oil was in contact with the fungi through vapors. Furthermore, mustard was found to recognize the structural differences of microbes and targeted sphingolipids, specific regulators of pathogenicity unique to fungal pathogens.

Consumer Considerations

Mustard as a food generally is considered safe. There are no known nutrient-drug interactions with mustard, although high levels of vitamin K in the leaves could interact with certain blood-thinning medications such as warfarin due to vitamin K’s blood-coagulating properties. The vitamin K content could also be a concern to individuals with existing untreated thyroid issues or an iodine deficiency. Due to the high oxalate content of the leaves, those with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones may wish to limit their intake of mustard leaves.

Mustard essential oil can be highly irritable to the skin and mucous membranes. It is not recommended to use mustard oil either internally or externally. However, the mustard oil must be specifically extracted and these side effects are not a concern when consuming the condiment, seeds, or leaves. While there is little concern about adulteration of culinary mustard, there is a history of adulterating mustard seed oil with Argemone (Argemone mexicana, Papaveraceae) oil. In 1998, 2,300 people were affected and 41 people died from adulterated mustard oil in India, resulting in a complete ban of mustard seed oil. The ban was subsequently lifted after the adulteration was discovered and corrected. However, mustard seed oil for edible consumption is not recognized as safe in the United States, Canada, and the European Union due to its high erucic acid content.

Nutrient Profile

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 1 cup [approx. 56 grams] chopped mustard greens, raw)

15 calories

1.6 g protein

2.6 g carbohydrate

0.2 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup [approx. 56 grams] chopped mustard greens, raw)

Excellent source of:

Vitamin K: 144.2 mcg (180.3% DV)

Vitamin C: 39.2 mg (65.3% DV)

Vitamin A: 1,693 IU (33.9% DV)

Very good source of:

Manganese: 0.3 mg (15% DV)

Good source of:

Dietary Fiber: 1.8 g (7.2% DV)

Calcium: 64 mg (6.4% DV)

Potassium: 215 mg (6.1% DV)

Vitamin E: 1.13 mg (5.6% DV)

Iron: 0.92 mg (5.1% DV)

Also, provides:

Vitamin B6: 0.1 mg (5% DV)

Magnesium: 18 mg (4.5% DV)

Riboflavin: 0.06 mg (3.5% DV)

Thiamin: 0.05 mg (3.3% DV)

Phosphorus: 32 mg (3.2% DV)

Niacin: 0.45 mg (2.3% DV)

Folate: 7 mcg (1.8% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Recipe: Saag Paneer

Adapted from Anita Jaisinghani

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup ghee or neutral vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 serrano chilies, stems and seeds removed, minced
  • 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced/grated
  • 1 pound of mustard greens, stems removed and leaves chopped
  • 1 pound baby spinach leaves
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala spice blend
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream or plain, unsweetened yogurt
  • 1 pound paneer or halloumi cheese, diced into 1-inch pieces

Directions:

  1. In a large saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the ghee or oil. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown, about 20 minutes.
  2. Add the garlic, chilies, and ginger. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garam masala and cook until fragrant.
  3. In batches, add the mustard greens and spinach, letting each batch wilt before adding more. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. In a food processor, pulse half of the greens with half of the heavy cream or yogurt until finely chopped. Return to the saucepan and repeat with the remaining greens and cream/yogurt. Alternatively, use an immersion blender to process the greens and dairy in the saucepan. Keep the saag warm over very low heat, stirring occasionally.
  5. In a medium nonstick skillet, heat 1/2 tablespoon of the ghee or oil over moderate heat. Add half of the paneer and cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the remaining ghee and paneer.
  6. Fold the paneer into the saag and cook over low heat until warmed through 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with steamed basmati rice.

Food as Medicine: Arugula (Eruca sativa, Brassicaceae)

History and Traditional Use

Range and Habitat

Arugula (Eruca sativa, Brassicaceae), also known as rucola and rocket, is a weedy annual that is drought-tolerant and prefers a hot, dry climate. The name “arugula” is a modern American designation and likely derives from the Italian term “rucola.” The name “rocket” is more common in British English, as is roquette in France. Both rucola and roquette are diminutives of the Latin eruca, which means “caterpillar” and may refer to the fuzzy appearance of the young stems. The different names for arugula demonstrate the wide area where it grows, in a swath of the northern Mediterranean and the near east that stretches from Portugal to Afghanistan. It has been naturalized in northern Europe and North America.

Arugula is distinguished by its upright stem, which can have four-petaled white, yellow, or purple flowers, as well as its green, aromatic, serrated leaves. It’s thin, narrow fruit is a pod filled with small, oil-rich seeds. Although it is commonly thought of as a relative of spinach or lettuce, it is actually a cruciferous vegetable of the family Brassicaceae, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage.

arugula flowerThe leaves and seeds of arugula are both edible. The leaves boast an aromatic, peppery, and mustard-like flavor and are mainly consumed raw in salads. Young leaves are tenderer and have a milder flavor, while mature leaves are larger, woodier, and more bitter. The seeds can be pressed for oil.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

As a leafy green vegetable and a member of the family Brassicaceae, arugula is an extremely nutrient-dense food. It is low in calories and rich in vitamins A, C and K, folate, magnesium, and calcium. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium help controls blood pressure and maintains bone health. It also provides riboflavin, potassium, copper, iron, and zinc. Arugula’s health benefits are a potent combination of cruciferous vegetable and leafy green, as it contains compounds found in both: glucosinolates, a group of compounds which exert powerful anticancer and detoxifying mechanisms, and antioxidant phytochemicals such as carotenes and chlorophyll. Compared to other brassica plants, arugula has one of the highest beta-carotene, kaempferol, and quercetin contents.

Arugula seed oil, commonly called taramira or Jamba oil, is likewise rich in glucosinolates. It also contains high amounts of erucic and gadoleic acids, which have more commercial than health benefits, as detailed in the following section.

Historical and Commercial Uses

Ancient and modern practitioners interpret arugula’s peppery taste as a fiery, “lively” quality, which lends itself to a variety of different uses. In the ancient world, the Romans and the Egyptians considered arugula to be a potent aphrodisiac which was used to “restore vigor to the genitalia,” and planted it at the base of statues of the god Priapus, who was considered the god of fertility, livestock, and gardens. Its reputation as an aphrodisiac was widespread and persistent, and some monasteries banned its cultivation on their grounds, citing its “hotness and lechery.”

Arugula had widespread use in Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine practices, primarily for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It was taken orally as a general tonic for wellness and as an aid to digestion and kidney function. Additionally, records exist of a physician’s prescribing a topical treatment of ground seeds mixed with cream for acne. Evidence of arugula use and cultivation dates back to the Hellenistic Period in Greece (323 BCE – 31 BCE).

Due to its high vitamin A and C content, arugula has been used as a therapeutic food for eye infections and night blindness, and its sharpness and astringency reveals its stimulant, diuretic, and antiscorbutic (effective against scurvy) properties. Many of its modern and traditional uses overlap with dandelion greens, to which it is very similar in taste and nutritional profile. The leaves have also been used topically as a rubefacient (drawing blood to the surface of the skin) to improve circulation.

The fresh leaves of arugula have been consumed and favored as a salad green in Mediterranean countries for centuries. With the growing popularity of the Mediterranean cuisine, its consumption continues to grow in the United States as well as the rest of the world. Arugula is best consumed raw or very lightly cooked, as many of its beneficial compounds (chlorophyll, glucosinolates, and isothiocyanates) degrade quickly when heated.

In India, Pakistan, and Iran, arugula is grown as a commercial oilseed crop. Due to its high erucic acid content, taramira oil and similar oils are used as commercial lubricants and as massage oils. The seed matter left behind after oil processing is used as livestock fodder. Where it is popular, including India, taramira oil also has a widespread culinary use, though it must age for six months after processing to mellow its initial overwhelming acrid taste. Once aged, the oil can be used in salads and for cooking purposes and is a traditional ingredient in pickles and mustard.

Modern Research

As a member of the Brassicaceae family, arugula shares the extensively-studied effects of its relatives, such as broccoli and kale.

Cruciferous vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants and are highly regarded for their anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, chemo-preventive, and cardioprotective effects. They have high levels of sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates which, when crushed or chewed, turn into indoles and isothiocyanates. These two bioactive constituents have been shown to be potent cancer-fighters, protecting against many forms of cancers, including breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer.

Arugula can be a valuable addition to the diet of people with Crohn’s disease and other gastrointestinal conditions, providing valuable vitamins, minerals, and insoluble fiber. Those who suffer from Crohn’s disease are at higher risk for vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition as a result of a limited diet; however, in a 2012 clinical study, almost 80% of subjects reported no change in their symptoms after consuming steady amounts of arugula. Though cruciferous vegetables are considered off-limits to people following a low-FODMAP diet (which seeks to eliminate fermentable oglio-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols due to a bacterial imbalance in the gut), arugula was well tolerated and also should be considered as a nutrient-dense addition for people with these sensitivities.


Nutrient Profile


Macronutrient Profile:
(Per 1 cup arugula leaves)

5 calories
0.52 g protein
0.73 g carbohydrate
0.13 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup arugula leaves)

Excellent source of:
Vitamin K: 21.7 mcg (27.13% DV)

Good source of:

Vitamin A: 475 IU (9.5% DV)
Vitamin C: 3 mg (5% DV)
Folate: 19 mcg (4.75% DV)
Vitamin E: 0.09 mg (4.48% DV)
Calcium: 32 mg (3.2% DV)

Also provides:
Magnesium: 9 mg (2.25% DV)
Potassium: 74 mg (2.11% DV)
Iron: 0.29 mg (1.61% DV)
Dietary Fiber: 0.3 g (1.2% DV)
Riboflavin: 0.02 mg (1.18% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.02 mg (1% DV)
Phosphorus: 10 mg (1% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Recipe: Arugula and Walnut Pesto

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup raw, unsalted walnuts halves
  • 2 cups fresh arugula leaves
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Directions:

  1. In a dry, nonstick skillet over medium heat, toast walnuts until lightly browned and fragrant. Be careful not to burn. Remove from the heat.
  2. In a food processor, combine arugula, walnuts, and garlic and pulse until roughly chopped. Continue pulsing, drizzling in olive oil in a steady stream until combined. Stir in Parmesan cheese and add salt to taste.
  3. Alternatively, this recipe can be made with a mortar and pestle. Roughly chop the arugula leaves and toast walnuts as described, then combine nuts, salt, and garlic in a mortar and grind until smooth. Then add the cheese, olive oil, and arugula, and continue grinding until smooth.

Food as Medicine: Butternut Squash (Cucurbita moschata)

History and Traditional Use

Range and Habitat

Cucurbita moschata— often referred to as winter or pumpkin squash — is a trailing annual with lobed leaves that produce yellow flowers. Mature fruits that are peanut- or bottle-shaped are harvested for their rich orange flesh and edible seeds. Native to tropical and subtropical America, butternut squash requires warmer climates for cultivation as it is intolerant of cold temperatures.

Curcurbita moschata grows best in a rich and well-drained soil in full sun. It can be stored for extended periods and, in fact, has one of the longest shelf lives of the squash family.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Winter squashes, such as the butternut, are high in complex carbohydrates and provide vitamin C, potassium, iron, riboflavin, and magnesium. Additionally, butternut squash is an excellent source of vitamin A and carotenoids such as α-carotene, β-carotene, β-cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which contribute to its claimed anti-cancer properties. While it is a low-fat food, butternut squash does contain some healthy fats in the form of alpha-linoleic acid, a beneficial omega-3 fatty acid that the body does not produce naturally. Omega-3s possess a variety of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties.

The vitamin C retention in butternut squash after cooking is unusually high compared to other vitamin C-containing vegetables, and this is thought to contribute to its potential antioxidant activity. About 80% of the vitamin C in butternut squash is retained after cooking the pulp for 30 minutes at 95°C (203°F). For comparison, cooking degrades vitamin C content in potatoes by 30%, and, after maintaining heat for one hour, levels decrease by another 10%.

Boiled butternut squash has an intermediate glycemic index value at 66 (compared to the reference glucose reference of 100). Despite its relatively high glycemic index value, butternut squash’s complex carbohydrate content slows the breakdown of carbohydrates into simple sugars, thereby delaying the release of insulin.

The edible seeds of the squash, which have nutritional value on their own, can be roasted like pumpkin (C. pepo) seeds. Roasting lightly for a short period of time preserves the healthy oils — including linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid, and oleic acid, which is plentiful in olive oil — that make up approximately 75% of the fat found in the seeds. Cucurbita moschata seeds contain a higher amount of carotenoids as well as α-, β-, and γ-tocopherol than C. maxima and other pumpkin seeds. The seeds are a good source of vitamin E, which also may contribute to the plant’s antioxidant activity.

Historical Uses

Cucurbita moschata cultivation dates back more than 10,000 years to Central America. The use of the plant spread to the north and south, with evidence of use from 4,900 BCE in southern Mexico and 3,000 BCE in coastal Peru. Centuries later, Christopher Columbus and other European explorers brought squash from the Americas to Europe.

Squash were initially cultivated for their seeds; in early varieties, the sparse flesh was bitter and inedible. Pumpkin or squash seeds have been used for treating enlarged prostate glands and intestinal parasites.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), squash seeds have been used since at least the 17th century. TCM practitioners consider squash to be a warming food that aids digestion, improves qi (energy) deficiency in the spleen/pancreas, and alleviates pain. Application of fresh squash juice may reduce inflammation and relieve burns, and its slightly acidic nature led to its incorporation as an ingredient in bone marrow or “longevity” soup. In Ayurveda, winter squash has a history of use to reduce vata (conditions that are dry and cold) and pitta (conditions that are inflammatory and hot). Winter squash are considered therapeutic foods beneficial for diabetics due to their complex carbohydrate content.

Modern Research

Butternut squash pulp produced as a byproduct of the manufacturing process is thought to be a potential source for the production of prebiotics used in functional food and nutraceutical products. In 2010, butternut squash pulp oligosaccharides were analyzed to determine their potential for prebiotic production. Prebiotics must withstand digestion to ultimately reach the colon and stimulate the growth of bacteria or microbiota. The oligosaccharides demonstrated resistance to hydrolysis by artificial human gastric juice and α-amylase when compared to inulin, a reference prebiotic. These oligosaccharides also stimulated the growth of lactobacilli in comparison to inulin.

Research on the therapeutic properties of butternut squash has been limited to human cell studies and animal studies. Analyses of bioactive compounds have focused on cucurmosin, which has been isolated from the fleshy part of the fruit. Cucurmosin inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells by inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death). A 2012 study showed that cucurmosin inhibits cell proliferation in a time- and dose-dependent manner and induces apoptosis specifically in human pancreatic cancer BxPC-3 cells. Cucurmosin down-regulates, or decreases the quantity of, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) protein expression, which is associated with overexpression that may promote pancreatic tumor growth and metastasis. Researchers also found that cucurmosin inactivated the PI3K/Akt/mTOR signaling pathway in human pancreatic cancer cells.

In a separate study, human liver carcinoma cells (HepG2 cells) were treated with cucurmosin, which resulted in an increase of cell apoptosis in a concentration-dependent manner. Additional studies, particularly human clinical trials, are needed to assess the potential therapeutic potential of butternut squash in greater detail.

Nutrient Profile


Macronutrient Profile:
(Per 1 cup raw butternut squash cubes)

Calories: 63
Protein: 1.4 g
Carbohydrates: 16.4 g
Fat: 0.14 g

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup raw butternut squash cubes)

Excellent source of:

Vitamin A: 14,882 IU (298% DV)
Vitamin C: 29.4 mg (49% DV)

Very good source of:

Manganese: 0.38 mg (19% DV)
Potassium: 493 mg (14% DV)
Magnesium: 48 mg (12% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.22 mg (11%DV)
Dietary Fiber: 2.8 g (11% DV)

Good source of:

Folate: 38 mcg (9.5% DV)
Thiamin: 0.14 mg (9.3% DV)
Niacin: 1.68 mg (8.4% DV)
Phosphorus: 46 mg (4.6% DV)
Vitamin K: 1.5 mcg (1.9% DV)
Riboflavin: 0.03 mg (1.8% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.


Recipe: Creamy Butternut Squash Soup

Courtesy of Sarah Edwards

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
  • 2 medium butternut squash
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
  • 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly minced ginger
  • 1/8 cup coconut milk (or more, to taste)
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (for garnish)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice butternut squash in half, peel, and scoop out the seeds.
  2. Cut off the bulbous ends where the seeds have been scooped out and place peeled whole cloves of garlic in each cavity. Place squash face down in a large baking dish.
  3. Peel and cut the rest of the squash into large cubes and place in the baking dish with onion and carrot. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt. Roast for 1 hour until tender.
  4. Heat broth in a large pot over medium heat. Add the butternut squash sections and garlic into the saucepan along with the roasted vegetables and minced ginger, then bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Stir in the coconut milk and allow to cool slightly. Blend the soup in batches in a blender or in the pot with an immersion blender until thick and creamy. Garnish with cilantro or roasted butternut squash seeds.