The Latin name for dandelion—Taraxacum officinale—is your first clue as to what this plant is about. Loosely translated, it means “official remedy for the disorders.” (In Greek, taraxons means “disorder,” and akos means “remedy.” The Arab physicians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries who were the first to write about this miracle plant called it taraxacon.) Dandelion is used in herbal traditions all over the world, including by American Indians, Arabs,
Chinese, and Europeans. Louis Vanrenen, in his excellent little book Power Herbs, lists it as one of the top fifty “power herbs.” Yup, we’re talking about the same dandelion that many people consider a weed. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, a weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. This particular weed has a distinguished history of medicinal use in China, Japan, Russia, and Europe and has been used for detoxification for more than a century.
Dandelion Improves Your Liver and Your Moods
Probably at the top of the list of dandelion’s health benefits is its profound effect on the liver. According to Dr. Mark Stengler, N.D., associate clinical professor at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, dandelion ranks right alongside milk thistle as the most frequently recommended herbs to help patients who need liver detoxification. Since the liver’s job is to detoxify every chemical, pollutant, and medicine that we’re exposed to—according to some experts it performs more than 5,000 enzymatic reactions—keeping it strong and functioning smoothly is of prime importance to our health. “Just by treating the liver we can sometimes resolve numerous conditions ranging from physical problems such as indigestion and hepatitis to the emotional imbalances that contribute to irritability and depression,” says Stengler. Dandelion root, in particular, figures prominently in many natural nutritional support programs for hepatitis C.
One of the chemical components of dandelion, taraxacin, is thought to stimulate the digestive organs and help prompt the liver and gallbladder to release bile. This can be useful in constipation and indigestion—bowels move more easily with increased bile flow, and unlike pharmaceutical laxatives, dandelion can be taken for a few months. Christopher Hobbs, a licensed acupuncturist and fourth-generation herbalist and botanist with more than 30 years of experience with herbs, writes that clinical and laboratory research on dandelion shows “a doubling of bile output with leaf extracts and a quadrupling of bile output with the root extract.” Since bile helps with the digestion and absorption of fats, this might explain how effective dandelion is in helping with heartburn and indigestion.
Dandelion Root for Diabetes
Dandelion root is also helpful in the treatment of diabetes. It contains inulin, which is a naturally occurring type of soluble fiber known to have a positive effect on blood sugar levels. Inulin also increases calcium absorption and possibly magnesium absorption while promoting probiotic bacteria. In addition, dandelion also contains some pectin, another type of fiber that helps relieve constipation and reduce cholesterol. (Pectin is also found in apples.)
Dandelion is a natural diuretic. Want something for bloat and water retention? This is your natural medicine. One of the nice benefits of using it as a diuretic is that it does not cause loss of potassium. Dandelion leaf extract works great for the water retention of PMS, and Stengler routinely uses it for edema of the lower legs and ankles that he sees in elderly patients (edema is swelling or bloating caused by fluids in the extremities). Dandelion also contains two hormone-balancing constituents, taraxerol and taraxasterol. “It’s one of the premier herbs recommended for hormone-related conditions like PMS,” says Stengler. Because it’s a natural diuretic, dandelion leaf is a wonderful aid in reducing high blood pressure. (NOTE: Never discontinue a blood pressure medication without the approval of your health professional.)
Why It Ranks in the Top Four of All Green Vegetables
If all this weren’t enough, dandelion is one of the most nutrient-rich vegetables on the planet. According to the USDA Bulletin #8, dandelions rank in the top four green vegetables in overall nutritional value. One cup of cooked dandelion greens contains 147 mg of calcium, 244 mg of potassium, 203 mg of bone-building vitamin K, and a very respectable 3 g of fiber. Dandelions are nature’s richest green-vegetable source of beta-carotene and the third richest source of vitamin A of all foods after cod liver oil and beef liver. One little cup of the stuff contains more than 10,000 IUs of vitamin A! And just for good measure, the same cup contains 4,944 mcg of the new superstars of eye nutrition, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are being investigated for their ability to protect against the number-one cause of adult blindness, macular degeneration.
Fresh dandelion greens make an excellent salad, alone or with other garden greens. According to natural-foods expert Rebecca Wood, you can use the bittersweet root the same way you would a carrot—in stir-fries, in soups, or sautéed with onion and garlic. The root also makes a terrific, liver-friendly, detoxifying tea.
According to herbalist Louis Vanrenen, those with gallstones should consult an herbalist when using dandelion as an herb. There are no known contraindications for pregnant or nursing women.
Whenever you see a richly colored vegetable or fruit, you can be sure of one thing: Nature put those colors in there to protect against something in the environment, usually the intense rays of the sun, which can cause free-radical damage if unchecked. The blue pigment in blueberries, the red pigment in raspberries and watermelon, the yellow pigments in peppers . . . all contain a potent array of phytochemicals that not only protect the plant from damage in its environment but also do the exact same thing for the cells and DNA in your body. And, of course, the deep, rich purple pigment in eggplant skins is no exception.
The Nutritional Power of Purple
A substance called nasunin has been isolated from that deep purple pigment. Nasunin, a member of the anthocyanin category, is a powerful antioxidant. Studies show that it literally eats up free radicals, rogue molecules in your body that can cause serious damage to your cells and your DNA and are partly responsible for aging. In addition, nasunin protects against what’s called lipid peroxidation—that means it helps keep fats from turning rancid, including the fats in your body (like LDL cholesterol). The brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage, and studies have shown that anthocyanins in general are highly protective of animal brain tissue. Other studies show that nasunin binds to iron, which is a very good thing, as too much iron in the system can cause all kinds of problems.
Eggplant isn’t a nutritional superstar, but it’s a really nice vegetable with 2.5 g of fiber in a cup that only costs you 35 calories. Plus it’s filling. I go to an amazing little Japanese restaurant in Studio City that looks exactly like the restaurants on the side streets of Tokyo, and they serve cooked eggplant in a miso-ginger sauce that will knock your socks off. You can easily make a meal out of an entire eggplant eaten that way, and since the eggplant itself is only 132 calories, all you have to do is use the sauce judiciously and you’ve got a great dish. Add a couple of eggs for protein—(I know it’s unconventional, but it’s great)—and you’ve got a terrific and complete meal with very moderate calories. Eggplant’s also great sprinkled with olive oil. And if you’re making a big salad for the family and you can manage to include one whole eggplant sliced up, you’ll be adding a whopping 18½ g of fiber and 1,260 mg of potassium to the mix, not to mention niacin, folate, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and phytosterols.
Here’s an interesting fact: Eggplant is considered a fruit, but botanically it’s actually a berry. Go figure. It’s related to the potato and tomato and is a member of the nightshade family.
Like all nightshades, eggplant contains a substance called solanine. In theory, if solanine is not destroyed in the intestine, it could be toxic. This is generally not an issue, but one horticulturalist, Dr. Norman Childers, has hypothesized that some people with osteoarthritis may not be able to destroy solanine in the gut, leading to solanine absorption and aggravating osteoarthritis. Though this has never been put to a strict clinical test, I am of the strong opinion that individual variations in metabolism and detoxification abilities account for a large number of problems with foods and chemicals—some people can get rid of the problem compound just fine, others simply can’t. (I personally think that mercury in vaccines is a prime example of this phenomenon, but that’s a whole other discussion.) Proponents of the “solanine aggravates arthritis” theory claim you need to eliminate it for six months before potential benefit can be seen. I think this information is only applicable to a tiny number of people, but it’s worth knowing.
(Belgian endive, escarole, French endive)
Endive is a member of the botanical family Chicorium and is a close relative of chicory, with the same characteristic fresh and yet slightly bitter flavor. Belgian endive—also called French endive or witloof—is a small, cylindrical head of pale, tightly packed leaves. Curly endive—sometimes wrongly called chicory—has lacy, green-rimmed, curly leaves with a prickly texture (and slightly bitter taste). Then, of course, there’s escarole, which has a milder flavor than either Belgian or curly endive.
Two cups of endive have an awful lot of nutrients for their paltry 8 calories. There’s 26 mg of calcium, about ½ mg of iron, 157 mg of potassium, 71 mcg of folate, more than 1,000 IUs of vitamin A (650 of beta-carotene), and 115 mg of bone-strengthening vitamin K. Now that’s a healthy salad green!
My favorite: Toss them with some walnuts and sliced pears and maybe a little blue cheese and olives. Olive oil is a nice addition to the mix.
Fennel is a perfect example of how sometimes a plant will show its medicinal properties in the most unexpected conditions. Consider colic. Although common enough and thought to be pretty benign, it’s a significant problem in infants and imparts a psychological, emotional, and physical burden on parents. The only medicine that has been shown to be effective is dicyclomine hydrochloride. But there’s one little problem. Five percent of infants treated with it develop serious side effects, including death. So if there were a benign plant-based medicine that got the job done, that would be a pretty terrific thing.
Babies Benefit from Fennel
Recently, a study published in volume 9 of the 2003 journal Alternative Therapy Health and Medicine tested the effect of fennel seed oil on infantile colic (“The effect of fennel seed oil emulsion on infantile colic: a randomized, placebo-controlled study”). Fennel eliminated colic in 65 percent of the infants, produced a significant improvement in the treatment group, and lowered the NNT (number needed to treat), all without a single side effect reported. If it can do that for infant colic, one might be forgiven for thinking that it could have other benefits as well.
Well, if you thought that, you’d be right. Supplements containing different combinations of various natural herbs including fennel seed extract were tested in a recent study in Anticancer Research and found to suppress the growth of certain tumors. The dried fruit of the fennel contains an essential oil that has a rich mix of health-promoting compounds, including anethole (responsible for the licorice flavor), limonene, and quercetin (an anti-inflammatory flavonoid). In laboratory studies, fennel oil counteracts spasms of smooth muscle in the gut. It seems to relieve gas and help with cramps, and in Indian restaurants, it’s often offered on a plate after dinner for its soothing effect on the digestion and its sweetening effect on the breath. It also makes a nice tea—pour boiling water over a couple of spoonfuls of the dried fruit, crushing it immediately before using. Steep for 10 minutes and strain.
According to herbal experts Joe and Teresa Graydon, Ph.D., authors of The People’s Pharmacy, pregnant women should not use fennel oil or fennel extracts. Also, anyone allergic to celery, carrots, dill, or anise should avoid fennel as well.
Fennel is the Greek name for marathon. Seems that back around 490 B.C.E., the Greeks defeated the Persians in a fennel field exactly 26 miles and 385 yards from Athens. They sent a runner bearing the good news back home, and ever since then the length of a marathon race has remained the same as the distance from the fennel field into town: 26 miles, 385 yards.
(and their cousins: French beans, runner beans, Italian beans)
Let’s face it: Green beans are not a superstar of the vegetable community. Rather, they’re a good, solid utility player. If they were in an investment portfolio, they’d be Ginny Maes or savings bonds. You’re not likely to get rich on them, but they’re good, reliable performers, and they belong in your portfolio.
Yesterday’s String Beans Are Today’s Green Beans
For the purposes of this website I’m lumping all the beans in the Phaseolus vulgaris category together: that’s French beans, runner beans, snap beans, green beans, wax beans, Italian beans . . . you get the picture. When I was a kid we called them string beans, because in the “old days” (before I was born, of course) there used to be a fibrous string running the length of the pod seam, which you had to remove before cooking. Nowadays the folks who breed these things have genetically engineered them so the string is a thing of the past.
Green beans contain folate (about 10 percent of the RDI, which is too low anyway). An RDI, or Reference Daily Intake, is the replacement standard for the old RDA. But as my friend Regina Wilshire, N.D. and COO of the Carbohydrate Awareness Council, points out, the folate in green beans is bound in the proper ratio to two amino acids in the green beans, which makes it much more highly absorbed than the folate from enriched cereals. Folate is a critically important B vitamin that not only helps prevent neural tube defect, but also helps bring down homocysteine, a naturally occurring amino acid that can be harmful to blood vessels and contributes to the development of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and peripheral vascular disease (reduced blood flow to the legs and feet).
Green (string) beans have a bunch of other vitamins and minerals—a little bit of calcium, a little bit of vitamin A, and a nice dose of potassium. They also contain about 20 percent of the Daily Value for manganese, an important trace mineral that’s essential for growth, reproduction, wound healing, peak brain function, and the proper metabolism of sugars, insulin, and cholesterol. Throw in some beta-carotene and the eye-friendly carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin for good measure, and about ½ of the daily requirement for bone-building vitamin K. And a cup of them will give you about 4 g of fiber (better than the average slice of bread and a whole lot better for you). You can eat them raw or cooked—the vitamin content changes marginally for the better when they’re cooked. They age fast once harvested, so use them quickly.
The first time I tasted horseradish was also the first time I attended a Passover seder, where it occupies a place of honor on the dinner plate as one of the five bitter herbs representing the bitterness of slavery. Little did I imagine that decades later I would be writing about its health benefits.
Horseradish is a relative of the mustard family that acts as a digestive stimulant. It’s also great for clearing up the sinuses! It inhibits bacterial infection and increases circulation (you might notice that you start sweating when you eat a lot of it!).
And for its tiny amount of calories (14 for 2 tablespoons) it contains a nice assortment of minerals, particularly potassium. But that’s really the least of the benefits this cabbage family member has to offer.
Why Horseradish Beats Broccoli
Horseradish is a member of the distinguished Cruciferae family, the Medici of vegetables, whose relatives include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, rutabaga, and turnip. If you’ve read about any of the above vegetables on this website, you know that a significant body of research exists showing the health benefits and cancer-fighting properties of many of the compounds that have been isolated from this food family. And horseradish, in particular is one of the richest sources of allyl isothiocyanate, which is believed to play a role in the prevention of tumors and in the suppression of tumor growth.
A study from the University of Illinois shows that horseradish has substantial quantities of glucosinolates, compounds that are the parent molecules of substances that increase human resistance to cancer. Glucosinolates in food increase the liver’s ability to detoxify carcinogens and, according to Dr. Mosbah Kushad, associate professor of food-crop systems at the University of Illinois, they may actually suppress the growth of existing cancerous tumors. Kushad, who has been involved in studies of many cruciferous vegetables, says that horseradish contains ten times more glucosinolates than broccoli, so you don’t need as much to benefit. “A little dab on your steak will go a long way to providing the same health benefits as broccoli,” he says.
Horseradish may be one of the few foods on this website that actually improves with processing. It contains an enzyme that breaks down these valuable glucosinolates into other compounds—isothiocyanates—that are actually responsible for the anticancer benefits: When you process the stuff, that enzyme is released. The enzyme, in turn, comes into contact with the glucosinolates, and presto, you’ve got the nutritionally beneficial isothiocyanates.
If you’ve ever eaten sushi or sashimi, you’ve encountered wasabi, also known as Japanese horseradish—it’s that very strong-tasting green stuff they put on the plate to mix with the soy sauce. Bioactive chemicals in wasabi are said to act as an antidote to food poisoning, one factor that might have led to the use of wasabi with raw fish dishes in Japan. Wasabi contains isothiocyanates, which, like the other compounds from the Cruciferae family, have significant health benefits. One research report specifically done on the isothiocyanates in wasabi found that they had a significant anti-inflammatory effect and also killed many human stomach cancer cells in a test tube.
Jerusalem artichokes aren’t really artichokes; plus, they’re not even from Jerusalem. They’re actually a member of the sunflower family and are also referred to as sunchokes, kind of a cross between artichoke and sunflower. They probably got the name Jerusalem because it sounded like girasol, which is the Italian name for sunflower. This large yellow flower—which is very pretty, by the way—was cultivated by the Native Americans, who prepared the tubers for Lewis and Clark in 1805 (in what is now North Dakota). The tuber—or underground stem—resembles a gnarly potato or a piece of ginger and has a really nice taste. The baked tubers are delicious.
Feeding the Good Bacteria for a Healthy Gut
Whatever the genesis of its odd name, this vegetable lands on the list because of its high content of fructooligosaccharides and inulin. What are those, you ask? They’re extremely healthy food for the “good” bacteria in your gut. You know how antibiotics wipe out all the bacteria in your gut garden, including the healthy kind like acidophilus? Well, the good bacteria in your gut love to dine on fructooligosaccharides—they’re actually health food for those good bacteria, and thereby help you to maintain a healthy gut ecology. That’s why they’re sometimes referred to as “prebiotics.” And inulin is a form of soluble fiber that, in one study published in the Journal of Nutrition, was found to lower blood glucose, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol as well as inhibit the growth of various kinds of cancer.
Be aware that inulin may cause flatulence in some people. If you’re sensitive to that, you might want to avoid eating Jerusalem artichokes raw.
Okay, I admit it—I had never even heard of jicama until it showed up on my friend Dr. Ann Louise Gittleman’s top ten list.
Coincidentally, the next day I was in Whole Foods, where they had sliced fresh jicama in a package in the produce center, ready to eat. Of course I had to buy it. And here’s my verdict: Jicama is so fresh, clean, refreshing, and crispy tasting that you actually feel healthier after eating it.
What on Earth Is Jicama?
Jicama is a root vegetable that is a staple in Mexican food. In its native habitat, it’s sold as a street food in South America, with a squeeze of lime and a bit of fiery chili powder. It’s a white-fleshed tuber that can weigh anywhere from half a pound to more than five pounds. Some people have characterized it as a cross between an apple and a potato. It looks like a turnip, has a thin brown skin that you can peel, and its taste is something like an apple but not quite. By itself, it’s actually a bit bland, but that allows it to be used in a zillion ways, since it takes on the flavor of whatever you dip it in or cook it with. And you’re still getting all the nutrition that jicama has to offer.
Jicama is a low-calorie, low-fat, high-fiber food. It’s mostly water (about 90 percent), yet a cup of it contains more than 6 g of fiber! That alone would probably garner it a place among the world’s healthiest foods, but jicama also has calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin A, and beta-carotene. And all for its measly 49 calories per cup. (An entire medium-size jicama has only 250 calories and contains an astonishing 32 g of fiber, almost three times the amount most Americans get in a day.)
How Is Jicama Prepared?
You can bake or broil a jicama just like a potato, and it has a lot less starch. It fits nicely into stir-fries. It’s also fantastic raw, the way I discovered it. Ann Louise Gittleman recommends trying it with a dash of lime juice and cayenne pepper, Mexican style, for a snack that really satisfies.