By Lana Turnbull
Call it the influence of a particularly memorable college nutrition professor, but as long as I can remember my mother has been an unabashed fan of parsley. When every other patron in the restaurant dining rooms of my childhood walked away from their plates leaving untouched parsley sprigs languishing among the last morsels of baked potato or chopped salad, I was admonished to “Eat your parsley, it’s full of vitamins.” The truth was, I actually liked the flavor of parsley, so it wasn’t such a bad thing, except that nobody else in the world ate theirs, making it a constant source of embarrassment, even shame, that I not only ate my parsley, but secretly liked it.
What my mom knew that was popularly overlooked at the time, was the tremendous health benefits in the oft’ maligned garnish. (Did I mention that she is now 98 years young?) Yes, a sprig of parsley can provide so much more than a colorful decoration on your plate – take it from my mom.
The flavonoids in parsley – especially luteolin – have been shown to function as antioxidants that combine with highly reactive oxygen-containing molecules (called oxygen radicals) and help prevent oxygen-based damage to cells. In addition, extracts from parsley have been used in animal studies to help increase the antioxidant capacity of the blood.
Parsley is also an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of vitamin A. Vitamin C is the body’s primary water-soluble antioxidant, reducing the danger of free radicals in all water-soluble areas of the body. High levels of free radicals contribute to the development and progression of a wide variety of diseases, including atherosclerosis, colon cancer, diabetes, and asthma. People who consume healthy amounts of vitamin C-containing foods have reduced risks for all these conditions. Vitamin C is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, useful in the management of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. And since vitamin C is needed for the healthy function of the immune system, it can also be helpful for preventing recurrent ear infections or colds.
Beta-carotene, another important antioxidant, works in the fat-soluble areas of the body. Diets rich in beta-carotene are also associated with a reduced risk for the development and progression of atherosclerosis, diabetes, and colon cancer. Like vitamin C, beta-carotene may also be helpful in reducing the severity of asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Parsley is a good source of folic acid, one of the most important B vitamins. While it plays numerous roles in the body, one of its most important functions in cardiovascular health is its capacity to help the body convert homocysteine into benign molecules. Homocysteine is a potentially dangerous molecule that, at high levels, can directly damage blood vessels, causing an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in people with atherosclerosis or diabetic heart disease. Enjoying foods rich in folic acid, like parsley, is one way to help manage or prevent these diseases.
Myricetin, a flavonoid found in parsley and other plants, has been shown to help prevent skin cancer. Parsley, sweet potatoes and cranberries are some of the foods that contain the highest concentrations of myricetin.
Parsley and other green herbs and vegetables that contain high amounts of chlorophyll have been shown to be effective at blocking the carcinogenic effects of heterocyclic amines, which are generated when grilling foods at a high temperature. If you like grilled foods on the well-done side pair them with green vegetables and herbs like parsley to mitigate the carcinogenic effect.
Apigenin, a natural chemical found in parsley also has been shown to decrease tumor size in an aggressive form of breast cancer in a study conducted at the University of Missouri. Researchers believe that apigenin could be a promising non-toxic treatment for cancer in the future.
Folic acid found in parsley is also a critical nutrient for proper cell division and is therefore vitally important for cancer-prevention in two areas of the body that contain rapidly dividing cells – the colon, and in women, the cervix.
Myricetin has also been studied for its effectiveness in the treatment and prevention of diabetes. Laboratory and animal studies have shown that myricetin can lower blood sugars and decrease insulin resistance; it also appears to provide anti-inflammatory effects and reduce excess fat from the blood.
Eating a diet low in vitamin K has been associated with a higher risk of bone fracture. While adequate vitamin K consumption (about ten sprigs) can actually improve bone health by increasing calcium absorption and reducing urinary excretion of calcium.
Using parsley in cooking is a great way to boost flavor and improve the look of a dish without adding sodium. It is also an excellent way to provide additional nutrients and health benefits in your favorite dishes.
Fresh parsley’s spicy, peppery flavor pairs well with potatoes, tomato-based soups and sauces, poultry dishes, grain-based salads, seafood, Mediterranean flavors, and egg dishes. And, as I like to say adds a little color (Delta pronunciation – cul’ uh).
It’s great to finish off an omelet, quiche, or frittata with a handful of chopped parsley or add chopped parsley to any homemade salad dressing or dips.