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Asparagus: Health Benefits, Risks (Stinky Pee) & Nutrition Facts

asparagus, nutrition, health
Credit: ULKASTUDIO | Shutterstock

In ancient times, asparagus was renowned as an aphrodisiac. Regardless of its powers to put you in the mood, this succulent, savory vegetable contains a stimulating blend of nutrients, making this member of the lily family a fantastic food for your health.

Asparagus is extremely well balanced, even among nutrient-rich vegetables. It is high in folic acid, with a 5-ounce serving providing 60 percent of your recommended daily intake. Asparagus is also a great source of potassium, thiamin, fiber, magnesium, calcium and vitamins K, A, B6 and C. Furthermore, it contains the amino acid asparagine, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that helps insulin do its job transporting glucose.

Looking to eliminate free radicals? Get a big dose of antioxidants with asparagus. It is especially rich in glutathione, a detoxifying compound that can help destroy carcinogens. For this reason, asparagus may help fight or protect against certain cancers, including bone, breast, lung and colon cancers. 

Asparagus is extremely low in calories at about 20 per serving, has no fat, and is low in sodium. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It may come as a surprise to some to know that there are three varieties of asparagus: American and British, which is green; French, which is purple; and Spanish and Dutch, which is white.

Here are the nutrition facts for asparagus, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling through the National Labeling and Education Act:

Nutrition Facts

Serving size:
5 asparagus spears
(3.3 oz / 93 g)

Calories 20
  Calories from Fat 0

*Percent Daily Values (%DV)
are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Amt per Serving %DV*   Amt per Serving %DV*  
Total Fat 0g 0%   Total Carbohydrate 4g 1%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%     Dietary Fiber 2g 8%
Sodium 0mg 0%      Sugars 2g  
Potassium 230mg 7%   Protein 2g  
Vitamin A 10%   Calcium 2%
Vitamin C 15%   Iron 2%

 

Health benefits of asparagus

Heart health

Asparagus is good for your ticker in a variety of ways. Its high level of B vitamins helps regulate the amino acid homocysteine, too much of which can be a serious risk factor in heart disease. Asparagus has more than 1 gram of soluble fiber per cup, which lowers the risk of heart disease. The vegetable’s high levels of vitamin K help maintain healthy blood clotting, and the amino acid asparagine helps flush your body of excess salt. Lastly, asparagus has excellent anti-inflammatory effects and high levels of antioxidants, both of which may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Regulating blood sugar

The B vitamins abundant in asparagus play a key role in metabolizing sugar and starches, which is fundamental to healthily controlled blood sugar.

Lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes

As with heart disease, risk of type 2 diabetes increases with excessive inflammation and oxidative stress. Therefore, asparagus’ impressive anti-inflammatory properties and high levels of antioxidants make it a good preventive food. One 2011 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition also suggested that asparagus’ ability to improve insulin secretion and improve β-cell function also helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Anti-aging benefits

Free-radical busting antioxidants, especially glutathione,are thought to slow the aging process. And the folate that asparagus provides works with B12 to prevent cognitive decline. One Tufts University study found that older adults with healthy levels of folate and B12 performed better during a test of response speed and mental flexibility than those with lower levels of folate and B12.

Skin

Yet another amazing thing about the antioxidant glutathione: it helps protect the skin from sun damage and pollution.

Keeping you cleansed and preventing kidney stones

Asparagus can act as a natural diuretic, due to its high amounts of the amino acid asparagine. This can help rid the body of excess salt and fluid, making it especially good for people suffering from edema and high blood pressure. It also helps flush out toxins in kidneys and prevent kidney stones.

Asparagus is high in fiber, with 2 grams of insoluble fiber and 1 gram of soluble fiber per cup. It also contains 4-5 grams of protein per cup. Both fiber and protein help keep the digestive process going, helping you in maintaining cleansing regularity.

Decreasing birth defects

It is essential for mothers-to-be to get enough folate, which decreases the risk of neural-tube defects in fetuses. Asparagus contains almost half the recommended daily intake of folate. [Related: Pregnancy Diet: What to Eat, What Not to Eat]

Digestive health

Asparagus is one of the few vegetables that contain inulin, a unique carbohydrate associated with improved digestion. Inulin is a prebiotic; it does not get broken down and digested until it reaches the large intestine. There, it nurtures bacteria known to improve nutrient absorption, decrease allergies, and lower the risk of colon cancer.

Cancer risk

Antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, which are found in great quantities in asparagus, are typically associated with decreased risk of cancers.

Risks of eating asparagus

It is possible to have an asparagus allergy, in which case you should not eat it. People who are allergic to other members of the lily family, such as onions, garlic, and chives, are more likely to be allergic to asparagus. Symptoms include a runny nose, hives, trouble breathing, and puffiness or swelling around the mouth and lips.

Daily asparagus intake can also cause some side effects that, while not serious, may be annoying. Gas and smelly urine are the two most common side effects.

Why does asparagus make urine smell?

Asparagus is the only food to contain the chemical asparagusic acid. When this aptly named chemical is digested, it breaks down into sulfur-containing compounds, which have a strong, unpleasant scent. They are also volatile, which means that they can vaporize and enter the air and your nose. Asparaguisic acid is not volatile, so asparagus itself doesn’t smell.

What’s weirder than a veggie causing stinky pee? The fact that not everyone can smell it. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why this is. Most evidence seems to suggest that not everyone can smell the odor, though some scientists think that not everyone produces it. Either way, there are no harmful effects to producing, or smelling, the odor in urine. So eat up!

Asparagus facts

According to the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board:

  • Asparagus was first cultivated about 2500 years ago in Greece. "Asparagus" is a Greek word, meaning stalk or shoot.
  • The Greeks believed asparagus was an herbal medicine that would cure toothaches and prevent bee stings, among other things.
  • Galen a second-century physician, described asparagus as "cleansing and healing." Claims for medicinal benefits of asparagus persist to this day.
  • The Romans became great lovers of asparagus, and grew it in high-walled courtyards. In their conquests, they spread it to the Gauls, Germans, Britons and from there, the rest of the world.
  • The top asparagus-producing states are California, Washington and Michigan.
  • Asparagus is a member of the lily family, which also includes onions, leeks and garlic.
  • Asparagus spears grow from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in sandy soils.
  • Under ideal conditions, an asparagus spear can grow 10 inches in 24 hours.
  • Each crown will send spears up for about 6-7 weeks during the spring and early summer.
  • The outdoor temperature determines how much time will be between each picking. Early in the season, there may be four or five days between pickings and as the days and nights get warmer, a particular field may have to be picked every 24 hours.
  • After harvesting is done, the spears grow into ferns, which produce red berries and the food and nutrients necessary for a healthy and productive crop the next season.
  • An asparagus planting is usually not harvested for the first three years after the crowns are planted, allowing the crown to develop a strong fibrous root system.
  • A well-cared-for asparagus planting will generally produce for about 15 years without being replanted.
  • The larger the diameter, the better the quality!

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