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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.

High in vitamin K and folate, asparagus is extremely well balanced, even among nutrient-rich vegetables. “Asparagus is high in anti-inflammatory nutrients as well as provides a wide variety of antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and the minerals zinc, manganese and selenium,” said San Diego-based nutritionist Laura Flores. 

Furthermore, the vegetable contains the amino acid asparagine, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that helps insulin do its job transporting glucose. It’s also 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 (five spears), 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

Heart health

Asparagus is good for your ticker in a variety of ways. Flores noted, “Asparagus is extremely high in vitamin K, which helps blood clot.” And the vegetable’s high level of B vitamins helps regulate the amino acid homocysteine, too much of which can be a serious risk factor in heart disease, according to Harvard University School of Public Health. 

Asparagus also has more than 1 gram of soluble fiber per cup, which lowers the risk of heart disease, 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 Mayo Clinic notes that vitamin B6 may affect blood sugar levels and advises caution for people who have diabetes or low blood sugar. However, those with healthy levels can benefit from asparagus’s ability to regulate it.

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. A 2011 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition also suggested that asparagus’ ability to improve insulin secretion and improve beta-cell function also helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Beta cells are unique cells in the pancreas that produce, store and release insulin.

Anti-aging benefits

The antioxidant glutathione is thought to slow the aging process, according to a 1998 article in The Lancet journal. And the folate that asparagus provides works with B12 to prevent cognitive decline. A 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, according to a 2010 study published in the West Indian Medical Journal. 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. On the other hand, the National Institutes of Health recommends that people who are suffering from uric acid kidney stones should avoid asparagus.

Pregnancy health 

Nutritionist Laura Flores noted asparagus’s significant amount of folate, which she said “is important for women of childbearing age to consume daily.” Folate can decrease the risk of neural-tube defects in fetuses, so it is essential that mothers-to-be get enough of it.

Digestive health

“Asparagus is known to help stabilize digestion due to the high amount of fiber and protein that it contains,” said Flores. “Both help move food through the gut and provide relief from discomfort during digestion.”

According to The Ohio State University, asparagus contains inulin, a unique dietary fiber 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 reduce 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

“There are no life threatening side effects of eating too much asparagus,” said nutritionist Laura Flores, “but there may be some uncomfortable side effects such as gas, and a noticeable smell to the urine.”

It is also possible to have an asparagus allergy, in which case you should not eat it, she said. 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.

Why does asparagus make urine smell?

According to Smithsonian magazine, 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. 

Asparagus facts

According to the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board:

  • Asparagus was first cultivated about 2,500 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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