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Spring's most nutritious vegetable

Stephanie Bradburn Matter of Taste

Asparagus is a perennial garden plant belonging to the Lily family and while approximately 300 varieties of asparagus have been noted, only 20 are edible. The most common variety is green in colour. White asparagus has a more delicate flavour and tender texture.

It is grown underground to inhibit its development of chlorophyll content, therefore creating its distinctive white coloring and it is generally more expensive than the green variety since its production is more labor intensive.

The other edible variety of asparagus is purple in colour. It is much smaller than the green or white variety (usually just two or three feet tall) and features a fruitier flavour. It also provides benefits from phytonutrients called anthocyanins that give it its purple colour.

Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food high in Folic Acid and a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. Asparagus is the leading supplier among vegetables of folic acid. A 5.3 ounce serving provides 60 per cent of the recommended daily allowance for folacin which is necessary for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease.

Also key in heart health, folate is essential for a healthy cardiovascular system. It is estimated that consumption of 400 mcg of folate daily would reduce the number of heart attacks suffered by Americans each year by 10 per cent.

Just one serving of asparagus supplies almost 66 per cent of the daily recommended intake of folate. Asparagus also contains a special kind of carbohydrate called inulin that we don't digest, but the health-promoting friendly bacteria in our large intestine, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, do.

When our diet contains good amounts of inulin, the growth and activity of these friendly bacteria increase. And when populations of health-promoting bacteria are large, it is much more difficult for unfriendly bacteria to gain a foothold in our intestinal tract.

In 1956, British researchers divided the population into two categories: excretors (those whose urine smells after they eat asparagus) and non-excretors (asparagus eaters who remain odour free).

Studies hypothesized that a particular gene allows people to process a sulfur-containing compound in asparagus (most likely asparagusic acid). The theory was that if you have that gene, your pee won't stink.

However, they were relying on the test subjects' own reports and weren't considering the subjects' ability to smell. So, in 1980, Israeli researchers performed a similar experiment but asked the non-excretors to smell the excretors' urine.

Shockingly, they found that everyone's urine smells after eating asparagus; it's just that some people can't smell it. So they, too, divided the world into two camps: perceivers and non-perceivers. Seriously!

Although I find it comical that scientists would consider this worthy of a study, I do understand the love for this tremendously versatile and nutritious spring vegetable.

Stir fried asparagus with ginger and cashews

1 pounds asparagus, cleaned and cut into 1 -inch pieces

1 Tblsp vegetable oil

2 Tblsp sesame oil

1 Tblsp fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 Tblsp soy sauce

1/2 cup cashews, chopped

Heat the oils together in a wok or fry pan. Cook the ginger for one minute, stirring often. Add the asparagus and cook for four minutes, until barely tender and still bright green. Stir in soy sauce and cashews and continue cooking for two more minutes to heat through. Makes six servings.

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