Complete Guide on Herb & Vegetable Nutrition
Herbal remedies and organic products are all the rage these days. To which our grandparents would reply: “What took you so long?” Sometimes the old way really is the best way. A home herb and vegetable garden can provide you with time-tested sources of health and goodness.
Despite this increased attention on dietary health, herbs and vegetables still suffer from their inability to advertise. Those energy drinks and juices at the whole foods market may get all the action, but plants like parsley, kale, and spinach are packed with more vitamin A, vitamin C, and antioxidants than any $5 mondo-super-organic-juice-puree.
And the best part? Growing herbs and vegetables in your garden are almost like getting nutrition for free. Mother Earth is generous like that, which is why, just like your mother, we’re here to tell you that there’s no excuse for not eating your vegetables.
Vegetable Nutrition – USDA Dietary Recommendations and the Best Sources of Vegetable Nutrition
If you’re able to read this, you’re old enough to know about the benefits of eating your vegetables. Vegetable nutrition is the one value shared by mothers and governments alike, and the primary reason many people begin a home garden. But since vegetables don’t come with nutrition labels, we’ve assembled some facts about vegetable nutrition to help provide you with a balanced garden and a balanced diet.
How Much and What Kinds
USDA dietary guidelines recommend the consumption of about 17 1/2 cups of vegetables per week. These vegetables are broken down into the following categories:
- dark green vegetables: 3 cups/per week
- orange vegetables: 2 cups/week
- legumes (dry beans): 3 cups/week
- starchy vegetables: 3 cups/per week
- other vegetables: 6 1/2 cups/week
The USDA acknowledges that most people don’t consume this ideal volume of weekly vegetable nutrition, leading to insufficient intake of vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and potassium.
Vegetable Nutrition Sources
Planting a home garden is an excellent way to achieve these USDA recommendations. As a vegetable nutrition reference tool, here are some of the primary sources of the four nutrients mentioned above:
Vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol, is essential for healthy vision and bone growth. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and lettuce are good sources of vitamin A, as are carrots and tomatoes.
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is critical for healthy skin and disease resistance. Though oranges are the most famous vitamin C source, vegetable nutrition sources such as broccoli, peppers, spinach, and cabbage provide vitamin C also.
Folate, or folic acid, is a form of vitamin B important for blood cell function and healthy pregnancy. Vegetable nutrition sources for folate include spinach, mustard greens, peas, and cooked dry beans.
Potassium is a mineral your body uses for fluid and electrolyte balance and regulating metabolism. Vegetable nutrition sources for potassium are cooked dry beans, soybeans, cooked greens, and beet greens.
Vegetable Nutrition Quick List
Vegetables are the primary dietary source for many other essential vitamins and minerals. The following vegetable nutrition quick list includes some common garden vegetables and the nutrients they provide:
Asparagus: vitamin A, sodium, vitamin B-12, vitamin E, potassium
Beet greens: vitamin A (very high), potassium, sodium, calcium
Carrots: vitamin A (very high), potassium, phosphorus
Cauliflower: potassium, folate, vitamin C, phosphorus
Celery: potassium, vitamin A, sodium, calcium
Corn: vitamin A, potassium, phosphorus, folate, magnesium
Eggplant: potassium, sodium, vitamin A
Green peas: vitamin A (very high), potassium, phosphorus
Green peppers: vitamin A, potassium, vitamin C
Potatoes: potassium, phosphorus
Yams: potassium (very high), phosphorus, folate, magnesium
A reasonable question that many people ask is if vegetables are such a great source of nutrition, why not become a vegetarian? Vegetable nutrition isn’t the only reason for such a conversion. Some people become vegetarians for spiritual reasons or out of concern for animal rights.
A balanced assessment of the vegetarian diet comes from the American Dietetic Association: “Vegetarian diets offer a number of advantages, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein and higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, boron, folate, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and phytochemicals. Some vegans may have intakes for vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and occasionally riboflavin that are lower than recommended.”
Vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and calcium can be acquired through animal products such as milk and eggs. However, these options are not available to vegans, or people who choose not to eat any animal products whatsoever. If you are considering becoming a vegan, we recommend researching alternative sources for these nutrients, such as fortified foods and nutritional supplements.
Nutrition Facts – Protecting the human body with the wizards of ORAC
Of all the nutrition facts cited regarding the benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, one of the most important is the increased consumption of antioxidants. Antioxidants have been touted as a means to fight age, reduce the risk of heart disease, and even prevent cancer.
Nutrition studies have also shown that antioxidants are more effective when consumed naturally instead of through supplements — one more reason why fresh vegetables are essential for a long and healthy life.
What are antioxidants?
An antioxidant is a nutrition term that refers to substances that protect your body’s cells from damage caused by unstable molecules. These unstable molecules are known as free radicals and are created when your body takes electrons from other molecules in order to metabolize oxygen. It’s a natural process, but excessive amounts of free radicals in your body due to age and environmental factors cause deterioration that can eventually lead to disease.
Dietary nutrition is one of the best ways to combat this process. Think of an antioxidant as a nutrition-conscious Pac-Man, roaming through your body and gobbling up free radicals. Fruits and vegetables are natural nutrition sources of numerous antioxidants. Common antioxidants include lycopene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and lutein.
Antioxidants and Vegetable Nutrition
Antioxidants can be acquired from many sources, including seafood, meat, and even chocolate, but vegetables are one of the healthiest nutrition sources for antioxidants. A nutrition term commonly used to describe the antioxidant strength of a vegetable is oxygen radical absorbance capacity or ORAC.
ORAC units in vegetables are measured per gram. Vegetable nutrition top 10 would include the following, listed in order of ORAC units per 100 grams:
- Kale 1770
- Spinach 1260
- Brussels sprouts 980
- Alfalfa sprouts 930
- Broccoli 890
- Beets 840
- Red bell peppers 710
- Onions 450
- Corn 400
- Eggplant 390
Antioxidant sources in vegetables
A general nutrition rule is that the darker the color of a vegetable (dark orange, dark green, etc.), the better the antioxidant source it is. The following are some of the antioxidants available through vegetable nutrition:
Allium sulfur compounds
Allium sulfur compounds are found particularly in garlic, but also in leeks and onions. According to the Garlic & Health Project, sulfur compounds in garlic can prevent the genotoxicity of carcinogens in a human cell line (genotoxic means a substance damaging to DNA).
The nutritional benefits of beta-carotene as an antioxidant are less defined compared with other antioxidant sources. However, as a precursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene promotes healthy eyesight and skin. Vegetable nutrition sources for beta-carotene include sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, and kale.
Indoles are phytochemicals (Phyto means plant, so chemicals found in plants) that are thought to reduce cancer risk. Cruciferous vegetables or vegetables found in the Cruciferae family (also known as the Brassicaceae family) are excellent nutrition sources for indoles. Such vegetables include kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Lutein is a carotenoid that benefits the vision and the immune system. Vegetable nutrition sources for lutein include corn and leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens.
Lycopene is one antioxidant that Americans get plenty of. That’s because lycopene is found naturally in tomatoes, and is actually more concentrated when tomatoes have been processed into products such as ketchup. Lycopene is a strong antioxidant notable for fighting skin aging.
Popular Vegetable Recipes
- Cut half-cooked potatoes, raw onions, carrots, and bell peppers (green, red, or even yellow) into bite-size pieces.
- Toss in a large bowl with peeled garlic cloves (your taste) enough virgin olive oil to coat and a sprinkle of kosher salt and fresh ground peppercorns to taste.
- Spread on a thick baking sheet and put it into a 450-degree oven.
- In about 10 minutes they should be done (keep checking) when the juices caramelize just a touch.
- Garnish with cut parsley fresh from your herb garden. Simple and oh-so-tasty.
Vegetable Soup: Another basic
- In a large thick-bottomed kettle with a little olive oil, quickly cook up onions and smashed garlic until translucent.
- Add chopped carrot and celery and stir until just short of brown.
- Add stock to an amount that you need (your choice: vegetable or chicken)
along with salt, pepper, and Herbs de Provence.
- Simmer for half an hour and then add potatoes, pasta, or egg noodle (again your choice) and toss in some shitake or button mushrooms (both if you’re in the mood).
- Return to a slow simmer and let cook for an hour.
- Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a garnish of scallions.
Amounts are variable and the chef should trust their instincts.
–Hint: an addition to the broth can be made from potato peelings that will thicken the soup a bit over a longer cooking period. Don’t be afraid to let it simmer. The soup should never be hurried.
Vegetable Lasagna: This is a bit of work but worth it.
- Prepare one pound of lasagna noodles as directed on the box. Set aside (on a very-very lightly oiled sheet, so they don’t stick together).
-Boil up two or three cans of tomato sauce (maybe your own homemade sauce) seasoned with chopped garlic, ground pepper, and some fresh-cut basil.
- Add one diced zucchini to a sauce and cook together for five minutes – remove from heat.
- In a large baking dish, coat the sides with a portion of the tomato sauce.
- Cover the bottom of the dish with a layer of lasagna noodles.
- Sprinkle ricotta cheese over the noodles and cover that with some tomato sauce with zucchini, then add a layer of washed and stemmed spinach leaves (a few leaves thick).
- Add another layer of noodles, ricotta cheese, tomato sauce, spinach, etc.
- When all the layers are assembled grated Parmesan cheese on top and tossed into a 350-degree oven for an hour. The more you try this recipe, the more you will “make it your own.” Feel free to experiment: that’s what cooking is all about.
There are many variations of vegetable soup, vegetable lasagna, and a thousand versions of vegetable casseroles. As a side dish or as the whole meal with some fresh baked bread or croutons, a salad – a glass of wine? Vegetable recipes are sure to fit the occasion.