Parsley - not just a garnish

If you ever look at tables showing foods with the greatest amounts of different types of nutrient, you may be surprised to notice just how many tables parsley is at the top of. Parsley is basically a severely under-rated food.

Parsley is a biennial plant of the carrot family, sometimes called the parsley family. It  also includes celery, coriander, dill, fennel and parsnip. That means it produces leaves one year and then flowers the next year. In the case of parsley, since we are normally interested in the leaves, it is generally treated as an annual that we plant every year, to produce leaves to eat.

There are three main varieties of parsley, the curly leaf, flat leaved (Italian or French) and root (Hamburg) parsley. The root parsley is eaten in central and eastern europe for its root, which looks like a parsnip, but tastes quite different. The other types are used as garnishes or in dishes such as parsley sauce and tabouleh.

Health benefits of parsley

Parsley contains a number of vitamins and phytonutrients that are important for our wellbeing. They include the following:

Vitamins

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is present in abundance in the form of beta-carotene. In 100g of parsley you'll get 168% of the rda (recommended daily amount). The body converts beta carotene to vitamin A as needed so there is no danger of having too much.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is present in even more generous proportions. In 100g of parsley you'll receive 222% of your rda. To be honest the rda of vitamin C is far too low, however parsley is a very rich source of it. Compare an apple in which only 8% of the rda is provided by 100g!

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is the most abundant vitamin relative to our need for it. It provides 2050% of our rda. The form in which it is present in parsley is the phylloquinone form, vitamin K1. This is the form that controls blood clotting, ensuring that our blood clots properly. As such users of anti-coagulant medications, such as Warfarin, should avoid consuming too much parsley. For others vitamin K1 presents no danger, as the body normally adjusts how much coagulation there is within optimal ranges, so long as it has sufficient vitamin K1.

Folic Acid

Folic Acid is vital for good health, it can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, various cancers and Alzheimer's. In parsley you will find 38% of your daily requirement in 100g. 

Flavanoids

Flavanoids, once referred to as vitamin P, are found in parsley in the form of: apiin, apigenin, crisoeriol and luteolin. These substances have been found to be effective at preventing carcinogenic changes within the body(1)(2).

Oil soluble components

Oil soluble components include carotenoids such as beta-carotene (vitamin A again), lutein and zeaxanthin. Also included are alpha-thujene, eugenol, limonene and myristicin. Lutein and zeaxanthin are associated with better health for the eyes. In particular tey help prevent age related macular degeneration, a common cause of reduced vision in the elderly(3).

A number of these compounds also have anti-cancer activity.

Parsley recipes

Parsley sauce

Parsley sauce was a regular part of my diet when I was growing up. It was used with fish dishes in particular. The recipe is:

Ingredients

425ml milk
a few parsley stalks
1 slice onion
10 whole black peppercorns
20g plain flour
40g butter
4 heaped tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp lemon juice
 

Preparation method

Place the milk, parsley stalks, onion and peppercorns in a small pan, bring to a simmer, then pour the mixture into a bowl and leave aside to get cold.
When you're ready to make the sauce, strain the milk back into the pan, discard the flavourings, then add the flour and butter and bring everything gradually up to a simmer, whisking continuously with a until the sauce has thickened and is smooth and glossy. Then turn the heat down to its lowest possible setting and let the sauce cook gently for a few minutes, stirring from time to time.
To serve the sauce, add the chopped parsley and lemon juice and serve out in a jug.
 

Tabouleh

Tabouleh is a Middle Eastern dish, often served as a mezze in the Arab world. Cous cous is an alternative to using bulgur wheat.

Ingredients

1 tsp lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp black pepper 
1/4 cup bulgur wheat
1/2 red onion finely diced
150g chopped parsley
150g of diced cucumbers
250g of diced tomatoes 
 

Instructions

Whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and black pepper together in a small bowl, then add the bulgur wheat. Soak for an hour.
Add the parsley to a large bowl along with the cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. Add the soaked bulgur along with the dressing and toss everything together. 
Tabouleh tastes fresh the day it's made, but if you let it sit overnight, the flavors mix and make it tastier.

References

1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20553787 Crisoeriol - anti-cancer.

2) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100708141622.htm Luteolin anti-inflammatory.

3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15117055 Lutein good for vision.

4) http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/jf00013a020 Myristicin induces our own antioxidant defense enzyme - glutathione.