Arugula has Arrived
The variety of lettuce and leafy greens in supermarkets has expanded dramatically since I was a child. At the time when iceberg ruled, it was the one in our tossed salads, on hamburgers and sandwiches or served as the base for fruit or gelatin salads my mom made. Even as a young adult iceberg lettuce was still a staple in my supermarket cart every week. Around 1990 iceberg reached its peak and Romaine began a gradual rise in popularity while iceberg began a steady decline. So now the two have about an equal share of the lettuce market. Then about 10 years ago kale, long-relegated to lining supermarket food displays, emerged as the trendy green. So what’s the current leafy darling? Could it possibly be arugula?
As I’ve ventured back out to lunch with friends over the past couple of months, I’ve noticed a definite arugula trend on restaurant menus. Some of the interesting dishes included a Mexican restaurant featuring grilled chicken with cheddar chipotle grits and arugula salad, an Italian restaurant had parmesan-crusted chicken with sides of arugula and tomatoes and crispy potatoes and a French cafe offering two sandwiches: a cheeseburger topped with provolone, Calabrian chilies, arugula and red onions as well as a fried chicken sandwich dressed with sundried tomato, provolone, arugula and fennel. Yet another Italian place served both beef carpaccio and salmon carpaccio with arugula, parmesan cheese, hearts of palm, cucumbers and Dijon dressing as well as a baby arugula salad tossed with pine nuts, beets, Feta cheese and champagne vinaigrette. In all its glory, it seems arugula has definitely arrived!
What is Arugula?
According to the Food Lover’s Companion, arugula is a somewhat bitter, aromatic salad green with a peppery mustard flavor. It is also called Italian cress, rocket, roquette, rugula and rucola. A longtime favorite of Italians, Americans have not traditionally embraced it, finding its flavor too bold or spicy. When shopping for arugula, make sure the leaves are bright green and fresh. And because arugula is very perishable, it should be wrapped tightly in a plastic bag and refrigerated. Arugula can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches or cooked in soups, entrees or side dishes.
Like other leafy greens, arugula delivers several key nutrients most notably vitamin K,
folate, lutein and zeaxanthin along with smaller amounts of vitamin C and beta carotene, the plant form of vitamins A.
Vitamin K is essential for making the proteins that are part of bones and body tissues. It also helps produce proteins for proper blood clotting.
Eating enough foods with folate, a B vitamin, before and during pregnancy can lower the risk of birth defects in the baby’s brain and spine. It’s also required to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. Folate may also play a role in lowering the risk of several types of cancer.
Lutein and zeaxanthin work together to reduce the risk of macular degeneration and other age-related eye diseases, which can lead to blindness. Lutein also plays a role in brain health and function throughout life.
Beta carotene is converted into vitamin A in the body, a nutrient that helps decrease the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. It is also important for eye health, preventing night blindness and lowering the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the U.S.
Vitamin C works as an antioxidant to protect body tissues from damage by free radicals, thus lowering the risk of cancer and heart disease. It is also necessary for producing collagen, a protein required for wound healing. It also promotes a healthy immune system.
Beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin are fat-soluble nutrients, which means they need fat to be absorbed into the body from the gut. So tossing raw arugula salads with an oil-based dressing, sautéing arugula with vegetable oil or butter or combined in a dish with an animal protein that contains a bit of fat – fish, meat, poultry, egg or cheese – will enhance the uptake of these nutrients into the body.
In addition to the benefits that come along with the nutrients in arugula outlined above, studies tout a number of other advantages of eating leafy greens.
- Eating one serving of green leafy vegetables a day may help slow the mental decline that can occur with aging.
- Consuming a low-calorie first course salad boosts feelings of fullness and reduces calorie intake at meals, so may be a good strategy for weight control.
- Including more salads in daily meals is one effective strategy to increase vegetable intake.
- Adding vegetable-based salads to meals may be one easy way to improve nutrient intake and the overall quality of the diet.
- Leafy greens provide phytonutrients that can act as antioxidants in the body to help lower risk for diseases like cancer and heart disease.