[New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station]
Jersey Fresh Information Exchange
Photo: Jersey Produce

Asparagus - it's Healthy and Got Jersey in its Roots

Photo: Asparagus.
Whether you are an asparagus purist - enjoying it steamed and unadorned, or prefer your asparagus al fredo, you are doing yourself a "flavor" when you eat this delectable which just so happens to be a nutritional powerhouse.

Historically, asparagus has been used as a traditional medicine in European and Asian cultures. It was not until recently that scientists had the knowledge, technology and equipment to delve into foods and uncover the great variety of plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that have health effects on humans.

The numerous chemicals in plants, many of which give them their color, flavor and aroma, have "antioxidant" properties in the body, helping prevent diseases, increasing immunity and warding off the symptoms of aging.

Asparagus is a rich source of phytochemicals. Research on asparagus, much of which has been done at Rutgers, our State University, has uncovered the following components with potential health effects: flavonoids, saponins, oligosaccharides, carotenoids and amino acids. Two phytochemicals that Rutgers researchers are looking at are protodioscin and rutin. Much research still must be done before scientists have conclusive evidence, but these compounds show promise in inhibiting a number of cancers cells (most notable colon cancer and leukemia), lowering cholesterol and providing numerous other health benefits. It is of interest to note that protodioscin, which is present in asparagus, has been linked to improvement of sexual performance.

Asparagus is also one of the most nutritionally balanced vegetables: low in calories and sodium, no fat or cholesterol, a good source of potassium, fiber and vitamins A, C, E, B6, folate and thiamin. It also contains glutathione, another potent antioxidant with anticarcinogenic activity.

While New Jersey farmers are busy growing their asparagus crops in the field, New Jersey researchers continue to probe them in the lab. Researchers are looking for ways to make "super" breeds which are especially rich in powerful antioxidants. Rutgers' love affair with asparagus is nothing new - after decades of research, Rutgers Experimental Hybrids of asparagus were developed for their plant vigor, disease resistance and spear quality. Researchers made a major breakthrough for asparagus production when they developed Jersey Male Hybrids, since it was shown that male plants had many advantages, such as producing more spears per plant, less stalk breakage due to wind (since male plants don't have to support the weight of seeds), etc. The male hybrids such as Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight, and Jersey Supreme are currently the most popular cultivars.

Chances are the asparagus you buy in the supermarket that was grown in the major asparagus production states of California, Michigan or Washington is a Jersey breed. But what about Jersey Fresh asparagus? New Jersey ranks 4th nationally in asparagus production. Not bad for a little garden state. So, when you're buying asparagus (or any fresh produce, for that matter) does it make a difference if it's locally grown? You bet your asparagus tip!

Lucky for us in the Garden State, we can buy Jersey Fresh produce that really is "fresh off the farm". Unlike the big production states, where the considerations in farming methods are how to get the crop to you over long distances, Jersey Fresh products are picked at the peak of ripeness and can be on your table the same or next day! This gives the environment a breather because there are fewer fossil fuels consumed to ship products, and less packaging is needed to protect produce for short trips.

New Jersey farmers need our support to keep farming alive in the State. Remember that fields, pastures and waterways provide scenic vistas, open space and wildlife habitats that enhance our quality of life. Farmers are the stewards who protect and nurture much of our open space. Once it's gone, there's no getting it back.

Are you in search of Jersey asparagus? New Jersey asparagus season runs from late April to late June. You can find it at a number of farmer's markets and some supermarkets throughout the state.

For listings of community farmer's markets, roadside markets, pick your own farms and what's in season, go to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture's web site or call your county Rutgers Cooperative Extension office.

Here's an unusual recipe that combines and complements the delicate flavors of asparagus and strawberries: Asparagus and Strawberry Salad. New Jersey strawberry season (mid-May to late June) overlaps the end of asparagus season.