Are you concerned about your health and staying healthy? If so, you’re probably focused on what you put into your mouth and want to choose the most nutrient-rich foods. You probably already have an idea of what foods are healthy and which aren’t. Most of us know a plate of Brussels sprouts is more nutritious than a piece of chocolate cake, yet scientists use a more objective technique called nutrient profiling to determine which foods they should recommend for health purposes.
Nutrient profiling is a quantitative measure of a food’s nutrient density, how much nutritional “bang for the buck” you get when you eat a particular food. The goal of nutrient profiling is to look at a food’s nutritional density with respect to a variety of nutrients. For example, a fruit or vegetable high in a single nutrient is not as nutrient dense as one that offers a variety of nutrients.
Nutrient Profiling: Nutrient Density Scores
In terms of nutrient profiling, which foods stand out? As part of a study, researchers assigned a nutrient density score to a variety of fruits and vegetables. The nutrient score they assigned to each food took into account how much of each nutrient an individual needs each day and what percentage of that nutrient each fruit and vegetable they tested provided. It also encompassed how “bioavailable” the nutrients were in that food. Bioavailability refers to how well nutrients can be absorbed and used by the body. The results? You might be surprised.
Although veggies most of us normally associate with health made the list, the clear winner with a nutrient density score of 100 was – drumroll, please – watercress! Yes, the slightly peppery, leafy vegetable people use to add “kick” to a salad, and sometimes as a garnish, stands out from the rest in terms of nutrient density.
Veggies Top the List
Curious as to what other fruits and vegetables shine in terms of nutrient density? In this study, they were all vegetables. Chinese cabbage, chard, beet greens, spinach, chicory, beet greens, romaine lettuce, and turnip greens were high on the list. Although fruits didn’t stand out on the list, red pepper and pumpkin were the clear winners in terms of nutrient density. In general, orange/yellow vegetables, like squash, carrots, and tomatoes, as well as berries and citrus fruits, were on the lower half of the list. One thing to keep in mind, all the fruits and vegetables on the list are nutritious, it’s just that those near the top of the list are nutrition powerhouses.
What makes the scoring a little tricky is it only takes into accounts nutrients, not phytochemicals. That’s because researchers already know how much of each nutrient we need for health but that hasn’t been established for phytochemicals. Still, phytochemicals potentially have disease-altering properties and may play a role in the prevention of some disease such as cancer.
Because nutrient profiling and nutrient density scores don’t take into account phytochemicals, fruits and vegetables we think of as being super-healthy, like berries, don’t rank as high on the list. Still, berries are loaded with phytochemicals that act as cell-protective antioxidants. That’s why nutrient density scores don’t tell the full story.
Watercress is a veggie you don’t hear enough about, although it’s nutritional and medicinal benefits were recognized by Hippocrates. Supposedly, he opened his first hospital adjacent to a stream that yielded wild watercress he could give to patients. No wonder! The nutrient density score of watercress shows how nutritious this veggie is, but it’s also rich in phytochemicals, which isn’t reflected in its nutrient score. You could say watercress is a power-plus veggie.
Is watercress the ultimate anti-cancer veggie? Watercress is rich in cancer-fighting chemicals called glucosinolates, the same phytochemicals you get in abundance when you eat broccoli and cabbage. Under the right conditions, your body converts glucosinolates to powerful anti-cancer chemicals called isothiocyanates. In addition, watercress contains a unique anti-cancer chemical called nasturtium your body converts to PEITC. What makes PEITC special is its ability to activate “phase 2” liver enzymes that help your liver break down toxins. So, watercress is a natural detoxifier.
Protect Your Cells with Watercress
Chemicals in watercress also may have the ability to prevent damage to the DNA that lies inside your cells. DNA damage is one cause of cancer. In one study, healthy men and women, half of whom smoked, ate three ounces of watercress daily for 8 weeks. At the conclusion of the study, the participants had less DNA damage when the researchers analyzed the DNA in their white blood cells.
Watercress is also an excellent source of carotenoids, compounds your body can convert to vitamin A. One type of carotenoid called beta-carotene is linked with a lower risk of eye-related diseases like age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Watercress is a nutrient-rich alternative to lettuce on sandwiches and in salads. Pureed watercress combined with vegetable broth forms the base for a healthy, low-calorie soup. So, how about some watercress on your next pizza? Watercress makes a pizza splurge a little more nutritious.
The Bottom Line
Nutrient profiling and nutrient density scores are interesting and sometimes useful, but almost all non-starchy vegetables are nutritious and contain another dietary component most of us get too little of – fiber. Don’t forget the hue of a particular fruit or vegetable indicates the phytochemicals each is abundant in. For example, sweet potatoes and pumpkin are orange because they contain lots of carotenoids. Red cabbage and blueberries are purple because they contain anthocyanins. So, the best way to get lots of each is to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. The take-home message? Enjoy the rich array of nutrients and phytochemicals nature offers.
World Health Organization. “Nutrient Profiling”
The Washington Post. “Watercress tops list of ‘powerhouse fruits and vegetables.’ Who knew?”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach”
Natural Health 365. “Watercress kills cancer cells and offers potent cancer protection”
American Optometric Association. “New study calls attention to importance of carotenoids”
Nutraingredients-USA.com. “Antioxidant-Rich Watercress Shows Sports Nutrition Potential”
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