How many times have you heard the phrase “eat the rainbow” or “avoid white at night”? Although certain white foods — namely white flour and refined sugar — don’t do our health any favors, and white rice lacks the fiber and many of the nutrients found in brown rice and other whole grains, not all white, beige or otherwise pale foods are devoid of nutrition.
While the Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage us to eat dark green, red and orange vegetables, their less-colorful cousins are relegated to the “other vegetables” category. It’s true that health-promoting phytonutrients — compounds produced by plants that have a wide variety of health benefits — are often bound to color pigments in foods, but pale vegetables offer a wealth of nutrients and phytonutrients, too.
Although a plateful of white vegetables might not be a feast for the eyes, rest assured that bananas, pears, white peaches and nectarines, jicama, parsnips, ginger, and even the humble potato are delicious and nutritious. The term “superfood” gets thrown around lightly these days, but there are three types of pale vegetables in particular that arguably qualify for this status.
Cauliflower is a member of the brassica family of vegetables, also known as cruciferous vegetables. Other family members include broccoli, cabbage, kale, collard greens, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, watercress, mustard greens, radishes, rutabagas, kohlrabi, turnips, horseradish and wasabi.
Cruciferous vegetables have been used as both food and medicine since ancient times, in part because of their antibacterial and antifungal properties. In modern times, cruciferous vegetables have received a lot of attention because they contain several phytonutrients that can maintain and improve health when eaten regularly. The American Institute for Cancer Research, among other groups, has recognized the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties of cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables, including them on its list of “Foods That Fight Cancer.”
The nutritional excellence of dark green cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and kale has long been celebrated, while cauliflower remained a bit of a wallflower. Cauliflower has recently become trendy as a lower-calorie, lower-carbohydrate culinary swap for less-nutritious white foods — flour, rice and potatoes. When mashed, pushed through a ricer or turned into pizza crust, cauliflower has a somewhat similar texture to the starchier foods it’s replacing (not that it will fool you). Boiling cauliflower degrades its beneficial phytonutrients, so enjoy it steamed, microwaved, roasted, stir-fried — or raw.
If you love garlic and onions, it’s probably because of how they flavor your food. But do you think of them as vegetables? Not only are garlic, onions and other members of the allium family — leeks, shallots, scallions and chives — vegetables, they are nutrient powerhouses. Like cruciferous vegetables, allium vegetables have been respected for their health-promoting value for thousands of years, long before humans had the ability to figure out why they are so good for us.
We now know that alliums contain organosulfur compounds, phytonutrients that may help protect us against microbial infections, cardiovascular disease and chronic inflammation. In animal studies, components in allium vegetables have been shown to slow the development of several types of cancer.
Raw onions have too much bite? Soaking sliced raw onions in ice water for 10 to 15 minutes mellows them out enough to make them more appealing in salads or sandwiches. Roasting whole garlic cloves or chunks of onion brings out their natural sweetness, as does sauteing sliced onions slowly over low heat to caramelize them. When you chop or mince garlic, allow it to sit for 10 minutes before adding it to what you are cooking. This boosts production of allicin, the active component of garlic, and makes it more stable and heat-resistant.
There are more than 2,000 varieties of edible mushrooms, and the humble white button mushroom is the most-consumed mushroom in the world. Not so humble is research suggesting that mushrooms’ nutritional profile may enhance our immune system, reduce inflammation and even help prevent cancer.
In addition to beta-glucan, a fiber that appears to promote healthy blood sugar and blood cholesterol as well as a healthy immune system, mushrooms contain ergothioneine, an amino acid that our bodies don’t make and that we can get from only a few foods. Ergothioneine is an antioxidant that appears to protect our cells from damage by unhealthy free radicals.
From a flavor standpoint, mushrooms are rich in umami, the savory taste that makes our food more delicious and reduces the need for added salt. One popular use for mushrooms is as a substitute or partial replacement for meat. This reduces calories while adding fiber, nutrition and flavor. Chopped, cooked mushrooms can be blended with meat in meatloaf or burgers. Or, slice, quarter or chop and add them to stews and chilies as they simmer.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.
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