Ugly Veggies: Even the humblest of vegetables are packed with health benefits

They’re not brightly colored. They’re not highly touted. No one claims they’ll magically halt your body’s slide toward diabetes, Alzheimer’s, hypertension or cancer. But don’t write them off just because they’ve got a colorless reputation. Overlooked veggies like celery, eggplant, potatoes, onions, artichokes, cauliflower, cucumbers and zucchini can all contribute to your health.

Take the humble mushroom as a case in point. Its many varieties tend to be high in nutrients like B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantholenic acid), copper, selenium (an antioxidant) and potassium.

Moreover, the things mushrooms don’t contain much of – carbohydrates and calories, for example – also come into play for a balanced diet. Now you’re talking dietary terms like glycemic index and energy density, and it’s in these less-than-glamorous areas where many of the bland-looking veggies shine just as brightly as their more colorful counterparts.

When it comes to advising people on their food intake, “we no longer even count the carbohydrates in [most] vegetables,” said registered dietitian Camilla Kotrba, who teaches nutrition classes at Washington University. Being low in carbohydrates typically means that a food will be low on the glycemic index. “GI refers to the glucose response to a meal,” Kotrba explained. Low-GI foods leave less of a ripple in the body’s blood sugar and insulin levels because they’re digested and absorbed slowly. Celery, cauliflower and zucchini are examples of very-low-GI veggies. (They’re also surprisingly high in vitamins K and C, folate and potassium, among other nutrients. One serving alone of raw cauliflower has about three-quarters of a day’s supply of vitamin C.)

Corn, beans and potatoes tend to be higher on the 100-point glycemic index. Still, that’s no reason to avoid them, even for those who need to watch their blood-sugar levels, said registered dietitian Megan Sievers of St. Anthony’s Medical Center’s Nutrition Services. “Diabetics can still have potatoes and beans and corn … as long as they plan accordingly,” Sievers said.

Energy density is another term that doesn’t get tossed around in casual conversation. It refers to the simple concept that some foods have few calories for their volume. It’s a key for weight loss because it means that by eating those foods you can feel satisfied while consuming fewer calories.

Foods that contain mostly water have a low energy density (zucchini is 95 percent moisture; cauliflower is 92 percent), as do high-fiber foods – and “fruit and vegetables are excellent sources of fiber,” Kotrba said. “The cellulose in stems is fiber.” Cellulose is important because it’s a dietary fiber, which means it’s not water-soluble. Dietary fiber binds water, and the end result is that food moves through the dietary tract more quickly and is excreted … well, you probably know about fiber’s role in that.

I’ll admit I was surprised to hear so many basic health benefits from foods like mushrooms and eggplant (which, for the record, is a good source of vitamin K, thiamin, vitamin B6 and manganese, a “trace element” that’s a catalyst for functions involving enzymes, like the metabolism of carbohydrates and cholesterol). So were most of the everyday people I spoke with as I researched this article. Who knew mushrooms added anything more than earthy undertones to a dish?

The professionals did not seem surprised by our ignorance. “Our main problem … is food misinformation,” said Kotrba. “I have had people come into my private practice … who said, ‘I’m just confused by the advertisements.’”

Admittedly, even some pro-vegetable information is confusing. Taglines like “cholesterol free” or “no saturated fat” assume consumers don’t know that dietary cholesterol comes only from animal sources, and that saturated fat comes from animal products or oils like palm and coconut. Another somewhat confusing statistic is that certain vegetables (among them celery and artichokes) are high in sodium. Should they therefore be avoided? Probably not; Kotrba pointed out that “you’ve got experts on both sides of the salt issue” as it relates to high blood pressure.

If you’ve shopped in a grocery store in the past four years, you’ve probably seen the “5 A Day The Color Way” marketing campaign. It’s part of a 15-year-old program organized by a coalition including the Produce for Better Health Foundation and the National Cancer Institute that urges people to eat at least one serving a day from each color group: blue/purple, green, white, yellow/orange and red. However, despite such efforts, “most people in the U.S. don’t eat five [servings],” said Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce for Schnucks.

“What we decided to do is make it real simple,” said O’Brien, who this month takes over as chairman of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, a national nonprofit that works closely with government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control. The new initiative is called “Fruits and Veggies – More Matters,” and its goal is to get people to increase their produce intake in any way, shape or form.

O’Brien expressed optimism about people’s willingness to do that. “Our customers [at Schnucks] have shown us … that they want more and better-tasting fruits and vegetables – and organic ones,” he said. “There’s definitely a trend toward convenience,” he continued. But he also believes that “people are starting to get back into cooking.”

Take the mushroom example. O’Brien said he sees a trend, kind of like with wine, where people start out with mild-flavored white mushrooms and progress to portabella and shiitake. In fact, he said, there’s currently a demand-driven mushroom shortage.

Dietitians Kotrba and Sievers seemed to share his optimism, and they pointed out that there’s really no wrong way to eat vegetables. Cooking does matter to some extent – to retain maximum nutrients, “it’s best to steam or microwave them rather than boiling,” Sievers said – but even deep-fried veggies are still veggies. “When you bread things or fry things, you’re varying the diet, and that makes it more appealing,” Kotrba said. She added that with modern equipment and techniques, cooking methods like frying don’t add as many calories as they used to.

Both also pointed out that low-color veggies tend to be very good flavoring agents. Just imagine how a typical day’s meals would taste without garlic, onion, celery or mushrooms. Bland, indeed.