Vegetables: Strange history, superstar nutrients

Growing your own vegetables is a great way to improve the quality of your diet. Involving children in the garden will encourage them to try new, nutritious foods. Vegetables are low in saturated fat and have zero cholesterol. Most contain significant amounts of vitamins and minerals. Here are some hidden benefits of some of the vegetables you may be considering for your garden.

Tomatoes: There is nothing like a fresh Alabama grown tomato in the summertime. Although technically a fruit, most consider the tomato a vegetable. It is believed that the tomato is native to the America’s. Its origins trace back to the early Aztecs in South America around 700 A.D. Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, which has been shown to help fight some cancers, heart disease and macular degenerative disease (a cause of blindness). Tomatoes also contain vitamin C and vitamin A. Tomatoes that are vine-ripened are higher in vitamin C than greenhouse tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes also contain more vitamin C than those that are processed or cooked.

Greens: Collard greens are thought to be relatives of the ancient vegetable, wild cabbage, which was consumed in prehistoric times. Originating in Asia Minor, collard greens spread to Europe and then to the United States in the 17th century. Turnips are one of the most commonly grown and widely adapted root crops. They are members of the mustard family, but unlike many other vegetables, produce a plant that is desired for both their leaves and their roots. This feature is especially desirable for many southerners, because we tend to be thrifty and want to use every part of everything. Perhaps the best quality of collard greens is they contain rich amounts of nutrients such as vitamins C, E and beta-carotene, which are all powerful antioxidants. Studies have shown that a diet rich in antioxidants can help fight off atherosclerosis, colon cancer, osteoarthritis, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Greens are also an excellent source of folate and vitamin B6. These vitamins help keep blood homocysteine levels low. Studies have shown high levels of homocysteine can damage blood vessel walls, leading to increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

Peas: The Chinese believed that their emperor, Shu Nung, discovered peas 5000 years ago. Called the Chinese Father of Agriculture, he is said to have wandered around the countryside observing and collecting plants, looking for those which might be suitable for food or medicine. Potential edibles were fed to a dog, then a servant and, if both survived, the emperor himself would taste the new food. All types of peas are good sources of fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamin, folate, iron and phosphorus. Frozen peas retain their color, flavor and nutrients better than canned peas, and are lower in sodium.

Squash: Squash has an ancient history originating back to 3000 BCE, where the Ancient American Indians commonly consumed what they called “the apple of God”. There are two main types of squash: summer and winter. Winter squash varieties-such as acorn, butternut, and buttercup-are picked at the mature stage. Zucchini and other summer squash varieties, which are harvested at the immature stage, have soft shells and tender flesh. Summer squash are 95 percent water. The high water content makes summer squash a low-calorie food. A cup of raw zucchini contains only 20 calories. Summer squash are generally a good source of vitamin C and potassium.

If you are interested in learning more about how to preserve these nutritious, antioxidant filled goodies contact your local County Extension Office. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System is one of the only educational institutions left who provide food preservation information. You can go on our website also to pull up many handouts on food preservation and gardening at www.aces.edu