What Is Watercress?
Watercress is a dark, leafy green plant grown in natural spring water. For centuries, it has been used as a complimentary veggie for garnishing dishes. However, it is now being seen as the next big thing in the super foods category. Watercress is very versatile as it is not only used as food, but also has a lot of medicinal benefits because of the various nutrients present in it.
Watercress is part of the cruciferous family of vegetables, which is also called brassica. Other plants which belong to this family are broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts etc. This plant was widely available in the 19th century and sandwiches containing watercress were a staple diet of the working class in England. Over time, as people started growing other type of plants for food, the demand for watercress reduced.
It is now gaining attention because of its high ANDI score. ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. ANDI score measures the minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrient content against the caloric content in a food. Watercress received the highest possible score of ANDI as it provides more nutrients with lesser calories compared to other salad plants.
Characteristics and Types of Watercress
Watercress is an attractive-looking plant which bears small, round scalloped leaves. During summer, this plant produces white tiny flowers. These flowers become small pods with two edible rows of seeds. Watercress has been widely cultivated in parts of Europe, America, and Central Asia.
Watercress plant grows abundantly in most of the rivers and shallow fresh water streams in parts of Europe and Asia. It usually forms a thick layer on the surface of the water and is commonly found in areas where there are high amounts of organic waste.
There are various types of watercress plants available. The original watercress is the common watercress and is known simply by this name. However, there are other types of watercress which act as a substitute for common watercress. These substitutes include:
- Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) - This plant grows wildly in Western Asia, but is also cultivated. It is used fresh in salads and its flavor is quite similar to nasturtium.
- Winter cress (Barbarea praecox) - This plant is mostly found in the southwest regions of Europe, but is also cultivated in warm areas to be used instead of watercress. This plant requires lesser water as compared to the common watercress; thus, it should not be grown in water.
- Water watercress (Nasturtium officinale) - This is the common watercress that grows in streams, ponds, etc. This plant has round leaves and an elongated stem, which is mostly in the water. This plant has more nutritional value as compared to the other types of watercress.
- Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) - This crucifer with pink flowers, found abundantly in parts of Europe and Asia, can also be consumed fresh like the common watercress.
Nutritional Value of Watercress
Watercress has been shown to contain high levels of dietary nitrate. When a person intakes such high levels of dietary nitrate, it has been shown to lowers the blood pressure, reduces the amount of oxygen needed during exercise, and improves overall athletic performance. Intake of moderate quantities of dietary nitrate have not shown any great results.
Two cups of fresh watercress weighing about 68 grams would contain only 7 calories. Furthermore, it also provides:
- 0.1 grams fat
- 0.9 grams carbohydrates, which would include 0.1 grams of sugar and 0.3 grams of fiber
- 1.6 grams protein
Apart from these, the following level of daily requirements would also be met:
- 212 percent of vitamin K
- 48 percent of vitamin C
- 44 percent of vitamin A
- 8 percent of calcium
- 8 percent of manganese
- 6 percent of potassium
- 4 percent of riboflavin, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin B6, vitamin E, and thiamine.
As seen above, vitamin K is by far the most prominent nutrient in watercress. It contains various health benefits. Watercress contains more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, and more vitamin C than what is found in oranges. Watercress is very low in calories. It has a high content of phytonutrients such as antioxidants and isothiocyanates, which has the power to heal or prevent many diseases.
Health Benefits of Watercress
Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables has always shown positive results when it comes to the health of a person. It reduces the number of medical conditions.
Consumption of watercress has shown to have a lot of health benefits such as:
- Reduces weight
- Boosts immunity
- Supports thyroid functions
- Promotes a healthy complexion
- Pumps up energy
- Reduces the risk of obesity
- Lessens the risk of heart diseases, diabetes, and mortality.
A few of the benefits are provided below in more detail:
- Treats diabetes: Antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid has shown to lower the glucose levels, prevent oxidative stress-induced changes, and increase the insulin sensitivity in a person suffering from diabetes. This antioxidant is present in watercress. As most of these studies were done with alpha-lipoic acid that was administered through the veins, it is not clear whether oral supplementation of alpha-lipoic acid would also provide the same results. Hence, it is advisable to include this green as part of your daily diet, especially for diabetic patients.
- Prevents lung and colon cancer: Watercress contains a compound called DIM, or diindolylmethane, which has protective effects against cancer. It acts as a shield to protect the healthy tissues in the body while a patient is being treated or given therapy for cancer. Watercress has also shown to reduce the risk of lung and colon cancer. This plant contains a high amount of chlorophyll, which is very effective in blocking the carcinogenic effects of heterocyclic amines. Heterocyclic amines are generated when foods are grilled at high temperature.
- Prevents the recurrence of breast cancer: The phytonutrients present in watercress are so powerful that just a single serving of salad shows an increase of molecules in the circulatory system, which helps prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. Studies shows some beneficial results in a person who consumes at least 80 grams of watercress daily. Watercress is also rich in vitamin C, which has been shown to reduce the oxidative stress caused by cancer.
- Promotes bone health: Bone fractures are mostly linked with a low intake of vitamin K. If a person consumes adequate quantities of vitamin K, it would help to improve the health of the bones. Vitamin K modifies bone matrix proteins, reduces urinary excretion of calcium, and increases absorption of calcium; thus, improving the health of bones. Consuming one cup of watercress as part of your daily diet would ensure that you meet the daily requirement of vitamin K. Foods rich in calcium have shown to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. The main function of calcium is to repair and build the bones by increasing the production of osteoblasts. Watercress is also rich in folate, which plays an important role in maintaining bone density.
- Beneficial for thyroid: Watercress, eaten raw, helps to reduce the production of the thyroid hormone. If not raw, one can lightly steam it before consumption. Ensure that you prepare it carefully so as to retain its nutritional value.
- Pregnancy: The folate that is present in watercress plays an important role in the development of an embryo. Consumption of at least 400 mcg of folate per day has shown to reduce incidences of neural tube deficiency in pregnant women.
- Lowers blood pressure: High blood pressure is caused by the low intake of foods containing minerals, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. These minerals help to lower blood pressure by releasing sodium out of the body; thus, helping the arteries to properly dilate. Taking supplements containing these essential nutrients would not give the same benefits as consuming foods that naturally contain the minerals. As watercress contains all of these essential minerals, it could help to lower the blood pressure.
- Cold: Watercress is rich in vitamin C, which is said to be an effective remedy for the common cold. If a person consumes foods rich in vitamin C, it could reduce the risk of colds.
- Blood: Vitamin E and Vitamin C have shown to be effective in reducing oxidative damage to the red blood cells. Foods rich in both these vitamins have many health benefits.
- Reduces the risk of brain stroke: Watercress, being rich in vitamin C, has shown to be beneficial in reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. If a person is suffering from a stroke, then it reduces the chances of bleeding. High consumption of vitamin C has played an important role in neuron building activity.
Apart from these benefits, watercress is also beneficial for the below conditions:
- Reduces the risk of depression.
- Lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
- Reduces the risk of cataracts.
- Provides relief from pediatric asthma.
Inclusion of Watercress in Daily Diet
One of the most common ways in which watercress is usually consumed is by including it as part of a salad. Apart from salads, watercress can also be included in pasta or sauces like any other greens. Since watercress is tender, it would sauté faster than any other veggie. It would also give a slight peppery taste to the dish.
When choosing watercress, ensure that you select ones with dark green crisp leaves. The watercress should also display no signs of wilting. If the watercress is not being used on the day it is obtained, it should be stored in a refrigerator to avoid wilting.
Since watercress grows in water as the name suggests, one should thoroughly wash this plant before using it. Once it has been washed properly, soak it in cool or warm water for half an hour. To remove pollutants or any other impurities, one can also add hydrogen peroxide to the water.
Some other ways in which watercress can be included in the diet are:
- A handful of watercress can be added to a fruit or vegetable smoothie.
- Watercress can be part of an omelet.
- Add watercress in pasta sauce for a peppery flavor.
- Watercress can be part of any sandwich or wraps.
- Watercress can also be chopped finely and made part of any soup.
Risk of Watercress Consumption
Individuals who are on blood thinners should not suddenly start the intake of any food items containing vitamin K, since it is known to play an important role in blood clotting. Consult your doctor before consuming such foods.
If the juice is extracted and not stored properly, then bacteria may gather; thus, contaminating the juice.
For those suffering from any cardiovascular diseases, a diet high in nitrate would pose some risk to the body. It can interact with other medications such as nitroglycerine or nitrite drugs.
Concentrating completely on one food item also has its own pros and cons. Hence, one should consume a balanced diet including a lot of vegetables and fruits to maintain good health.