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Compounds in Ends Could Someday Fight Cancer

You know that old cliché “sometimes an end is really a beginning”? Well in the case of asparagus, it might actually be true. How so? When it comes to asparagus, it’s the delicate tips that receive all the attention – the woody, inedible “ends” are chopped off and discarded. Yet the asparagus ends may hold the beginning to a whole new future of anti-cancer research.

Indeed, Chinese scientists are investigating compounds called saponins in the ends of asparagus. In lab conditions, they found that the saponin extract inhibited breast, colon and pancreatic cancer cell lines by an average 60%. Zeroing in on breast cancer cells they found that the saponins actually increased cancer cell destruction (called apoptosis) by 14.5% as well as reducing their malignancy by 50-80%.

Much more research will be needed to confirm whether and how these asparagus compounds could help protect us from cancer, but meanwhile, we’ll be saving those asparagus ends for the juicer, while enjoying the fabulous taste and potential benefits of the rest of the lovely asparagus plant. For example, asparagus may offer some protection against the liver damage associated with alcohol consumption. A lab study published in the Journal of Food Science found that asparagus extract reduced liver toxicity from alcohol by 42%. Moreover, asparagus’ prebiotic fiber helps feed the protective gastrointestinal bacteria which guard against foodborne viruses. The same fiber helps deter unwanted weight gain and boost bone strength.

No wonder asparagus reigns as Americans’ favorite vegetable according to a Bon Appetit survey of 10,000 readers. This very popular veggie garnered 51% of the vote compared to broccoli’s 32% and corn’s 24%. It’s best to consume asparagus spears the day you buy them, since flavor and vitamins tend to diminish the longer you keep them. But if you need to store your asparagus overnight, cut off the ends (for later juicing?) and place the stalks upright in a bowl of water in the refrigerator. Then enjoy them steamed, roasted or broiled.

Published May 1, 2013

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