To say that kale is one of the healthiest foods on the planet may be an understatement. Why else would it be dubbed “the new beef,” “queen of the greens,” or a “nutritional powerhouse”? Celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow have been on kale diets, and Peter Shumlin (current governor of Vermont) was quoted saying, “Don’t mess with kale.” So what’s all the hype about?
Kale, part of the Brassia family, is a descendant of wild cabbage just like its sister vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, and collards. It is said to have originated in Asia Minor, but was brought over to Europe in 600 BC by Celtic wanderers. Kale was a hit among peasants in the Middle Ages and became one of the most popular vegetables. Eventually settlers brought it over to the United States during the 17th century. Clearly, the vegetable continued to increase in popularity from there—farmers now growing kale sell several varieties just to keep up with demand.
The health benefits of kale seem to be endless—here are just a few of the nutrients kale possesses:
Calcium High quantities of calcium help prevent bone loss and osteoporosis.
Fiber and sulfur These two work together to detoxify your body and keep the liver functioning at a healthy level. They also help with digestion and elimination.
Iron Kale actually contains more iron per calorie than beef. Iron helps with the formation of hemoglobin and enzymes, the transportation of oxygen throughout the body, cell growth, and liver function.
Omega-3 fatty acids fight against arthritis, asthma, and autoimmune disorders.
Vitamin A is great for vision and skin.
Vitamin C helps keep a healthy immune system, a healthy metabolism, and works to keep the body hydrated.
Vitamin K1 Kale contains an extremely high amount of this vitamin, which helps protect against cancer and blood clotting. Vitamin K can also be a help to those suffering with Alzheimer’s.
Kale is also great for lowering cholesterol and helping your body fight cancer. It actually lowers the risk of bladder, breast, colon, ovary, and prostate cancer with the help of the 45 different flavonoids and with phytochemicals known as isothiocyanates (ITCs). These same ITCs have been known to also help regulate detoxification at a genetic level. ITCs come from glucosinolates, which are one of the natural chemicals found in kale. For the vitamins listed above, just one cup of kale gives you 100 percent of the daily value needed.
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, writes, “Unlike spinach, kale lacks dietary compounds called oxalates, which interfere with iron absorption. In this regard, kale is a much better source of iron than spinach is.” Tamara also mentioned that kale scores a perfect 1,000 on the Aggregate Nutrition Density Index (ANDI), a food rating system that measures nutrients per calorie. The only others with a perfect score are mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens, and watercress.
The popularity of kale might also have to do with the fact that it is one of the only fresh vegetables available during the cooler months in the Northeast. In fact, kale actually thrives when light frosts are available, making the leaves especially sweet. Because of this, kale can generally grow anywhere where there is a cool fall growing season.
Kale is available in several different varieties. Curly kale is the most common form and is what you’ll typically find in local supermarkets—it tends to have a bitter, peppery flavor. Dinosaur kale is the second most popular form of kale and tends to have tall, narrow leaves. It’s called this because of the leaves’ lumpy dark green quality, which makes it look dinosaur-like. There are other varieties—including ornamental, premier, Siberian, and red—but these are less popular.
Ornamental kale is more commonly known as its trademarked name, Salad Savoy. It wasn’t commercially cultivated until the 1980s, but dinosaur kale has been around since the 19th century. When looking for the perfect kale, look for firm, deeply colored leaves (anywhere from dark green to deep red) with hardy stems. These leaves will give more of an earthy flavor. Also, look for kale with smaller leaves: the smaller the leaves, the more mild and tender the flavor is. Watch out for holes or browning or yellowing of the leaves. These things will greatly affect the flavor.
Kale is sweeter than most greens, making it a perfect addition to soups, stews, stir-fries, salads, casseroles, and smoothies. Kale has extra cholesterol-lowering properties that come out when it is steamed—the steaming process only takes about five minutes, so it won’t be a large task in the kitchen. By steaming it, the fiber-related components will bind together with bile acids in your digestive tract, making it easier for bile acids to be excreted, which results in the lowering of cholesterol levels. Raw kale also has cholesterol-lowering abilities, just not as much as when it is steamed.
Remember to keep kale in a cool environment because warmth will cause it to wilt and give it a bad flavor. If storing, refrain from washing until use. Keep it in an airtight container and in the refrigerator for up to five days.
A few great ideas for kale are to braise chopped kale and apples. Before you serve it, sprinkle it with balsamic vinegar and chopped walnuts. Or you can choose to combine chopped kale, pine nuts, and feta cheese with whole grain pasta drizzled with olive oil.
While this superhero superfood has a large reputation to uphold, there’s no question that it can exceed anyone’s expectations. If you keep your mind open to the endless possibilities of kale, you will soon be reaping its powerful benefits.
By Amy Vergin