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Watercress nutrition facts

Watercress is an aquatic perennial herb found in abundance alongside slow running water ways and nearby natural springs. This peppery flavored greens has been in cultivation since ancient times for its food and medicinal uses in East-Asia, Central Asia, Europe, and Americas.

Botanically this fast growing, leafy vegetable belongs to the Brassicaceae family, and closely related to mustard greens, garden cress, cabbage, salad rocket (arugula), etc. Scientific name: Nasturtium officinale.

watercress plant
watercress leaves
Watercress plant. Note for oval, green, succulant leaves. (Photo-by tonyaustin) Nasturtium officianale-cressleaves.

Watercress is a free floating hollow stemmed plant. Its small, oval, deep green succulent leaves carry high moisture content. Its leaves feature sharp, peppery and slightly tangy taste, somewhat like tender mustard greens and garden cress (Lepidium sativum). Racemes of tiny white flowers appear in summer, which turns into small pods containing two rows of seeds. Its mature seeds are also edible.

Health benefits of Watercress

  • Peppery and tangy flavored cress is a storehouse of many natural phytonutrients like isothiocyanates that have health promotional and disease prevention properties.

  • Cress is one of the very low-calorie green leafy vegetables (only 11 calories per 100 g raw leaves) and contains negligible amounts of fats. Being an antioxidant rich, low-calorific and low-fat vegetable, it is often recommended in cholesterol controlling and weight reduction programs.

  • According to the study published in Centers for disease control and prevention (CDC) journal, researchers at William Paterson University at New Jersey, watercress is labeled as the most nutrient dense food, and for the same reason, it tops the list of "powerhouse fruits and vegetables".
  • Cress leaves and stem contains gluconasturtiin, a glucosinolate compound that gives the peppery flavor. Research studies suggest that the hydrolysis product of gluconasturtiin, 2-phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), is believed to be cancer preventing by inhibition of phase-I enzymes (mono-oxygenases and cytochrome P450s).

  • Fresh cress has higher concentration of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) than some of the fruits and vegetables. 100 g of leaves provide 47 mg or 72% of RDA of vitamin C. As an anti-oxidant, vitamin C helps trap free-oxygen radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) through its reduction potential properties. Lab studies suggest that regular consumption of foods rich in vitamin C help maintain normal connective tissue, prevent iron deficiency, and also help the human body develop resistance against infectious agents by boosting immunity.

  • It is one of the excellent vegetable sources for vitamin-K; 100 g provides over 200% of daily recommended intake. Vitamin K has potential role in bone health through promoting osteotrophic (bone formation and strengthening) activity. Adequate vitamin-K levels in the diet help limit neuronal damage in the brain; and thus, it has established role in the treatment of patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

  • Cress is also an excellent source of vitamin-A, and flavonoids anti-oxidants like ß carotene, lutein and zea-xanthin.

  • It is also rich in B-complex group of vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), thiamin and pantothenic acid that are essential for optimum cellular metabolic functions.

  • Further, it is also rich source of minerals like copper, calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure by countering effects of sodium. Manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Calcium is required as bone/teeth mineral and in the regulation of heart and skeletal muscle activity.

Regular inclusion of cress in the diet has been found to prevent osteoporosis, anemia, and vitamin-A deficiency and believed to protect from cardiovascular diseases and colon and prostate cancers.

Selection and storage

Watercress is available year around. In the stores, purchase thick, broad, succulent and deep green colored fresh leaves. Fresh cress leaves should impart tangy peppery aroma when squeezed between thumb and index fingers.

In general, this green leafy herb best grows in aquatic environments; therefore, it should be washed in clean running water and then soaked in salt water for about half an hour in order to rid off parasite eggs and worms that thrive well under aquatic conditions.

Fresh greens may be submerged in water and stored in the refrigerator where they keep well for up to 2-3 days.

Preparation and serving methods

Watercress gives a beautiful peppery flavor to recipes. Soak in cold water for few minutes to revive sunken leaves. Separate roots from leaves. Then, rinse once again in clean water and pat dry before use in the cooking. Trim away thick fiber stems.

Here are some serving tips:

  • Fresh cress sprigs used in green salads.

  • The greens are used in many European cuisines in sandwiches and vegetable drinks.

  • They are also used in the preparation of soups.

  • Cress leaves can also be steamed and eaten as a vegetable.

Safety profile

Buy watercress from known cultivated farms that use clean running water. Cress from stagnant and polluted water may host some harmful parasites like flukes and larvae.

Watercress leaves carry 0.31 mg of oxalic acid per 100 g of leaves. Oxalic acid is a naturally-occurring substance found in some vegetables, which may crystallize as oxalate stones in the urinary-tract in some people. It is therefore, people with known oxalate urinary tract stones are advised to avoid eating vegetables belonging to the Brassica family.

Being a Brassica family vegetable, cress may also contain goitrogens, which may interfere with thyroid hormone production and can cause thyroxin hormone deficiency in individuals with thyroid dysfunction. (Medical disclaimer).

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Further Reading:

1. USDA National Nutrient Database.

2. Stanford School of Medicine Cancer information Page-Nutrition to Reduce Cancer Risk.

3. Centers for disease control and prevention (CDC), Preventing chronic disease.

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