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Basella (vine spinach) nutrition facts

Basella or vine spinach is a popular tropical leafy-green vegetable, commonly grown as a backyard herb in home gardens.

Vine-spinach belongs to the Basellaceae family and has two chief cultivars, Basella alba, which features green- stems and deep-green leaves, and Basella rubra with purplish stems and dark green leaves with pink veins.

It is native to South Asia and probably originated in the monsoon-fed tropical regions of the Malabar Coast of India and Sri Lanka. In Asia, basella is identified with different names. Some of the common names for this herb are Ceylon spinach, Malabar spinach, saan choy (Chinese), mong toi (Vietnamese), alugbati (Philippines), Pui saag (Bengali), remayong (Malay), etc.

malabar spinach
Vine spinach. Note- Basella alba and B. rubra types; green and pink stems respectively.

It is different from English spinach (Spinacea oleracea) in that the vine spinach is a creeper with bright, broad, dark green, thick, and mucilaginous leaves. Although commonly featuring in many backyards across South Asian families, it is slowly gaining popularity in some of the tropical and temperate climates of America, Australia, and Europe for its lush, nutritious greens and tender stems.

basella -malabar spinach
Malabar-spinach (Basella rubra) vine. Note for pink stems and green leaves.
Photo courtesy: scott.zona

Malabar spinach is a perennial vine and grown as an annual or biennial pot-herb. It prefers a hot, humid climate and moist, fertile, well-drained soil to flourish. Stem cuttings about the length of 20 cm are preferred over seeds for natural propagation and faster growth. Being a vine, it requires trellising for its quick spread. It bears white or white-pink color tiny flowers depending upon the species and purple to black color berries.

Basella-alba features thick, fleshy, broad, oval to heart-shaped leaves all along its vine length. Basella rubra has pink or purplish stems and pink-colored veins running across its leaves. In either case, fleshy greens and terminal, tender 8-12 inches stems harvested about 35 to 45 days after planting (about 50 days after seedling).

Health benefits of Basella (vine spinach)

  1. Basella is one of the versatile leafy green vegetables that is appreciated in some East Asian cultures for its wholesome phytonutrient profile.

  2. Basella is very low in calories and fats (100 grams of raw leaves provide just 19 calories). Nonetheless, it holds an incredibly good amount of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

  3. Fresh leaves, particularly of Basella-rubra, are rich sources of vital carotenoid pigment anti-oxidants such as ß-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Together, these compounds help act as protective scavengers against oxygen-derived free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) that play a role in aging and various disease processes.

  4. Its thick, fleshy leaves are an excellent source of non-starch polysaccharides and mucilage. In addition to natural fiber (roughage) found in the stem and leaves, its mucilaginous leaves facilitate easy digestion of food. The fiber diet brings a reduction in cholesterol absorption and helps prevent bowel problems.

  5. Vine spinach leaves and stem are incredibly rich sources of vitamin A. 100 g fresh leaves provide 8000 IU or 267% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of this vitamin. Vitamin A is required for maintaining healthy mucus membranes and skin and is essential for good eyesight. Consumption of natural vegetables and fruits rich in vitamin A and flavonoids has been thought to offer protection from lung and oral cavity cancers.

  6. Basella has more vitamin C content than English spinach. 100 g of fresh greens contain 102 mg or 102% of the daily recommended levels of vitamin C, which is a powerful antioxidant, that helps the human body develop resistance against infectious agents and scavenge harmful oxygen-free radicals.

  7. Likewise in spinach, basella too is an excellent source of iron. 100 g fresh leaves contain about 1.20 mg or 15% of the daily intake of iron. Iron is an essential trace element required by the human body for red blood cell (RBC) production. Additionally, this element acts as a co-factor for the oxidation-reduction enzyme, cytochrome oxidase, during cellular metabolism.

  8. It also contains good amounts of many B-complex vitamins such as folate, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), and riboflavin. 100 g fresh leaves provide 140 µg or 35% of folates. This vitamin is one of the essential compounds for DNA synthesis and growth. Folate deficiency during the very early stages of pregnancy might result in neural tube defects in the newborn baby. Anticipating and pregnant women are, therefore, advised to include a lot of fresh greens in their diet to help prevent neural tube defects in the offspring.

  9. Further, basella leaves are good sources of minerals like potassium (11% of RDA/100 g), manganese (32% of RDA/100 g), calcium, magnesium, and copper. Potassium is an important component of cells and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese and copper are used by the human body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase.

Similar to spinach, regular consumption of basella (Malabar spinach) in the diet helps prevent osteoporosis (weakness of bones), and iron-deficiency anemia. Besides, it is believed to protect from cardiovascular diseases and cancers of the colon.

See the table below for in depth analysis of nutrients:

Malabar spinach (Basella alba), raw, Nutritive value per 100 g.

(Source: USDA National Nutrient data base)

Principle Nutrient Value Percent of RDA
Energy 19 Kcal 1%
Carbohydrates 3.40 g 2.5%
Protein 1.80 g 3%
Total Fat 0.30 g 1.5%
Cholesterol 0 mg 0%
Folates 140 µg 35%
Niacin 0.500 mg 3%
Pantothenic acid 0.053 mg 1%
Pyridoxine 0.240 mg 18%
Riboflavin 0.155 mg 13%
Thiamin 0.050 mg 4%
Vitamin A 8,000 IU 267%
Vitamin C 102 mg 170%
Sodium 24 mg 1.5%
Potassium 510 mg 11%
Calcium 109 mg 11%
Copper 0.107 mg 12%
Iron 1.20 mg 15%
Magnesium 65 mg 16%
Manganese 0.735 mg 32%
Selenium 0.8 µg 1.5%
Zinc 0.43 mg 4%

Selection and storage

Fresh Malabar spinach can be readily available in the tropical belt all around the seasons. However, in the US and European markets only selected groceries, specializing in selling Asian vegetables and herbs, sell fresh basella greens (green and purple). In the stores, look for fresh harvest featuring shiny, succulent leaves, and firm stems. The green has no distinctive flavor of its own, however, once cooked, it mixes well with other ingredients in the food, in addition to conferring a gel-like consistency to the food.

Avoid sunken, dry, bruised, and discolored leaves.

Basella has a relatively good shelf life. At home, untie the bushel, wrap the leaves in a damp cloth place them in an air-tight zip-pouch or plastic bag, and store them in the refrigerator set at high relative humidity.

Although the greens can be stored in the fridge for up to four days, fresh leaves should be eaten at the earliest to get maximum nutrition benefits.

Preparation and serving methods

Wash leaves in cold running water to remove any surface grit/sand. Mop dry using a paper towel or soft cotton cloth. Trim away tough stems. Chop the leaves and stem for the desired length to add to the recipes.

Vinespinach employed in the same way as other seasonal greens like spinach, watercress, and purslane. However, being more mucilaginous, it adds a thick, glue-like consistency to the recipes.

Here are some serving tips:

  • The greens are mixed with other popular greens to prepare "saag" in India and Bangladesh (pui shaak), with added lentils or seafood. Its flower and seed heads (pui seeds) are also edible, and are being used to prepare recipes with seasonal seafood.

  • In the southern parts of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Sri Lanka, its leaves and stem are used in numerous variations to prepare curries, stews, soups, etc., and eaten with rice, bread (roti), and noodles.

  • In the Philippines where the greens known as alugbati, are being used to prepare mouth-watering stir-fries, with meat, and vegetables.

  • Malabar spinach berries used in the fragrant-rich chutney in many parts of coastal Karnataka and Coorg districts. The berries are also employed in jam and jelly in Sri Lanka.

Safety profile

  • Phytates and dietary fiber present in the leaves may interfere with the bioavailability of iron, calcium, and magnesium.

  • In a way similar to spinach, basella alba also contains oxalic acid, a naturally occurring substance found in some vegetables, which may crystallize as oxalate stones in the urinary tract in some people. Individuals with known oxalate urinary tract stones are advised to avoid eating them. Adequate intake of water is, therefore, encouraged to maintain normal urine output. (Medical disclaimer).

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Further resources:

  1. Malabar spinach

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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