Eruca sativa, or arugula (aka salad rocket), is one of those slightly exotic leafy green vegetables that few Americans had ever heard of back in the days of barely edible TV dinners eaten in front of black-and-white televisions. How things have changed. Today, it’s hard not to bump into the spicy little leaves wherever you happen to go.
Like kale, arugula is enjoying something of a moment in our culture. People are more motivated about eating well in general, and they’re more likely to be interested in learning about the many ways good foods can be used to improve or maintain vibrant health. Arugula fits the bill, as it may deliver some potent compounds that help ensure good health.
A Brassica Pedigree
Arugula was a good choice for a rescue from obscurity. It’s an edible annual in the Brassica family of vegetables, which also includes much better known whole food stars, like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. All members of this diverse family share one secret weapon against disease that no other family of plants can lay claim to: the glucosinolates. These slightly bitter compounds are most likely generated by these cool-weather crops as a defense against predatory insect pests. In sufficient quantities, they’ve been shown to act as natural pesticides.
Not to worry, Would-be Brassica-munching insects’ loss is our gain. The glucosinolates include some remarkably potent beneficial compounds, linked to an array of potential health effects. Among them are a strong suggestion of robust protection against various forms of cancer. Studies of various designs and levels of credibility consistently show that these compounds go to work in the body to provide substantial anti-cancer effects.
Indeed, in a recent journal article, scientists wrote: “…Cruciferous vegetables are not only an important source of nutrients, but perhaps a key to eliminating cancer as life threatening disease.” That’s because some of the compounds in arugula and its cousins help flip “genetic switches,” rendering positive changes that alter the ways one’s genetic code gets translated. These “epigenetic” changes—for good or bad—can be passed down through generations.
More than 130 glucosinolate compounds occur in the Brassicales order and its related families. Many are metabolized in the gut into yet more beneficial compounds with apparent health-promoting activities. Arugula is also rich in vitamin C and potassium, and it has been a component of the exceptionally healthy Mediterranean diet for millennia. Today, arugula is enjoyed all over the world by people who appreciate its pungent, almost peppery flavor. Enjoy arugula raw, or sautéed like spinach. Mix it into omelets, as they do on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, or enjoy it mixed with lemon juice and olive oil over fish, as they do in Turkey.
The Better It Tastes, the Better It Is for You
A recent study analyzed the relationship between the concentration of these unique glucosinolate compounds in arugula and testers’ perceptions of flavor and appeal. Essentially, the more of these compounds present, the better and more interesting the arugula was judged to taste. “[Analysis] revealed strong, positive correlations between glucosinolates, isothiocyanates and sulfur compounds with bitterness, mustard, peppery, warming and initial heat mouthfeel traits,” investigators wrote, in a recent issue of the journal, Food Chemistry.