Spinach Recipes: Unlocking Powerful Health Benefits

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The Powerful Health Benefits of SpinachThe latest scientific research confirms that correctly cooking raw vegetables can actually increase their nutritional value. 

Dr. Dean Kopsell, head of the Carotenoid Project at the University of Tennessee, takes us on an inside look into the latest scientific research on the health benefits of vegetables and the role of cooking in releasing their vital healing compounds. 

1. You are currently heading the Carotenoid Research Project at the University of Tennessee.  Could you tell us about the project?

My research area is vegetable crop physiology, with emphasis on the enhancement of nutritionally beneficial phytochemicals in vegetable crops for preventative and therapeutic disease reductions. 

"Through light cooking, you release
fat-soluble compounds, and minimize losses
of water-soluble compounds."

My projects focus on environmental and genetic modifications that increase phytochemical concentrations.  This translates to providing information to producers and consumers about which vegetable crops, and cultivars, have the highest nutritional values, and what are the cultural growing practices that can maximize their phytochemical concentrations.

My main research focus involves the analysis of nutritionally important carotenoid phytochemicals.  Carotenoids are found in plants and are responsible for the brilliant colors we see in nature.  My lab is attempting to identify the best ways to grow vegetables such as spinach, kale, tomatoes, peppers, basil, onions, sweet corn, and broccoli to maximize carotenoid compounds in their edible tissues.  We are also starting to work with cancer and obesity research specialists to verify the nutritional and therapeutic impacts of our research. 

Medical and nutritional researchers are beginning to see the value of bioactive compounds in fruits and vegetables.  They have approached our group here at UT to ask about collaborative projects.  It is a very exciting time to be involved in phytochemical enhancement of fruits and vegetables. 

2. Spinach has become a symbol of healthy eating.  What are the main health benefits of the vegetable?

Spinach is a very nutritious leafy vegetable.  One of the projects in our lab measured the nutritional value of spinach from commercial sources and USDA germplasm collections.  What we found was the elemental concentrations, such as Ca, Mg, and K, and carotenoid phytonutrients differed up to 2.5 fold among the different varieties and cultigens of spinach.  

"We cannot produce carotenoids ourselves,
and must get them from the foods we eat."

Spinach is one of many vegetable crops which possess important phytonutrient compounds called carotenoids.  Most of us know carotenoids as the red, orange, and yellow leaf pigments responsible for the brilliant fall leaf colors.  Carotenoids act as light-protective compounds for photosynthesis.  They dissipate energy from incoming solar radiation and also serve antioxidant functions.  Not surprisingly, carotenoids serve similar light-protective and antioxidant functions in our bodies as well.  We cannot produce carotenoids ourselves, and must get them from the foods we eat.  Vegetables are one of the main sources of carotenoids in human diets. 

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