The Green Difference June 2015

Ever since my introduction to raw food 25 years ago, I noticed that there are at any given time a number of raw food enthusiasts who choose to limit their intake of vegetables, especially leafy greens, for various reasons. From my own research, clinical and personal experience, I have found that leaving out these important foods decreases the amounts of important nutrients in one’s diet.

In a recent video I show the content of selected important nutrients in three different smoothies: a fruit smoothie, the same fruit smoothie with dandelion greens added, and the same fruit smoothie with kale added. The nutrient differences between the non-green smoothie and the green smoothies are astonishing, especially for calcium and iron. Here is a chart summarizing the differences:

Fruit Smoothie Fruit smoothie plus dandelion greens Fruit smoothie plus kale DRI
Calories 436 510 536
Calcium 110 418 381 1000 mg, 1200 mg
Iron 2.0 7.0 5.4 8 mg, 18 mg
Magnesium 118 177 136 310 mg, 420 mg
Potassium 1484 2139 2382 4700 mg
Folate 157 202 216 400 mcg

Fruit smoothie recipe:

  • One Valencia orange
  • Two bananas
  • 2 cups pineapple chunks
  • ½ cup blueberries
  • ½ cup strawberries
  • ¼ cup blackberries

Fruit smoothie plus dandelion greens: the ingredients in fruit smoothie with 3 cups of dandelion greens added

Fruit smoothie plus kale: the ingredients in fruit smoothie with 3 cups of chopped kale added

Calcium and Iron: The dandelion greens and kale increase the content of all nutrients listed in the table significantly, especially iron and calcium. The amounts of calcium and iron in the fruit smoothie alone are a good start, but when leafy greens are added, the amounts of these important minerals increase dramatically. Per calorie, the green smoothies are a great value calcium and iron-wise and go a long way in helping to provide the adult DRIs (Dietary Referenced Intakes) for these important nutrients. Without leafy greens, one would be missing out on these nutrients and the health value they provide.

Magnesium: Leafy greens are a reliable source of magnesium because of their chlorophyll content. Chlorophyll is the green coloring that one finds green plants, especially in leaves. The mineral at the center of the chlorophyll molecule is magnesium, so it is not surprising to see that the magnesium content of this smoothie notably increased when leafy greens were added.

Folate: Also known as vitamin B9, folate got its name from the Latin word for foliage, which makes sense given that some strong sources of folate are leafy greens. As evidenced in the table above, adding leafy greens to one’s diet can increase folate intake in many cases significantly. Folate is critical for cell division and DNA replication along with vitamin B12, and has a synergistic relationship with vitamin B12. For clarification of this relationship please see my previous blog post and video on folate and vitamin B12.

Potassium: Fruit is known as a great source of potassium and leafy greens can contain a notable amount of this important alkaline mineral, as the table above indicates.

Many more: There are so many more important nutrients found in leafy greens that we talk about in our book, the Raw Food Nutrition Handbook: An Essential Guide to Understanding Raw Food Diets. Some of these nutrients include the essential omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid, carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, protein, vitamins C and E, and many more. Many of these important nutrients work together synergistically to create an effect that is greater than the sum of the individual nutrients, so getting them from a whole food source is important. But if we don’t eat the food, we don’t get the nutrients. I see leafy greens and vegetables in general as playing a necessary role in a healthy raw food plant-based diet.

Video summarizing the points covered in this article:

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Escarole growing in our backyard garden
Escarole growing in our backyard garden

1. Lettuce

From the beginning of my raw food journey in 1990, lettuce has been one of my go-to leafy greens. I love the mild taste and versatility of lettuce, which often forms the basis for my salad recipes. Before my interest in raw food developed, I knew of one type of lettuce: iceberg. This changed quickly as I learned of the many varied types of lettuce including grocery store mainstays such as Romaine, green leaf, red leaf, and Boston. When I started shopping at farmers markets and growing my own food several years ago, I became familiar with lesser known and heirloom varieties of lettuce that expanded my lettuce repertoire further. Right now, Rick and I have 8 varieties of lettuce growing in our backyard garden. Lettuce is a member of the sunflower plant family.

2. Dandelion Greens

Dandelion greens are popularly consumed as an early spring green, but I personally love dandelion greens year round, and enjoy them in my salads, smoothies, and juices. The mineral content of dandelion greens is notable and rivals kale in calcium content. Dandelion greens are in the sunflower plant family (Asteraceae), along with lettuce, endive, escarole, frisée greens, sunflower seeds, and Jerusalem artichokes.

3. Tree Collard Greens

Rick and I planted several collard plants in our garden when moved into our house a few years ago, and they are still going strong and producing beautiful large deep green leaves, year round in northern California. What we love about our tree collards is that they are relatively low maintenance and are a reliable source of greens for us. We enjoy greens from our tree collard plants mostly in smoothies, but occasionally put them in juice or a salad. These tree collard greens are tender and easily digestible for us in comparison to collard greens we find in the grocery store that generally have a tougher consistency. Our tree collards are now about 12 feet tall and still growing, with numerous leaves that can measure up to 8 inches in diameter or more. Collard greens, like other members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) contain noteworthy amounts of certain minerals.

4. Kale

Kale is most certainly one of our many favorite leafy greens and a backyard garden staple. I first became interested in kale when I discovered its impressive calcium and iron content, which is not surprising, given that kale is a member of the cabbage family. Members of the cabbage plant family are also called “cruciferous”, in reference to the cross-like appearance of their flowers, or “brassica” vegetables, reflecting their plant family name Brassicaceae. Rick and I enjoy kale in smoothies, juices, soups, and many other recipes. Since we like to have a variety of foods in our diet, we rotate our leafy greens to enjoy the diversity of flavors, textures, and nutrients offered by different leafy greens. For example, we might have kale as our main leafy green on one day, dandelion greens the next, frisée greens the next, and so forth.

5. Escarole

Rick and I recently returned home from traveling, visiting, and teaching on the east coast to find that the tiny escarole starts we planted in September had grown into huge plants, with 9-inch diameter leaves, at the largest. Given the size of the leaves, this escarole would make great wraps. We have found that escarole grows well in cooler weather, so the size of our plants is not a surprise, given that it is mid-November.

Escarole is in the sunflower plant family, so its strong resemblance to some lettuce varieties is justified. I have found that the taste of escarole can vary, for example, the escarole growing in our yard has a more mild taste than the more bitter versions I have found in grocery stores and farmers markets.

Here are some of the nutrient highlights of escarole:

3 cups chopped escarole (150 g) Adult Daily Values
Calories 25.5
Calcium 78 mg 1000 – 1200 mg
Iron 1.24 mg 8 – 18 mg
Zinc 1.18 mg 8 – 11 mg

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Kale is most certainly one of our many favorite leafy greens. When I first started enjoying the raw food approach to eating, I was not all that familiar with kale as a leafy green choice.  At that time, I had only tried kale on handful of occasions and was not impressed with its (ahem) perceived bitter flavor 🙂

However, as I began my nutrition education, I found kale to be a fascinating leafy green that is packed with positive nutritional qualities:

Nutrient Kale (3 cups chopped, raw) Adult Daily Values
Calories 101  
Protein 6.6  
Thiamin (Vitamin B1) 0.22 1.1 – 1.2 mg
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) 0.26 1.1 – 1.3 mg
Niacin (Vitamin B3) 2.01 14 – 16 mg
Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6) 0.54 1.3-1.7 mg
Calcium 271.4 1000 – 1200 mg
Iron 3.42 8 – 18 mg
Magnesium 68.3 310 – 420 mg
Potassium 898.5 4700 mg
Zinc 0.88 8 – 11 mg

I found the vitamins B1, B2, B6, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium content of kale to be impressive. Nowadays, Rick and I enjoy kale in smoothies, juices, soups, and many other recipes. Since we like to have a variety of foods in our diet, we rotate our leafy greens to enjoy the diversity of flavors, textures, and nutrients offered by different leafy greens. For example, we might have kale as our main leafy green on one day, dandelion greens the next, frisée greens the next, and so forth.

On a side note, the kale that we grow in our garden is generally more tender and easier for us to digest than the kale we find in supermarkets. When the kale that we purchase has a “tougher” consistency we tend to blend it in a smoothie or even sometimes lightly steam it. We find that more tender kale from our garden is easily consumed raw in salads or other recipes.

There are so many leafy greens from which to choose when designing one’s diet. Do you have favorite leafy green?

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