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The most nutritious vegetables

Most nutritious vegetablesJerry Minnich considered the nutritional content of 89 common and not so common fruits and vegetables then developed lists of all-star garden crops.  In case you're curious, here's his list (in declining order of importance) of the crops that provide the most nutrition per serving: leaf amaranth, sunflower seeds, broccoli, soybeans, almonds, navy beans, collards, cowpeas, potatoes, dandelion greens, peanuts, peas, avocados, lima beans, great northern beans, kidney beans, okra, watermelons, kale, spinach, butternut squash, sweet potato, and turnip greens.  Are you as shocked as I am to see that the only fruit that makes the top 23 is the watery watermelon?

Minnich also provides another list of vegetables that I choose to call multivitamins.  While the previous list merely takes into account the total nutrition coming from the crop, this list looks at versatility and chooses vegetables that provide a little bit of all or most of the top vitamins and minerals: broccoli, leaf amaranth, lima beans, cowpeas, watermelons, almonds, collards, peas, potatoes, soybeans, and sunflower seeds.  Why not choose a plant off this list to go with your dinner every day rather than popping that multivitamin pill?

Keep in mind that these lists of nutritious vegetables are based on USDA serving size, which I suspect might be why they're so strongly weighted toward seeds.  Half a cup of cooked beans is one serving (350 calories) versus half a cup of broccoli (15 calories), 1 cup of collards (11 calories), or half a cup of watermelon (23 calories.)  Another list in the book breaks 39 of the most common foods down by pound per pound nutrition, which is probably more useful (though dry weight would be even more useful).  That list is topped by broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, lima beans, peas, asparagus, globe artichokes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and carrots.

Clearly, the healthiest vegetable is still up for debate (although it can't hurt to cultivate a liking for broccoli.)  Still, we've decided to try out a few of these high nutrition crops next year:

  • Leaf amaranth --- We're experimenting with grain amaranth this year, but are going to have to spread out and try leaf amaranth next year.  The latter is a summer green, which is a category underrepresented in our garden.  (We only grow swiss chard during hot weather.)  Since amaranth provides a hearty dose of calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin C, along with lesser amounts of protein and niacin, it's hard to turn down.
  • Dandelion greens --- We already gather these in the wild in the early spring, but I've nearly been pushed over the edge into buying a cultivated version and finding it a bed in the forest garden.
  • Naked seed pumpkin --- These come under a huge variety of names, such as Eat All Squash, Sweet Nut Squash, Styrian Pumpkin, Lady Godiva Pumpkin, Kakai Pumpkin, etc.  The idea is that the seeds don't have a hull, so they don't require any processing before eating (except roasting, drying, or whatever you like to do with squash seeds.)  The downside is that the squash's flesh isn't very good compared to our darling butternuts so people usually give the insipid flesh to livestock and grow something tastier for pies.

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This post is part of our Gardening for Maximum Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Great list. I was surprised to see sunflower seeds on the list but not sweet peppers or blueberries. If you have limited space and resources it's good to know what gives you the most bang for the buck.
Comment by Lisa Tue Sep 28 14:36:09 2010
Sweet peppers were in the top vegetables for vitamin C, but apparently they aren't a great source of any other vitamin or mineral. If you've got space to branch out, like we do, and you eat lots of vegetables, I don't think it's a big deal which ones are at the absolute top of the nutrition list. On the other hand, you've got a very good point --- if you've only got a limited amount of space, these are a good choice.
Comment by anna Tue Sep 28 14:52:35 2010
I am shocked that white potatoes make it on the list both times, higher than sweet potatoes.
Comment by Anonymous Tue Sep 28 15:13:42 2010

That's due to the way the author analyzed nutrition. Half a cup of potatoes is much heftier (when you discount the water) than half a cup of "real" vegetables. That's why I think the best analysis would be nutrition per pound of dry weight. Since most fruits and vegetables have so much water in them, they lose out in volume comparisons with more starchy tubers.

I also think that a real list of the top vegetables would have to take the negatives into account as well as the positives. Clearly, you could eat a lot of servings of "real" fruits and vegetables a day, but starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc. can only be eaten in moderation.

I've always heard that sweet potatoes were better for you than white potatoes, but I'm not sure now. Looking at them on a pound per pound basis, sweet potatoes have 12% more calories (although they do have 50% more fiber.) Sweet potatoes come out way ahead on vitamin A, but way behind on vitamin C. I guess it's a question of which nutrients you're looking for.

Comment by anna Tue Sep 28 16:09:31 2010

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