Questions and Answers about Vegetables found in the Mediterranean Diet
If allium compounds are destroyed in the cooking process, what is the best way to include them in the diet? Raw onions and garlic?
To many people, raw onions and garlic are too strongly flavored to be palatable when eaten alone. However, minced or even thinly sliced raw onions make an aromatic addition to a salad, and minced fresh garlic tastes great in an olive oil vinaigrette salad dressing. Raw chives are another delicious addition to salads and make a crunchy garnish to other foods, from the traditional cottage cheese to grain-based dishes and pasta dishes. When you do cook onions and garlic, try to cook them for as short a time as possible. When making soups and stews, sprinkle a few chopped onions on top, and/or add the garlic (or half the garlic) toward the end of the cooking time.
Are the familiar herbs and spices used in Mediterranean cuisine of any nutritional value, or are they purely for flavoring?
Herbs and spices are plant foods and are rich with nutrients and phytochemicals, just like vegetables, although research hasn’t focused its attention on herbs and spices the way it has on vegetables (at least partially due to the fact that these plant foods are consumed in much smaller amounts and so may have a less potent, although quite possibly cumulative, effect). Some plant foods such as garlic are often thought to be either an herb or a vegetable, and the distinction is indeed blurry at times. The dictionary even defines vegetables as “a usually herbaceous plant cultivated for its edible parts.” Herbs are, technically, plants with fleshy rather than woody stems, and are also defined as “aromatic plants used in medicine or as seasoning.” Similarly, spices are “aromatic or pungent plant substances used as flavoring.”
While different Mediterranean countries tend to emphasize different herbs and spices, the region as a whole seems particularly partial to the following, listed below along with their nutritive and/or phytochemical highlights:
- ·~Garlic and chives. Members of the allium family, these herbs contain organosulfides, the compounds that give allium vegetables their unique odors. Organosulfides are thought to have anticancer properties and to benefit heart health. Garlic also contains phenolic acids, antioxidant compounds that may disrupt cancer development in several ways, and monoterpenes, substances that appear to slow or reverse cancer development and contribute to favorable blood cholesterol profiles. Chives contain the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that concentrate in the eye. Dried or dehydrated chives provide an even more concentrated source of these phytochemicals. Garlic is highly versatile and can flavor almost any savory dish. Sprinkle chopped chives, fresh or dried, on eggs, fish, or a salad.
- ·~The rosemary family of herbs. Oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram, sage, mint, and rosemary are all members of the Labitaceae family and all contain the powerful antioxidant quinone. Oregano, basil, and thyme are pervasive in Mediterranean, especially Italian, cuisine, and give dishes like pizza, spaghetti, and lasagna their familiar flavors.
- ·~Parsley, cilantro, and Italian (flat-leaf) parsley. These members of the umbelliferous family of vegetables (related to the carrot) are nutritional power herbs. The most widely used herb in the United States today, parsley dates back to the third century B.C.E. and was popular among the Romans. Parsley can be more than a garnish. Its flavonoids and carotenoids, particularly lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene, make it worth using more often to flavor soups and stews, salads, meat dishes, pasta, rice, and anything else that needs a splash of green. Although more commonly featured in Mexican cuisine, cilantro is a relative of parsley. Both contain immune system–boosting polyacetylenes.
- ·~Chili peppers. The ingredient in cayenne or hot pepper, chili peppers contain a phytochemical called capsaicin, thought to fight cancer and possibly de-crease pain. Chili peppers also contain carotenoids, including lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene, and a dose of vitamin C. Use chili peppers to spice up any dish. Although chili peppers are more familiar in the cuisines of non-Mediterranean cultures such as Mexico and India, cayenne pepper (dried ground chili pepper) is widely used in North African cuisine. Authentic or not, add zip to paella, gazpacho, fish or shrimp, and eggs with chili peppers.
- ·~Turmeric. Brilliant yellow turmeric is used extensively in Indian and southeast Asian cuisine, but is also a component of many African dishes. Turmeric contains the phytochemical curcumin, a phenolic compound with powerful antioxidant effects.
The above is just a sampling of the many herbs and spices used in Mediterranean cuisine. Experiment with herbs and spices to broaden your culinary spectrum and add both in-tense flavor and a phytochemical boost to your favorite foods.
Are sun-dried tomatoes as nutritious as fresh tomatoes?
Yes. Just as a raisin is as nutritious as a grape, the sun-dried tomato is full of lycopene and contains all the nutrients of a vine-ripe tomato. The only element missing is the water. The sun-dried tomato also contains the same number of calories as a fresh tomato. However, because it is smaller, it is easier to eat more sun-dried tomatoes than fresh tomatoes. Of course, the calories in vegetables are minimal and these are calories with nutritional power, so there’s no need to limit yourself. Sun-dried tomatoes make a flavorful addition to many dishes and are even a tasty addition to homemade bread.
Are frozen vegetables as nutritious as fresh vegetables?
Not always, but sometimes the frozen version of your favorite veggie is actually more nutritious than the fresh version. Many vegetables are flash-frozen and bagged right in the field after picking, preserving many nutrients that might otherwise be destroyed by rough handling and extreme temperatures, not to mention too-long exposure to the air during the long transport to your local supermarket and finally to your refrigerator. Some nutrients are easily oxidized and depleted during this trek.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t seek out fresh produce! Seek out local produce stands or, better yet, grow your own vegetables. The trip from garden to dinner plate is much shorter, and you’ll be getting the best flavor and most nutritional value possible. When good fresh produce isn’t available, however, you can rest assured that frozen and canned vegetables are a pretty close second when it comes to nutritional value. Be aware, however, that sodium may be added to frozen and canned vegetables. Briefly rinse these vegetables with water before preparing to wash away the excess, should you be salt-sensitive or if your recipe doesn’t call for extra salt.
How much folacin is in different kinds of foods?
Many kinds of beans, vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and seeds contain folacin. All of these foods are recommended to be consumed on a daily basis in the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, making it easy to get adequate amounts of folacin. The recommended daily allowance for the average adult is 180 to 200 micrograms. Women in childbearing years, and those who are pregnant, are recommended to get 400 micrograms of folacin per day. Some researchers feel that folacin intakes should be from 400 to 800 micrograms per day to help prevent cancer. Below is a chart of some foods and their folacin content:
Food Folacin (micrograms)
boiled (1 medium) 155
boiled (1⁄2 cup, or 6 spears) 130
raw (1 medium) 160
(frozen, unsweetened, 1 cup) 50
(frozen, unsweetened, 1 cup) 85
raw (1⁄2 cup chopped) 30
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans),
boiled (1 cup) 280
(8 ounces) 110
Red kidney beans,
boiled (1 cup) 230
Rye flour, dark
(1 cup) 80
toasted (1 ounce) 65
boiled (1⁄2 cup, chopped) 85
Whole wheat, wheat flour
(1 cup) 55
Note: These figures are rounded numbers. Source: Jean Pennington, Bowes & Churches, Food Values of Portions Commonly Used (17 ed), Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1998.