An aquatic plant found near springs and slow-moving streams, watercress is an often-overlooked, leafy green food source that is a close cousin tomustard greens, cabbage, and arugula. An attractive, succulent plant, watercress bears small, round, slightly scalloped leaves, which, in summer, produce tiny white flowers that become small pods with two rows of edible seeds. Watercress has been cultivated in Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas for millennia for use as both food and a medicine.
One of the best culinary aspects of watercress is its versatility. It can be used as a salad green (a very nutritious one!) with Romaine lettuce or fresh spinach, steamed and eaten as a vegetable, and in soups for a subtle, peppery flavor. It's also a standard ingredient for sandwiches in Britain for both common and high tea.
Because watercress grows in water, it should be washed thoroughly, then soaked for half an hour or so in cool water with hydrogen peroxide added (around one tablespoon per quart) to remove any pollutants, parasites, or other impurities. For optimum freshness, watercress can be submerged in water and stored in the refrigerator for two to three days. Before eating, rinse again and separate the leaves from the fibers and roots.
Health Benefits of Watercress
Watercress earned its reputation as a healing herb quite early. Around 400 BC, Hippocrates located the first hospital on the island of Kos close to a stream to ensure that fresh watercress would be available for treating patients. In the 1700s, Nicholas Culpeper (author of Culpeper's Herbal) believed watercress could cleanse the blood. Modern science has identified more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals contained in this one herb – more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, and more vitamin C than oranges.
Watercress is very low in calories, but contains phytonutrients like isothiocyanates and antioxidants with a plethora of disease-preventive properties. Gluconasturtiin, a glucosinolate compound providing the peppery flavor, is one of them, contained in the leaves and stems and providing phenethyl isothiocyanates, shown to inhibit carcinogens.
Vitamin K is by far the most prominent nutrient in watercress, with 312% of the daily recommended value. It forms and strengthens the bones and limits neuronal damage in the brain, which is helpful in treating Alzheimer's disease. There's also vitamin C, with 72% of the daily value, closely followed by vitamin A with 64%. Vitamin C provides top-notch infection-fighting power to stave off colds and flu, help maintain healthy connective tissue, and prevent iron deficiency. Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is essential for a properly functioning immune system and produces pigments in the retina of the eye, an absence of which can cause night blindness.
Manganese is a cofactor for the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase, and calcium for strong bones and teeth come in high doses when you eat watercress. Antioxidant flavonoids like ß carotene, zeaxanthin, and lutein protect from lung and mouth cancers. B-complex vitamins include riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), thiamin, and pantothenic acid, all important for keeping your cellular metabolic functions at peak performance.
Watercress Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), raw
|Calories from Fat
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie
Studies Done on Watercress
Eating watercress daily has the ability to significantly reduce DNA damage to blood cells and further to resist DNA damage caused by free radicals, according to a two-year research project at the University of Ulster.
Scientists examined a watercress-derived compound called phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) and found significant anticancer properties. Single blind, randomized, crossover trials involved 60 healthy men and women eating about 1½ cups of fresh watercress daily for eight weeks. Positive results included a reduction in blood triglyceride levels by an average of 10%, and a significant (33% to 100%) increase in lutein and betacarotene content, associated, with higher intake levels, in a lowered incidence of eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration1.
Scientific research found that the PEITC in watercress may suppress breast cancer cell development. Studies at the University of Southampton study found PEITC may starve tumor growth of blood and oxygen by "turning off" a signal in the body. Researchers explained that "as tumors develop, they rapidly outgrow their existing blood supply so they send out signals that make surrounding normal tissues grow new blood vessels into the tumor, which feed them oxygen and nutrients2."
Watercress Healthy Recipes:
Watercress, Spinach, and Pear Salad
|2 cups watercress, trimmed, use sprigs
||2 cups spinach, rough chopped
||1½ pounds pears, (1 large or 2 medium)
|Salt and pepper, to taste
||1 carrot, shredded
||1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
|1 tablespoon fresh ginger, roughly chopped
||¼ cup seasoned rice vinegar
||¼ cup smooth almond butter
|1½ tablespoons sugar (or raw honey)
||2 tablespoons water or more if needed
||½ teaspoon chili paste, or to taste
|½ teaspoon salt
||3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
(From Healthy Recipes for Your Nutritional Type by Dr. Joseph Mercola)
- Place watercress and spinach in a large bowl. Cut pears into thick matchstick-like slices. Toss gently with the watercress and spinach. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Place all dressing ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Drizzle dressing over salad and garnish with grated carrot and toasted sesame seeds.
Watercress Fun Facts
You could call watercress the first fast food. It was a free and therefore important source of sustenance throughout Europe and the US in the 19th century. Given the nickname "poor man's bread," bunches were often rolled into a cone and eaten as an on-the-go breakfast sandwich – much less expensive than the real thing.
A nutrient-rich perennial plant growing naturally around slow moving water sources, watercress has been known for centuries as an exceptionally nutritious herb for both eating and healing. Used in sandwiches, salads, and steamed as a side dish, it adds a tangy, peppery flavor as well as a plethora of minerals and vitamins – more than that of spinach, milk or oranges.
Vitamins A, C, and K, and phytonutrients like isothiocyanates and gluconasturtiin in watercress strengthen bones, limit neuronal damage, fight infection, help maintain healthy connective tissue, and prevent iron deficiency. Studies have found the compound PEITC in watercress may suppress breast cancer cell development and prevent DNA damage in cells.
You can find this oft-overlooked leafy green in most supermarkets, so give it a try when you make your next green salad or sandwich. Remember, watercress from stagnant water may host harmful parasites or pathogens, so rinse and soak well before eating.