Wake-up to the wonders of Watercress

Wonderful watercress


Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl transformed by Henry Higgins into My Fair Lady, might just have easily been selling wild bunches of watercress as violets. Like oysters, watercress was a staple of Victorian London, when the arrival of the railways enabled Covent Garden market to be supplied with literally tons of the plants each day. This thriving agricultural industry continued to flourish during both World Wars, as the country had to rely on home grown produce and watercress sandwiches at “high tea” became almost a national institution. Watercress was even a staple ingredient in school dinners, after the British Ministry of Health in the 1930s established that it was excellent for promoting children’s growth.

Yet from over 1,000 acres of watercress under cultivation in the UK in the 1940s by the end of the century this had shrunk to 150 acres, while the extraordinary little plant had been banished to the side of our plates as a garnish. More sadly it was often no longer considered to be edible, and so pushed to one side.

Time to go forward into the past?

The watercress story is quite a poignant one when considering the unfolding drama of what happens to the health of a society that abandons real food in favour of highly processed products. It turns out the British Ministry of Health was on the right track when it comes to the health benefits of watercress.

Of course, it’s said that Hippocrates located his first hospital beside a stream so that he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress to help treat his patients, so he wouldn’t have been in the least surprised when this humble little green wonder ranked No. 1 on the list of nutrient-dense foods on the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control chart.

The potent mix of nutrients and phytonutrients found in watercress could make it a valuable food aid in supporting the body’s natural defences, contributing to overall health and well-being.

Watercress is an especially good provider of vitamins A, C, E, while one cup (approx.35g) of chopped watercress can provide our daily vitamin K needs. Part of the cruciferous family (think kale, broccoli, rocket) it contains very high levels of nitrate, which have shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the amount of oxygen needed during exercise, enhancing athletic performance. Foods high in nitrates (other examples include celery, beetroot and spinach) have been shown to have multiple vascular benefits, according to the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Finally, watercress also contains high amounts of chlorophyll, which has been shown to be effective in blocking some carcinogenic effects that results from cooking meats at high temperature, so even if you only ever come across it as a garnish on your steak, be sure to eat it.

However, incorporating more of it into your routine nutrition is a better idea. Since 2003 British watercress farmers have been promoting this great ingredient as, “Not Just a Bit on the Side”, and with some success, as the industry has witnessed a renaissance with more focus on the nutritional benefits of this under-appreciated real food. There’s even a Watercress Festival – advertised this year as taking place in Alresford, Hampshire, on Sunday 21st May.

Vitamin K Note:  If you are taking blood thinners it is important that you do not consume too much food containing vitamin K, which plays a role in blood clotting.  When on medication always consult your doctor for specialised dietary guidance.

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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