You see it advertised at farmers’ markets and the grocery store. It’s an ingredient commonly found in green smoothies. You can even bake it to make ultra-healthy snack chips. Some people love this vegetable, while others turn up their noses at it (sometimes without even trying it). But there’s more to this highly-nutritious but often under-appreciated leafy green — kale — than you might realize. Let’s take a closer look at this substantial staple and all it has to offer.
The Nutrient Content of Kale
Eating kale is a trend that’s gaining traction among those who want to make healthier diet choices. And, when it comes to nutritional value, kale doesn’t disappoint. It contains key minerals — copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, fiber, and manganese — that many of us are deficient in. A serving of kale meets or exceeds FDA recommendations for getting adequate amounts of Vitamins C, K, and A, plus folates. What are those? Used by our bodies to make genetic material, folates are B Vitamins that are naturally-occurring in certain foods.
The History of Kale
Kale is an ancient member of the Brassica family, the same classification that includes Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Kale’s origins go back 2,000 years. During the Middle Ages, it was one of the most widely-eaten veggies because it was easy to cultivate, even in colder climes.
There was one place where kale wasn’t so trendy back then: France. The French called this leafy green “legume obilé. In English, that’s ” lost and forgotten vegetable.” To many, kale was virtually unheard-of.
During the medieval period, kale began gradually falling out of favor. By the decades from World War I to World War II, its popularity hit an all-time low.
Many years later, kale made a comeback when vegans discovered the nutritional value of this overlooked treasure. What began as mostly an American trend quickly gained momentum worldwide.
Health Benefits of kale
For seasoned chefs and amateur cooks alike, kale has become a culinary staple, primarily because of its nutrient content and the health benefits it affords.
Kale plays a critical role in lowering cholesterol, which translates to a reduced risk of heart disease. As their name suggests, bile acid sequestrants in kale keep the body from absorbing bile. This can go a long way toward keeping cholesterol levels in check.
Improves Eye Health
When you were growing up, you may have had a teacher or parent tell you, “Carrots are good for your eyes.” Well, as it turns out, so is kale. Kale contains lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that are crucial for good eye health. What’s more, kale is an excellent source of beta carotene, which protects the eyes and helps prevent disorders such as macular degeneration and cataracts.
Reduces Cancer Risk
Kale and other cruciferous vegetables contain compounds that prevent DNA mutations and damage that can lead to cancer. Kale also fights the disease by stopping cancer-causing compounds in their tracks, increasing the likelihood that they will die out before they can seriously harm our bodies.
Different Varieties of Kale
When most of us think of kale, images of salad or green smoothies come to mind. But there are several different types, and they’re not all green. Let’s consider the many varieties of the vegetable, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a “kale connoisseur.”
Curly kale is easy to recognize since it’s the most common type. It gets its name because of its ruffled leaves. If they’re curled tightly enough, you’ll have difficulty chopping them up. Curly kale is also characterized by its pale to deep green color and long stems. This is the type you’re most likely to run into at restaurants and grocery stores.
This frilly vegetable has a flavor all its own. When it hits your tongue, you may think you’re eating pepper in disguise, except for the bitter aftertaste. This kind of kale lends itself well to making the chips mentioned earlier, since it gets quite crispy in the oven.
And why not make a snack out of it? Curly kale contains more Vitamin C than an orange, plus it counts toward your daily recommended servings of potassium and Vitamins B6 and K. This makes it a great addition to salads. But if you want to eat curly kale by itself, we suggest sprinkling it with a little salt and lemon juice, as it’s a tad tougher to chew than some of the other varieties.
With a name like this, it sounds like something you’d be served when flying first-class or dining in a five-star restaurant. One of the newer breeds of kale, it also goes by the name “Early Hanover.” It can withstand colder climates and yields a good harvest, maturing earlier than some other vegetables. When fully-grown, its medium-green leaves, smooth with scalloped edges, can reach a foot in length.
Premier kale is a treasure trove of nutrients, especially antioxidants and beta carotene. Our bodies convert the latter into Vitamin A, which supports the immune system.
Because it’s thought to be the most flavorful member of the kale family, this premier green can be found in sandwiches and salads. Since it’s not as tough as the curly kind, some people like to eat it raw by itself, too.
Walking Stick kale
This is an apt moniker for an unconventional plant, which definitely seems to live up to its name. In the garden, it towers over its neighbors, standing as tall as six feet. In reality, this “beanstalk” of the kale world derives its name from the fact that, when properly dried and preserved, it can be used as a remarkably sturdy walking cane. Because the stems seem to give way to a burst of leaves, walking stick kale is also known as “walking stick cabbage.”
When it comes to cultivating, this kale type is higher-maintenance than others. In order to thrive, it requires rich, compost-layered soil and a consistent temperature of at least 75°F.
Due to its sizable leaves, walking stick kale is a popular choice for making veggie tortilla wrappers and spring rolls. African cuisine even uses the greenery as edible plates and platters.
If you guessed from its name that this plant can survive harsh, cold climates, you’re correct. It’s also heavily pest-resistant. More closely related to some turnip species, this brand of kale is thought to be completely different from other members of the kale family. This Siberian variety has thin stems and large, gray-green ruffled leaves.
While they have a mild taste, the leaves are rubbery, so most people opt not to eat them raw. Instead, they saute them in garlic and olive oil. This hardy kale sports bright yellow flowers used to produce rapeseed oil, which is rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
Red Russian Kale
Originating in Siberia, “red kale” or “scarlet kale,” as it’s also called, grew in popularity when traders brought it to North America in the 1800s. This veggie boasts flat, green, reddish-tinged leaves and a reddish-purple stem.
Best eaten raw, red Russian kale has a sweet taste with a peppery “kick.” With higher levels of vitamins and minerals than all other members of the kale family combined, it’s especially beneficial for bone health because of its high calcium content. This kale is an excellent addition to smoothies, salads, and juice. It’s also tasty when sauteed in olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and a pinch of sea salt, provided you remove the tough stems first.
With reddish leaves that turn a deep purple in cold weather, redbor kale is primarily grown for its aesthetic qualities, as it’s often used as a garnish in soups and salads and adds a vibrant explosion of color to your garden. Packed with Vitamins A and C, protein, magnesium, fiber, calcium, iron, and potassium, it’s a powerhouse of nutrients. Best of all, it’s an excellent source of alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant that lowers blood sugar — good news if you’re diabetic — and improves heart health.
To get the most out of this colorful veggie, roast it with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder,,and apple cider vinegar. With its nutty, herbaceous flavor, it’s a popular ingredient in a variety of dishes.
Behind curly kale, lacinato kale ranks second in popularity, making it relatively easy to find at the store. You may see it labeled as Tuscan or dinosaur kale; the latter name refers to its bumpy texture, believed to be similar to the extinct reptile’s skin.
With its eye-catching appearance (long, dark-gray leaves) and earthy bitter taste, lacinato kale was once considered “the darling of the culinary world.” Its bluish-green tinge and thin leaves add a touch of elegance when garnishing a dinner plate. This plant retains its nutty sweetness when cooked, but you can also eat it raw. Especially tasty when combined with chili flakes, pressed garlic, and olive oil, this Italian veggie is also a key ingredient in minestrone and pesto.
Originally from the country after which it’s named, this kale is also called “Chinese” broccoli” because of how closely it resembles the Western version of the cruciferous vegetable. It comes in two varieties. The white-flowered type grows to be 19 inches tall, while the kind that sports yellow blooms only reaches a height of 8 inches. With glossy, blue-green leaves, its flower heads resemble broccoli, although the kale variety are much smaller.
Part of the cabbage family, Chinese kale often serves as a substitute for broccoli in Chinese recipes. It tastes like broccoli too, although it has a slightly stronger, more bitter flavor. A popular addition to sweetened sauces, Chinese kale is an excellent source of Vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron.
Baby kale comes from young kale plants and has a mild taste and soft leaves. It looks similar to curly kale, but its leaves are much smaller and thinner. What this plant lacks in size, it makes up for in nutrients. Rich in Vitamins C, A, and K1, as well as potassium and iron, baby kale is considered a superfood. Luckily, it’s usually not hard to find in the grocery store, so adding it to your diet shouldn’t be difficult.
You can trace baby kale’s origins all the way to ancient Rome and Egypt, where it was widely-eaten. It can withstand colder temperatures but may also be grown year-round in warmer climates. All it needs is well-drained soil and full or partial shade. Baby kale can be added to smoothies, eaten raw, or sauteed and seasoned.
This Portuguese kale is one of the least common types. It stands out because of its soft, circular bluish-green leaves and slender white and green stems. Because of its high-nutrient and low-carb composition, it qualifies as a superfood, too. Its thick leaves make it ideal for juicing or smoothies.
Incredibly easy to grow, this hardy plant withstands heat well. It’s also an aesthetically-pleasing addition to any garden.
Kale has come a long way since its nearly-forgotten days in the early and mid-twentieth century. If you’re already a fan, you know why this versatile veggie has surged in popularity. If up until now, you’ve been wondering what all the hype was about, you might want to consider putting kale on your list the next time you head to the farmers’ market or the grocery store.