Originally from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, celery is now grown worldwide. This low-calorie favourite has a mild flavour that lends itself well to a wide range of dishes from humble celery soup to the classic Waldorf Salad. Its Latin name is Apium graveolens and it belongs in the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family, along with carrots and parsley. These mostly aromatic flowering plants are commonly known as umbellifers.
But is it good for our health? Hippocrates, considered to be the father of modern medicine, wrote that celery could be used to calm the nerves – and research suggests that it may well have great potential to improve health.
Celery is often dismissed as an ‘empty’ food, consisting mostly of water, but it’s actually a good source of several nutrients as well as some powerful health-protecting compounds, including flavonoids, phenolic acids, coumarins and phthalides. Taken together, celery has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antirheumatic, antihypertensive (reducing blood pressure), antidiabetic and neuroprotective properties – quite an accolade!
On a basic level, celery provides vitamins A, K and C, plus minerals such as potassium and folate. It’s low on the glycaemic index, meaning it has a slow, steady effect on your blood sugar and won’t lead to unhealthy spikes. One good stick of celery (around 100 grams) contains 1.5 grams of fibre and a negligible amount of fat, making it a great choice for people who want to lose weight. But don’t rely on celery as a source of protein as one stick contains just half a gram.
Celery’s real selling point is its high content of bioactive compounds – antioxidants and phytochemicals. These include well-known ones, such as vitamin C, and other not-so-well-known ones, such as coumarins that help our bodies fight infection and disease. Antioxidants prevent damage to cells from unstable molecules called free radicals. They are needed in our bodies and are important for our health but if not kept in check, free radicals can lead to cell damage linked to cancer and other diseases. Phytochemicals are naturally occurring compounds found in plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds. Many act as antioxidants, neutralising free radicals and removing their power to damage cells.
Celery contains phthalides, naturally bioactive compounds with many health benefits that are particularly abundant in plants from the Apiaceae family. Phthalides have a two-fold effect on lowering blood pressure – by relaxing muscles around your arteries so reducing the work the heart has to do to pump blood around your body; and they decrease the production of stress hormones and therefore reduce symptoms of high blood pressure. If you are taking blood pressure medication do watch your consumption of celery as you don’t want your blood pressure to drop too low!
Celery contains a compound called butylphthalide which has a diuretic effect, stimulating the kidneys to excrete more urine and flush away excess water and salt, which is why in some countries it has long been used as a traditional medicine to treat urinary tract infections. A recent study showed that butylphthalide may also prevent the accumulation of the brain plaques and tangles which cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Although celery allergy is fairly rare in the UK, it is often a hidden ingredient in many foods which, in 2014, led to its mandatory inclusion on food labels as one of the 14 main foods that cause allergies.
Celery stalks should be sturdy and upright with crisp green leaves so when buying celery, avoid bendy stalks. It can be eaten raw but also boiled, steamed or braised. Be aware that cooking celery can dramatically reduce its phenolic content while steaming doesn’t.