Parsley: From Culinary Garnish to Health Superstar
Originally farmed in Sardinia in the third century BCE, parsley (Petroselinum crispum) was first used as a medicine, not a food, unlike today where it is widely used as a food in European, Middle Eastern, Western Asian and American cuisine.
The name comes originally from the Latinisation of the Greek word petroselinon or “rock celery” and it belongs to the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family. In Ancient Greece parsley was a plant sacred to Persephone and was used for decorating the tombs of the dead, and not eaten. It was also used to decorate winners of athletic contests to remind them of past athletes.
There are about 300 different varieties, but two main types are used today: curly-leaf parsley and flat-leaf parsley, the latter being easier to cultivate and stronger in flavour. Parsley root is also common in Central European, Middle Eastern and American cuisines, where it is used as a snack or as a vegetable in many soups and stews. Parsley can be grown as a biennial plant in the tropics and subtropics and as an annual plant in temperate areas.
Parsley has been labelled one of the most powerful disease-fighting plants, providing excellent nutritional value and offering wide-ranging health benefits. All parts of the plant can be used. The leaves have been used in multiple ways, including in the treatment of digestive disorders, as a diuretic and as a food flavouring or garnish. The leaves are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, hypotensive, hepatoprotective, neuroprotective, cytoprotective, anti-diabetic, analgesic, spasmolytic, anti-anaemic, anticoagulant, gastroprotective and oestrogenic.
Traditionally the roots have similar properties, and are principally used as a diuretic, and the seeds, with medicinally stronger essential oils, are used for their antimicrobial, antiseptic and antispasmodic properties and in relieving digestive disorders, kidney stones and menstrual problems.
Thirty grams of fresh chopped parsley leaves contain 11 calories, two grams of carbs with one gram of fibre, one gram of protein and less than one gram of fat. Parsley leaves are rich in vitamin A as carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin K and folate. They also contain minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and other minerals, protein and fibre.
The parsley plant contains phenolic and flavonoid compounds such as apigenin and apiin, both strong antioxidants, quercetin and luteolin, essential oils (mainly myristicin and apiol), coumarins, tocopherols, carotenoids such as lutein, beta carotene, zeaxanthin and chlorophyll.
Parsley seed has traditionally been used for the treatment of allergies, autoimmune disease and chronic inflammatory disorders. Mouse studies using the essential oil have shown positive results when used to suppress the cellular and humoral immune response. This has potential clinical applications in the management of autoimmune disease.
In one study researchers added parsley leaves to the daily diet of 14 people for one week, generating significant increases in measurable antioxidant enzymes compared to controls.
Mouse studies demonstrated that the antioxidant effect from parsley polyphenols had significant anti-anxiety and antidepressant potential when compared with paroxetine and bromazepam, and suggested its use as a complement or independent phytomedicine to treat depression and anxiety.
The apigenin in parsley has also shown neuroprotective effects in a range of neurological conditions including cerebral ischaemia.
In mouse studies, parsley leaves in high doses improved the liver and blood antioxidant functions, decreased blood glucose levels and showed hepatoprotective activity in diabetic mice. These changes were determined to be due to parsley’s high antioxidant properties. Another study showed that parsley improved hyperglycaemia-induced heart and aorta oxidative damage from the diabetes.
Mouse studies were conducted using parsley leaves and stems, and their potent antioxidant properties demonstrated protection against DNA damage, thereby reducing the proliferation and migration of cancer cells — an indicator of metastasis protection. Parsley showed potential for increased cell death of human melanoma and breast cancer cells.
It is rich in chlorophyll and phenolic compounds that have antibacterial and deodorising properties which help fight bad breath, neutralising garlic, onion and even alcohol breath. Chew a small handful after eating these “smelly” foods.
Parsley leaves lowered high blood pressure in rats and demonstrated a strong anti-platelet aggregation effect, part of its anti-inflammatory activity.
The primary use is as a diuretic, reducing fluid accumulation and relieving cystitis, as well as helping to eliminate small kidney stones, partially by inhibiting crystallisation. It is also known to help the body remove toxins through the urine and is a kidney tonic. An interesting rat study showed that when given an aqueous solution of parsley seed to drink, they excreted a significantly larger volume of urine compared to those drinking water, while retaining better levels of potassium.
Parsley has been shown to have significant phytoestrogenic effects, and its extract has showed potent oestrogenic activity equal to that of the glycosides in soybeans, indicating a role for female hormonal support such as during menopause. Parsley can also be taken with sage to reduce milk flow during lactation, but in different preparations have also been used as a galactagogue to increase milk production.
No major contraindications are noted with normal consumption of parsley as a food. Be careful if pregnant; small doses in food are generally safe but higher doses can potentially bring on abortion. Parsley seeds and the oils are much stronger and need to be more carefully monitored.
References available on request.