Celery is a member of the Umbelliferae family. Other members include carrots, fennel, parsley, and dill. Perhaps best known for its stalks, celery is a versatile vegetable, crunchy in texture with a mildly salty taste. While celery ribs are the most commonly consumed portion of the vegetable, the roots, leaves, and seeds are often used for seasonings and medicinal purposes.
Celery, as we now know it is derived from wild celery that most likely originated in the Mediterranean region of southern Europe. Wild celery still exists today and is known as smallage. Wild celery is used primarily in French cuisine. Unlike its modern counterpart, ancient celery featured more leaves and fewer stalks.
In Rome, celery was used as a seasoning, a practice that continued until the Middle Ages when celery was first regarded as a food. Celery was not enjoyed raw until the 18th century in Europe and was not introduced to the United States until the early 19th century.
Today, the most popular commercial variety available in the United States in called Pascal celery. This variety is bright green in color, ranging in length from about 12 – 16 inches, with tightly clustered stalks that share a common base. These stalks are topped with leaves that can be discarded or used for salads.
A popular rumor is that celery contains “negative calories”. More simply put, more calories are expended chewing celery than the stalk contains. While this is inaccurate, celery is a very low calorie vegetable. One cup of chopped celery contains just 16 calories and a single stalk clocks in at around 6 calories.
Although celery is primarily made up of carbohydrates, nearly half are in the form of dietary fiber (1.6 grams out of 3.5 grams). Surprisingly, a serving of celery contains one gram of protein.
Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K – one serving contains 29.6 mcg or 37% of the recommended daily values. One cup of chopped celery also provides around 10% of the daily values for vitamin A as beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin plus folate and potassium (263 mg). Although celery contains 81 mg of sodium (or 3% of the suggested DV), the ratio of sodium to potassium is 1 to 3 making celery a perfect diuretic.
While celery may be nutritious and filling, there is more to this vegetable than a crunchy snack. Celery has several important compounds with potent health benefits – most notably, anti-cancer and blood pressure lowering compounds.
One of these active compounds, phthalide, may help lower blood pressure. Phthalide relaxes smooth muscles around arteries, allowing the vessels to dilate and blood to flow at a lower level of pressure. Stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, constrict blood vessels, hindering blood flow and leading to a rise in blood pressure. Phthalides inhibit the enzymes that activate these hormones.
Celery also contains a potent anti-cancer compound called coumarin. Coumarins, which give plants such as clover a pleasant fragrance, is used as a precursor molecule in the synthesis of a number of synthetic anticoagulant medications, most notably warfarin (of which one brand name is Coumadin). Coumarins prevent carcinogenic free-radicals from damaging cells and boost immunity by stimulating white blood cell activity.
Additional sources of anti-cancer compounds found in celery are phenolic acids and acetylenics, both of which can inhibit the growth of tumor cells.
Celery is among a small group of foods that provoke severe allergic reactions that can cause fatal anaphylactic shock in those with the allergy. This allergy is somewhat unusual in the United States but is most prevalent in Central Europe.
Another concern associated with celery consumption is the levels of pesticide residue found on plants. According to the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides released in 2010, celery tops the list of infamous “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables. Celery came in first for pesticide residue with a whopping 64 different types of pesticides found on a single bundle. Download the wallet sized guide to the “Dirty Dozen” and refer to when you’re shopping for groceries.
Selection and Storage
Although celery is grown year round in the United States, stalks are at their freshest September through April.
When making a celery selection, choose a plant that is crisp with a color ranging from pale to bright green. Avoid plants with yellow or brown speckling, as this can be indicative of insect damage. Make sure to choose ribs that snap easily from the base and pull the stalks apart to check the center for a condition known as “black heart” caused by extensive insect damage.
Those concerned with the health risks associated with pesticides are best advised to buy organic celery. Fortunately, unlike other types of fruits and vegetables grown organically, organic celery is relatively reasonable and comparable in price to non-organic celery.
Celery should be stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, either in a plastic bag, plastic wrap, a damp towel or aluminum foil. Celery should never be stored at room temperature. Celery left out is prone to decay and may even continue growing inner stalks. Due to its high water content, celery wilts easily. If your celery has wilted, crispness can be regained by sprinkling it with water and placing in the refrigerator for several hours. For a rapid revival, submerge stalks in ice cold water for about 20 minutes.
To clean celery, cut off the base and leaves and wash the stalks under running water.
Celery is a versatile snack or side, especially delicious in soups and salads.
To add a light crispiness to your tuna fish or chicken salad recipe, toss in some chopped celery. Snack on raw celery dipped in humus or peanut butter. For a different take on celery, toss some celery leaves with your favorite salad.
For a deliciously crunchy side dish try celery salad. Dried cherries and toasted pecans make this salad a real hit at barbecues and dinner parties alike.
Celery combined with onions and carrots in known as “The Holy Trinity” in Creole cooking and Mirepoix in French cuisine. This base is used to add flavor to a wide number of dishes ranging from stocks, soups, stews and sauces.
Celery salt is used to season a countless number of diner’s delights. Two unusual examples – Bloody Mary Cocktails and Chicago-style hot dogs!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.