Rucola – good, bad or ugly?

Rucola is the vegetable with the highest nitrate content

Actually all of the above. Let’s look at them one at a time starting from the back, but first a brief description of the plant.

Rucola, arugula or rocket, or to be very specific Eruca sativa in latin, are all different names for one member of the brassica family that is most often consumed as a leafy green vegetable. It is native to the Mediterranean area, but are now grown in many parts of the world. It was very popular during Roman times and considered an aphrodisiac, but was forgotten for a long time. It has lately seen a renaissance and is growing in popularity. It is most often served as an ingredient in mixed green salads, but in Italy it can also be found as the sole topping on a rucola pizza or the sole ingredient of a green salad. It has a rich, peppery taste, and an exceptionally strong flavour for a leafy green vegetable.

And why ugly? Well, it looks very similar to the leaves of the public enemy number one in the garden, the dandelion weed. The leaves are deeply pinnately lobed with four to ten small lateral lobes and a large terminal lobe. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder so others might find it attractive. And there might be more important weeds than dandelion, but why destroy a good story.

And why bad? It is actually a plant that accumulates a lot of nitrate. In a vegetable survey published in 2008 as part of an EFSA opinion, average nitrate levels varied from a low of 20-30 mg/kg in Brussels sprouts and peas to a high of 4,667 mg/kg in rucola. Other leafy green vegetables also had relatively high nitrate levels with lettuce at 2,026 mg/kg and spinach at 1,066 mg/kg, but nowhere near the levels found in rucola.

Nitrate is a naturally occurring compound playing an important role in the nutrition and function of plants as part of the nitrogen cycle. Higher levels of nitrate tend to be found in leaves whereas lower levels occur in seeds or tubers. Thus leafy green vegetables generally have higher nitrate concentrations than other vegetable groups. Human exposure to nitrate comes mainly from vegetables. Now, nitrate as such is relatively non-toxic, so what’s the problem?

The metabolites of nitrate and their reaction products, nitrite, nitric oxide and N-nitroso compounds, have raised concern because of adverse health effects like methaemoglobinaemia in young children (blue baby syndrome) and potential cancer in adults. When we consume nitrate it is easily absorbed and circulated in the blood stream. In humans, about 25% of ingested nitrate is secreted in saliva of which at least 20% is converted to nitrite by the microbial flora we all carry in the mouth. We swallow most of the saliva and that provides about 80% of our nitrite intake. Sounds complicated , but that is the way it is.

Vegetables provide more nitrite than processed meat products (Photo: YoGeek Mami)

Processed meat products are often blamed for high nitrite intake but this is plain wrong. Vegetables are the real culprits in this respect.

When nitrite reaches the acidic conditions of the stomach it changes into nitrous acid that after further changes reacts with amines in other food sources like fish, meat and cheese and form nitrosamines.  These N-nitroso compounds are known carcinogens. A rucola and parmesan cheese salad could be the ultimate source for nitrosamine formation.

And now the good! But to complicate things it is not all bad. Recent research indicates that nitrite have antimicrobial activity and participates in defending against infections. Other nitrate metabolites, e.g. nitric oxide, have important physiological roles in lowering blood pressure. Thus, despite being a major source of nitrate, increased consumption of vegetables is widely recommended because of their generally agreed beneficial effects for health.

But the beneficial side doesn’t end there. Vegetables provide other biologically active substances as well as nutrients like pro-vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, folate, potassium, magnesium, digestible carbohydrates and non-digestible carbohydrates (fibre), protein. In addition, vegetables lack saturated fat and trans fatty acids and are low in sodium which are all good for health. What more can you ask for?

And looking at the vitamin C content in vegetables it can actually prevent the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines. Maybe this is the reason why epidemiological studies have not found an association between dietary nitrate intake and cancer. On the contrary we are encouraged to eat more vegetables with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommending that we all eat at least 400 g of fruit and vegetables a day.

An occasional rucola pizza is no problem

So what to do? There is actually an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for nitrate of 3.7 mg/kg bodyweight per day, or 222 mg nitrate per day for a 60 kg adult established by the former European Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) and reconfirmed by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) in 2002. This means that if you stay below this limit on average over your lifetime you should be safe. You can safely eat close to 50 g of rucola in a day before exceeding this limit as long as you don’t consume other food or water with appreciable levels of nitrate during the same day. And an occasional rucola pizza should also be fine. But don’t make it a common habit.

It is also possible to reduce the bacterial flora in the mouth responsible for nitrite formation by regularly using antibacterial mouth wash. But you will miss out on the lowering effect on blood pressure so this might not be a good idea. It is also worth noting that people on antacids to reduce the acidity in the stomach face less risk of nitrosamine formation. But again the acidic condition is quite helpful for normal digestion so don’t try this if you don’t have to because of another health issue.