Because turnips grow just about anywhere, even in the poorest of soils, they were anciently looked upon as a vegetable that was only suitable for the poor and low-status folk. Those that were better-off often never even tasted the vegetable, but would refuse to do so because it was a “poor man's food.” But when it comes to nutrition, turnips are anything but a poor man's food. Turnips have been around for thousands of years and were cultivated by the Greeks and Romans into many different varieties. Turnips were used abundantly in Europe during the Middle Ages until the potato was introduced in the eighteenth century. But turnips were again a popular food when they were brought to America by the early colonists, because they grew so well. Eventually, turnips became especially popular in the South, where they grew especially well. They became a staple of the southern African-American diet during the time of slavery; slave owners would save the turnip roots for themselves and leave the bitter green leaf portion for the slaves.
Turnips are a root vegetable and are primarily used as such but they are also used for the edible green “leaves” of the plant—though not as commonly, as the greens are rather bitter. Turnips are members of the cruciferous vegetable family, which also includes cabbages and broccoli. Like other members of this family, they are known for their cancer-fighting components. Turnips, however, are particularly high in anti-carcinogenic (anti-cancer) glucosinolates, compounds that strongly help to prevent and treat the toxins that lead to cancer.
Technically, turnips are considered to be a starch vegetable, but they have only about one-third of the number of calories as an equal amount of potatoes. Turnips are one of those foods you can eat a lot of without consuming an abundance of calories and also get a huge nutritional benefit. Turnips are a great source of vitamins B6, C, and E, folic acid, pantothenic acid, manganese, copper, thiamine, niacin, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, and fiber. Turnip greens have all of these same nutrients, but also provide vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin K, and calcium.
Because turnips are so high in calcium, potassium, and vitamin C, it makes turnips a great food for promoting bone health. And, if you add the turnip greens to the mix, the benefit doubles! Vitamin K is a vital vitamin for bone health, for without it, calcium cannot “stick” to the bone and is either excreted or stored elsewhere, which can cause calcification of joints and other such problems.
In addition, turnip greens are a great source of blood-cleansing chlorophyll, which is a great overall cleanser and detoxifier in the body. Turnip greens also have two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, that are essential for optimal eye health. They protect the eyes from problems such as cataracts and macular degeneration. Turnips can also help digestion. Because both the root and the green leaves are high in vitamin C, this food is a great source of antioxidants which, among many other things, helps to prevent cancer, boost immunity, slow aging, and decrease inflammation.
When purchasing turnips, you should look for ones that are firm and smooth, with no obvious signs of mold or decay. Avoid turnips that are soft, shriveled, or overly large, as they will not be as nutritious or tasty. When purchasing the turnip greens, look for ones that are crisp and deep green in color. If you buy turnip greens with the turnip roots attached, remove the root and store them separately in the fridge.