Eggplant, with regional exceptions of course, tends to get a bad name. Actually it’s had quite a few bad names. For one, when first introduced in Europe it was referred to as mala insane, meaning bad egg, mad apple, or apple of madness. While it’s popular in Indian food, its name baingan in Hindi is often associated with the word begun, which translates to “without merit.” And, of course, the fact that it’s a member of the nightshade family has meant that eggplant has historically been unfairly tied to toxic relatives like deadly nightshade.
But all of that is just plain unfair. More fitting even than it’s English name eggplant, in my humble opinion, is the graceful moniker in French, aubergine, which is also often used to describe the deep, dark purple it wears in many varieties. In fact, the eggplant is not only a delicious food, well beyond the more familiar Italian dishes, but it also has its share of fantastic nutritional value, whether in the rich minerals it holds within or its all around lack of negative qualities.
The eggplant is typically thought of as a big, purple vegetable with ties to Italy, but none of these are entirely accurate. For one, the eggplant isn’t even a vegetable, it’s a fruit, in the same family as the tomato and the pepper, so really more of a berry even. While many varieties are the dark purple, inky color commonly thought of, they come in several shapes and shades, including lighter purple with green patches, creamy white, green, orange and even red. There are Italian varieties, but also Chinese, Thai eggplant, the small Pea eggplant, the Garden Egg, or the Puerto Rican Rosita.
The plant actually originated in the Indian Subcontinent, but it is believed that it was first cultivated in China, and was grown in southern and eastern Asia since ancient times. Eggplant made its way to Africa in the 5th century B.C., and then into Italy, when it then spread throughout Europe.
It wasn’t until the 18th century when new varieties were grown and the eggplant started to become a staple in diet. Due to sometimes-bitter taste, and the above connection to nightshade, it was inaccurately thought of as poisonous or associated with madness and even leprosy. Eventually, however, it grew into a beloved food, especially in India, Italy, Japan, China, Turkey, Greece and France. Indian curry dish Baingan Bharta, Middle Eastern Baba Ghanoush, and of course Eggplant Parmesan are culinary favorites.
Eggplant Nutritional Composition
While it’s true that eggplant is lacking in protein and not as rich in vitamins as other fruits and vegetables, it is actually quite good for you for a host of reasons. In fact, most of us could stand to eat a lot more eggplant and reap some great health benefits.
For one thing, one of eggplant’s dietary strengths is actually what it lacks. It’s a very low-calorie food, with just 20-30 calories per 1 cup serving. By comparison, the same serving of apple is around a hundred calories. So for those watching their caloric intake or trying to lose fat, eggplant can be a filling and satisfying food that doesn’t pack on the pounds. It’s not a major source of protein or carbohydrate, with just 1 and 6 grams of each, respectively. It’s very low in sodium, with just 3 grams per cup, and it’s almost entirely free of fat. All this and the fact that it’s meaty, plump and satisfying should make eggplant a dieter’s favorite.
Another terrific thing about eggplant is that it’s very high in fiber. A cup of raw eggplant delivers around 3 grams of fiber, 10% of the recommended daily value. Fiber is great for improving digestion and a healthy intestinal track, and is associated with lowering rates of colon cancer. Related to the above, fiber is also very filling, meaning again that eggplant makes for a very satisfying food.
For what it’s lacking, eggplant delivers plenty of mineral content with a bunch of great nutritional value. Its most abundant mineral is manganese, of which it packs an impressive 10 grams per cup, 10% of the recommended value. Manganese is a lesser mineral in the body, but it plays an important role, improving fat and carbohydrate metabolism, calcium absorption for bone health, blood sugar regulation, and blood clotting factors. Manganese is also tied to a healthy brain and nervous system, and even production of sex hormones (va-va-voom).
Another mineral eggplant is rich with is potassium, which has a wide range of benefits, not the least of which is helping your heart beat by triggering the organ’s pumping of blood through your veins. Potassium is great for lowering blood pressure, as well as muscle, nerve and kidney health. While not quite as abundant, eggplant contains good amounts of folate, vitamin K, copper, magnesium and phosphorous.
Finally, eggplant contains the made-up-sounding phytonutrients, many of which have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are beneficial to healthy cells, as they sweep up so-called free radicals, or molecules with unpaired electrons that can cause chain reactions and cellular damage. Antioxidants are thought to prevent the formation of certain diseases, particularly formation of cancer cells.
Eggplant is not without its faults. For one, it is true that there are toxic aspects to it. Namely, the leaves and stems, and the fruit when it is immature, contains toxins that can cause illness. Some people are sensitive to eggplant, reporting an upset stomach when eating it. Others report an allergic reaction, including throat and mouth irritation, and some swelling when eating it. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends eggplant not be eaten raw (you wouldn’t really want to), and thorough cooking can reduce some of the irritation.
All in all, eggplant is well on its way to redemption, moving from a neglected and even reviled plant to a staple of modern cuisine. Goodbye mad apple, hello aubergine!