What Is Kale?
Get the scoop on why this leafy green is so popular.
There are few garnishes that have exploded into superstar status quite the way kale has. In the last decade, it’s popped up on restaurant menus from coast to coast in just about any kind of dish: soups, salads, chips, smoothies, pizza, dolmas, even tostadas! This green leafy vegetable is everywhere, but what is kale? And what is it good for?
Breaking Down Greens
Kale is a cruciferous vegetable from the mustard family, which includes vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, but it’s most closely related to cabbage. Like cabbage, its leaves are very tough and, while it’s growing, it can stand up to extreme temperatures–hot and cold. That translates very well in the kitchen: with kale, you can eat your leafy greens year-round, which might be part of the reason people can’t get enough of it.
One of the other reasons kale is so popular is that it’s low in carbs and calories. However, another great reason to consider working it into your meal plans is that it’s super nutrient-dense. That means it contains things like vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates and fiber. Here are five health benefits of kale.
1. Cancer Prevention
Kale contains cancer-fighting phytonutrients–compounds produced by plants which are sometimes called phytochemicals. These compounds may reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Kale contains the polyphenols quercetin and kaempferol and the terpenoids alpha, beta and gamma carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, all of which help protect against cancer. Additionally, the American Cancer Society recommends eating phytochemicals in foods rather than taking supplements, due to their proven effectiveness in the body.
Featured Recipe: Kale Salad with Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing
Kale contains vitamin A, which supports eye health so you can see better for longer. In 2 cups of raw kale, you get 100 mcg of vitamin A, which is about 11% of the Daily Value (DV).
3. Strong Bones
Like spinach, kale contains calcium, which is critical for bone health. Not only that, but it’s also an excellent source of vitamin K, which helps with bone density and reduces the risk of fracture. In 2 cups of raw kale, you get about 160 mcg of vitamin K, or more than 130% DV.
4. Healing & Immunity
Kale is an excellent source of vitamin C, which supports growth, immunity and helps repair wounds. For 2 cups of raw kale, you get 40 mg of vitamin C, which is 44% DV.
5. Heart Health
Eating kale may also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis of eight studies found that eating plenty of leafy green vegetables is associated with a 15% decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Most Common Types of Kale
There are several types of kale you can find at the grocery store, but you can find even more types at the farmers' market if you know what to look for,
Curly kale is, by far, the most common type of kale. It’s what you’ll get with a kale Caesar salad at a restaurant or what comes cleaned and chopped in a bag at the grocery store. It’s dark green with hearty, curly leaves and has woody, fibrous stems that are unpleasant to eat and digest. Most kale recipes you find in books and on the internet are designed around curly kale.
Tuscan kale (also called Lacinato or dinosaur kale) is almost as common as the curly kind. The stems on the Tuscan variety are also woody and fibrous, but the leaves are flatter than curly kale and are puckered like a seersucker suit. Curly and Tuscan kale are, for the most part, interchangeable, but Tuscan kale goes really well in soups.
Chinese kale (or Chinese broccoli) can be challenging to find outside Asian markets. It’s also nothing like Tuscan or curly kale. While you wouldn’t eat the stems on Tuscan and the curly variety, you want to eat the stems on Chinese kale along with the leaves. While you can eat the other types raw or cooked, Chinese kale is best when it’s cooked.
Cooking with Kale
There are many ways to eat this cruciferous vegetable–both raw and cooked. It’s very easy to work with and it’s inexpensive, so it’s good for everyday meals.
Featured Recipe: Kale, Cranberry & Bulgur Salad with Turkey
Kale makes great salads, but the one thing to do to make it tastier and easier to eat is to massage the leaves with olive oil after you’ve removed the stems and chopped it. This does two things: 1) it makes it easier to chew, and 2) it decreases the volume of the leaves so you can eat more of it and benefit from more of its nutrients. EatingWell has a massaged kale recipe to guide you through the process.
Featured Recipe: Kale, Sausage & Pepper Pasta
Cooking kale is great because, like when you massage the raw leaves, it shrinks the leaves but not the nutrients so you can get more out of it nutritionally. It holds up to heat and you can keep it simple by sautéing it with broccoli or incorporating it into a gratin. The other option is to wilt it, which is somewhere between leaving it raw and cooking it. EatingWell’s Kale, Sausage & Pepper Pasta and Skillet Lemon Chicken and Potatoes with Kale both showcase wilted kale very well.
Featured Recipe: Kale Chips
Kale chips can give you that savory snack satisfaction that potato chips do, only with more nutrients. As a bonus, they’re extremely easy to make. No massaging is required; just drizzle the leaves with olive oil and bake.