Watercress: 3 Unique Health Benefits That Will Surprise You

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There is a good chance you think of tea sandwiches when you think of watercress, not health benefits. It does not have the reputation of being a nutrient powerhouse so many of its cruciferous counterparts like broccoli or kale enjoy. But, I promise you, it is every bit as nutritious.

Its grassy, peppery flavor and crisp yet delicate texture make it an appealing add-in to many dishes. And its nutrient profile makes it a nutrient dense food that rivals many other so-called “superfoods.”

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Watercress is full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, water, and fiber. All of which give it some very impressive health-supporting properties.

If you would like to know some of the benefits of adding watercress to your diet, as well as some new ways to enjoy this old favorite, read on.

Nutrient Breakdown of Watercress [1]

As a plant-based food, it also has fiber and other trace amounts of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, some of which are not listed here. Whether listed here or not, each of its nutrients promotes health and wellness.

    One cup of watercress will give you:

  • 1085 IU of Vitamin A,
  • 14.6 mg of Vitamin C,
  • 85.0 mcg of Vitamin K,
  • 49.8 mg of Calcium, and
  • Phytonutrients like quercitin, kaempferol, glucosinolates, coumarin, chlorophyll, and carotenoids. [2]

Health Benefits of Watercress

It Contains Potent Anti-inflammatory Compounds

Eating plenty of anti-inflammatory rich foods is without a doubt one of the most important things you can do to promote lifelong health and wellness. The greater the variety of anti-inflammatory compounds, the greater the benefits.

You can make sure you are getting a variety of anti-inflammatories by eating a variety of foods, of different colors. Adding watercress into your rotation of foods can provide you with much-needed variety and quite a few powerful anti-inflammatory compounds.

While watercress has a number of anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, it is especially rich in kaempferol. [3]

Kaempferol is a flavonol. There is loads of data suggesting eating flavanoids can lower your risk of developing a lot of different diseases. The more flavanols in your diet, the lower your risk of things like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis. They can also reduce some of the symptoms and complications related with existing chronic conditions.

Has Cancer-Fighting Properties

Like many other leafy greens, watercress is believed to play a role in preventing a number of cancers (breast, prostate, and lung, just to name a few) from developing. One of the ways it may prevent cancer is through a group of phytochemicals known as isothiocyanates. They give it its spicy, horseradish-like flavor as well as some of its cancer preventing abilities.

Isothiocyanates are released from the cells of watercress and other cruciferous vegetables when you chew or chop them.[4] They then mount their attack on cancer cells from multiple directions.[5] One way isothiocyanates fight cancer is by stopping cancer cells from establishing their own blood supply. No blood supply, no growth, no spreading.

They can also trigger the death of cancer cells, either by apoptosis or necrosis. This is a big deal. One of the characteristics of cancer cells is their resistance to cell death. Unlike other cells, they are resistant to programmed cell death (apoptosis) and unprogrammed death caused by injury, deprivation, or illness (necrosis). By signaling cancer cells to die, isothiocyanates prevent cancer cells from maturing, multiplying, and forming a tumor.

Additionally, isothiocyanates have been shown to prevent cancer cells from metastasizing. That means isothiocyanates can prevent cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body.

These powerful phytochemicals also hamper cytochrome P450 enzymes, a group of enzymes that play a role in cancer development. These enzymes activate other compounds which could give rise to cancer. With these enzymes inactivated, they cannot turn other chemicals into cancer promoters. On top of all that, isothiocyanates can stop cancer cells from maturing and multiplying, halting their growth.

Protects Cells and DNA from Damage

When there are more free radicals than your body can handle, they cause damage by reacting with and altering cells’ proteins, lipids, and DNA. Damage caused by excess free radicals is believed to be one of the underlying causes of many chronic diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Fortunately, antioxidants squelch free radicals, keeping them from damaging DNA and cells. They can be found in some drinks, supplements, and foods. You can arm your body with the antioxidants it needs to protect itself from free radical damage by eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods. Watercress is one such antioxidant-containing food.

It is a source of quercetin, an antioxidant that has received a great deal of attention in the research world. [6] It prevents oxidative damage both directly and indirectly.

Indirectly, it binds to heavy metals stopping them from creating free radicals. Directly, it stabilizes free radicals so they are not able to react with cells.

Besides quercetin, watercress is also rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, both of which are powerful antioxidants in their own right.

Who Should Avoid Watercress

Though the health benefits of watercress are many and it is generally safe, there are some people who shouldn’t eat it in large amounts.

For the most part, everyone can have it in the amounts normally eaten as food. But medicinal amounts can be dangerous for people with certain conditions.

Medicinal amounts of watercress should be avoided by:

  • pregnant women
  • breastfeeding women
  • children under the age of 4 years old
  • individuals with kidney disease
  • people with stomach or intestinal ulcers
  • those taking warfarin, lithium, or chlorzoxazone[7]

If you are unsure if it is safe for you to eat large amounts of watercress, drink watercress juice, or take watercress supplements, you should check with your healthcare provider.

How to Choose and Store Watercress

Picking watercress is not very different than choosing other leafy greens. You will want to look for:

  • a bright green color
  • crisp leaves
  • supple yet sturdy stems
  • healthy roots, if they’re still attached
  • a soft “fresh-mowed” grass smell when you crush a leaf between your fingers


  • leaves, stems, or roots with signs of rot or insect infestation
  • yellow, brown, or soft leaves
  • wilted leaves

Watercress does not have as long of a shelf life as hardier greens like collard or kale greens. They last only about 2 days in your refrigerator’s crisper. So have a plan for how you will use them and use them as soon as possible.

Some people store them with their stems or roots in a glass of shallow water, in the fridge. This might extend their life a bit. If you will not get a chance to eat or cook them before you think they will go bad, you can always freeze them to add to soups or smoothies at a later date.

Watercress Recipe Ideas

While watercress tea sandwiches are probably the most popular way to eat watercress, tea sandwiches are far from the only way to eat it. Below, you will find a few novel ways to eat this old standby.

You will notice all the suggestions below are ways to use watercress raw or only lightly cooked. That is because some of the nutrients in watercress can be damaged by cooking [4]. To get as many isothiocyanates and other beneficial nutrients out of watercress as possible, opt to enjoy it uncooked.

Here are seven ways to eat more watercress.

As a Spicy Pesto

Switch out half or all the basil from your favorite pesto recipe for a new spin on this classic sauce. You can use it to top pasta, salads, toast, or eggs.

It can also be used as a sandwich spread. And if you are feeling especially adventurous, try it as an alternative to pizza sauce on a homemade pizza.

As a Flavorful Base for a Salad

Watercress can be used as the main salad green or a spicy accompaniment to other salad greens.

As an Add-in for Smoothies

If you like green smoothies, add watercress in place of the usual kale or spinach. It works really well with citrus fruit, watermelon, cucumber, pear, or apple.

As a Sandwich or Hamburger Topping

Watercress makes a great sandwich or hamburger topping. It lends a peppery kick, adding a layer of complexity, texture, and flavor.

Tucked into Tacos

Try watercress in homemade tacos in place of shredded cabbage or lettuce.

Added to an Omelet or Scramble

Chopped Watercress can be added to an omelet or scrambled eggs right before the eggs are done for color, flavor, and nutrients.

Wilted in Soup

Who does not love a hot bowl of soup? Make it even better by adding watercress leaves just before serving to softly wilt them. Try it in chicken noodle soup, beef stew, or pea soup.

No matter how you choose to enjoy this mighty healthy little vegetable, you are sure to reap some great health benefits. So, whether you are looking for a flavorful new leafy green to add some interest to your favorite salad or a way to spice up your morning green smoothie, watercress will not disappoint you.

Consider adding watercress to your regular diet for flavor, vitamins, minerals, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health promoters.

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1. SELFNutritionData.(n.d.). Watercress, raw Nutrition Facts & Calories. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2718/2
2. USDA Food Composition Databases. (n.d.). Basic Report: 11591, Watercress, raw. Retrieved December 03, 2016, https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/3259?fgcd=&manu=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=50&offset=&sort=default&order=asc&qlookup=watercress&ds=
3. Devi, K.P., Malar, D.S., Nabavi, S.F., Sureda, A., Xiao, J., Nabavi, S.M., & Daglia, M. (2015, September). Kaempferol and Inflammation: From chemistry to medicine. Pharmacological Research, 99, 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2015.05.002
4. Linus Pauling Institute. (2016). Isothiocyanates. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/isothiocyanates
5. Cavell, B.E., Alwi, S.S., Donlevy, A., & Packham, G. <2011, February). Anti-angiogenic effects of dietary isothiocyanates: Mechanisms of action and implications for human health. Biochemical Pharmacology, 81(3),327-336. doi:10.1016/j.bcp.2010.10.005
6. Natural Medicines. (2015). Quercetin. Retrieved December 03, 2016 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=294
7.WebMD. (2009). Watercress. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-346-watercress.aspx?activeingredientid=346&activeingredientname=watercress

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About the Author Amanda Roberts

Amanda is a gym instructor and a diet and nutrition fanatic that has reviewed 100s of supplements for the benefit of consumers. She struggled with obesity 7 years ago and after losing more than 30lbs, dedicates most of her time in helping others achieve similar results and transform their lives. You can contact her via the "About Us" page.

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