Rocket/Arugula: Phytochemicals & ways to enjoy

06 Jul 2023

Rocket leaves, a.k.a arugula, contribute a range of bioactive compounds and add a delightful peppery note to dishes.

In a Nutshell

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Plant Tales

Seed to Leaf: Rocket, also called arugula, salad rocket or garden rocket, is a member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family of plants. It can be harvested from early summer to autumn, but it tends to turn bitter in hot weather, so it’s a summer crop in cooler areas.

Spicy Linguistics: Its scientific name ‘Eruca sativa’ comes from the Latin words ‘uro or ‘urere’, which translates to burn, referring to the hotness and pepperiness of its leaves.

A Roman Aphrodisiac Tale: The plant is native to regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It has been described by 1st-century Roman authors for its aphrodisiac properties. Medicinally, it was used as a diuretic and to improve digestion. (Testai et al. 2022)

Grow your Own! Rocket is considered easy to grow from seed and is ready to harvest in just a few weeks. It’s a compact plant that is great in small spaces and containers, so you can grow it on a balcony, patio or courtyard. Check out this RHS guide or this guide to get children involved.

Human Health

A proud member of the Brassica family: Epidemiological studies have reported beneficial effects of Brassica vegetables on several health outcomes, including a reduced risk of cancer, cardiometabolic diseases and musculoskeletal conditions. (Li et al. 2022; Connolly et al. 2021)

How does it work? Rocket leaves contain a diversity of nutrients and phytochemicals that may contribute to its suggested health benefits, especially:

  • Glucosinolates, such as glucosativin, glucoraphanin and glucoerucin. They are broken down into isothiocyanates and various other compounds that show biological activity.
  • Flavonols, mainly quercetin and kaempferol.
  • Nitrate, which is proposed to increase plasma nitrate and nitrite and help reduce blood pressure.
  • Dietary fibres
  • Micronutrients, especially calcium, iron and vitamins A, C and K

In lab models, rocket extracts (E. sativa) regulate inflammatory pathways, activate apoptotic mechanisms and show hypoglycaemic effects.

Why so peppery? The flavour of rocket leaves is due to the presence of glucosinolates, especially glucosativin and glucoerucin, and their breakdown products.

It’s in the genes: Depending on the genetic makeup of different rocket varieties, the flavour can range from hot and peppery to bitter or even slightly sweet. Our own genes also influence how bitter we taste rocket’s phytochemicals.

Tasty Tips

Around the world

Rocket embraces different identities worldwide. It’s salatrauke in German, eruca in Spanish, roquette in french and rucola in Italian.

Not a fan? Rocket’s peppery flavour may surprise you. Some tips to help you appreciate it:

  • Try younger leaves which are milder, more tender and delicately flavoured. Older leaves develop a stronger, almost bitter flavour, so use them lightly cooked as a spinach substitute.
  • Mix with other greens and pair with contrasting flavours like sweet vegetables, hearty grains, citrus and nutty dressings.
  • Blend it into sauces or soups.

5 ways to enjoy rocket leaves

  1. In salads with mixed greens, roasted vegetables, pulses, chopped nuts and your favourite dressing.
  2. With eggs in omelettes, frittatas and quiches with sweet vegetables, feta cheese and sundried tomatoes.
  3. Blended into pesto and green sauces
  4. As a bed for grilled fish or roasted vegetables
  5. Mixed into pasta with courgettes, fresh herbs, capers, garlic and baby tomatoes.

 4 recipes to try

Dive Deeper

History & cultivation: Britannica – RHS – Testai et al. 2022

Human Health & Compounds: Connolly et al. Front Pharmacol. 2021 - Li et al. 2022 - Testai et al. 2022 – Bell et al. 2021



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