Research & Education

Parsnips - A Root Vegetable Worth a Second Look


What are those yellow-white root vegetables that look like thick gnarly carrots but aren’t carrots? They’re parsnips and they’re a wonderful addition to hearty winter meals. Parsnips have a unique “earthy” flavor not unlike that of beets. They’re a little on the bitter side but cooking brings out their natural sweetness—roasting in particular.

Parsnips belong to the Apiaceae botanical family which also includes carrots celery cilantro dill fennel parsley and many other edible plants. Parsnips have a respectable nutrient profile. They’re a good source of vitamin C vitamin K folate potassium and manganese. Compared to leafy greens parsnips are higher in carbohydrate but compared to other starchy roots and tubers such as potatoes yams and yucca they’re relatively low. A 100-gram serving contains 18g of total carbohydrate 5g of which are fiber making for a low glycemic load. For this reason parsnips have become popular as a potato substitute among people looking to reduce the total carbohydrate load of their diet. They can be made into fries and even into crispy chips for healthier snacking. They also make a great lower-carb alternative to mashed potatoes—especially for people who are tired of using cauliflower as a substitute.

Parsnips are often paired with their orange lookalikes carrots and recipes sometimes call for honey as another way to tone down the bitterness. They also pair well with other earthy roots and tubers such as turnips and rutabaga. Another popular way to prepare parsnips is roasted or boiled and then blended or pureed into a soup.

These vegetables are available year-round but their prime season is winter when cold growing conditions result in higher conversion of their starch to sugar. Like other root vegetables parsnips have a long shelf life and will stay fresh for weeks in the refrigerator and even longer in a root cellar. Large thick parsnips are woodier and tougher than smaller ones so look for smaller ones when purchasing them.

Aside from their culinary uses parsnips contain bioactive polyacetylenes that may have cytotoxic effects against certain cancer cell lines as well as help to inhibit platelet aggregation and possibly also have anti-inflammatory effects. One of the compounds in parsnips (as well as in figs celery and citrus fruits) is psoralen. Like many other phytochemicals psoralen and the polyacetylenes in parsnips can be considered “natural pesticides” which are toxic to fungi and bacteria and in certain concentrations may also be toxic to mammalian cells. However these chemical defense mechanisms may have hormetic effects such that small amounts of them are beneficial for specific health concerns similar to the bitter and sulfurous compounds in cruciferous vegetables.

In larger concentrated doses psoralens have been used in topical treatments for recalcitrant skin conditions such as eczema psoriasis and vitiligo. Psoralen has photoactive—and possibly photo-carcinogenic—properties that affect the skin. In the past psoralen was used as a “suntan activator” in tanning lotions but it has since been banned as an additive in several countries due to concerns about increased risk for melanoma in individuals who used psoralen-containing tanning products compared to tanners who used other products.

However the amount of psoralen individuals consuming parsnips or other psoralen-containing foods would be exposed to is miniscule compared to the highly concentrated amounts used in pharmacological applications and people should not be fearful of consuming these foods. As alluded to earlier as is the case with other phytochemicals that can be considered “toxins” and which are edible plants’ ways of protecting themselves against fungi and insect predation the small amounts humans are exposed to via consuming these foods may exert a beneficial hormetic effect.

Consider combining parsnips with onions carrots fennel and other roots and bulbs in a large roasting pan under a whole chicken turkey beef or pork roast. The vegetables will roast in the meat drippings creating a mouthwatering side dish right there in the same pan—no extra work required and only one pan to wash!