According to kitchen folklore, you can lose weight eating celery because it takes more calories to chew and digest than it contains.
Which gives you a clue that celery doesn’t get much respect.
Celery is related to dill and carrots but unlike dill, where we eat the seeds and leaves or carrots where we eat the roots, celery is known for its stalks, enlarged juicy leaf stems (petioles). Properly, a group of celery leaf stems is called “a stalk,” a single piece is a “rib” and the tender center is the “heart.”
Despite our preference for stalks, the whole plant is edible. Some varieties are grown for the leaves, others for celery seeds, and the root vegetable, celeriac. (See Part 2).
The celery plant is a biennial, growing for one year as just stalk and leaves, flowering, producing seed and dying the second year.
Celery’s scientific name is Apium graveolens, in the plant family Apiaceae, which is named after it and includes dill and carrots. The name celery is derived from its French name, céleri, based on the colloquial Italian sellari, the plural of sellaro. The scientific name, Apium, was also a name for celery in Roman times. It is the plural of their word for bee (apis), presumably indicating bees love the flowers, which look like miniaturized Queen Ann’s lace (wild carrot). The specific epithet, graveolens, means “strongly scented.”
Wild celery, also called smallage (an English name combining of “small” and “ache”), grows in marshy areas from Sweden to India. The wild plants have a rather intense, disagreeable flavor and scent. The Greeks gathered wild celery as a medicine and used it for funeral displays. To say “I think he needs only celery” in ancient Greece was to say “he is dying.” Nevertheless, the victors at the Nemean and Isthmian Games in Greece were crowned with wreaths made of wild celery.
Romans cultivated wild celery, but it was so bitter they used it as a flavoring or garnish, similar to the way we use parsley, not as a vegetable.
Celery the vegetable, much milder than the wild forms, was developed in Italy in the 14th or 15th century. This vegetable was still pretty harsh-tasting, so gardeners covered the growing shoots with soil to make them white rather than green (as is done to make white asparagus. The term for this is blanching although it is quite different from the blanching that is dipping something into boiling water). Blanching reduced the bitter glycoside apiin. They also selected ever-tastier plants until blanching was no longer needed in some varieties. Today much celery is still blanched with soil, but also with paper or black polyethylene.
The Italian Castelvetro wrote in 1614 that celery “has great digestive and generative powers, and for this reason young wives often serve celery to their elderly or impotent husbands.” (p. 132). The tradition that celery enhances sexual potency goes back to the ancient Greeks.
Celery has been used for centuries as a diuretic and to “purify the blood.” I could find little support from authoritative modern sources for its medicinal properties, but it is a nutritious vegetable rich in fiber and vitamins, and so a good diet choice.
Celery has become a weed in parts of the U.S., especially Oregon, California, and Arizona. Wild plants are generally pretty bitter.
Finally, the discussion of whether you burn more calories eating celery than you get from it is ongoing. In 2017 an English reporter ate celery over 12 hours while scientists recorded the calories he used, finding 72-112 calories to eat celery and 53 from the celery. On the other hand, a study of lizards fed celery, carefully measuring the calories taken in and released, concluded the lizards must have gained about 24% of the calories in the celery, which the authors calculated as 19% gain for humans. Neither study is very satisfying—one person? lizards?—so you can go on arguing, but don’t let that blind you to the wonderful flavors and textures available from celery.
Buddemeyer, K. M. A. E. Alexander, and S. M. Secor. March 24, 2019. Negative calorie foods: An empirical examination of what is fact or fiction. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/586958v1.full Accessed 10/1/2019. The lizard study.
Castelvetro, G. 1989. The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy. G. Riley translator. Viking Press, London. Originally 1614.
Invasive Plants Atlas. “Wild celery, Apium graveolens L.” https://www.invasiveplantatlas.org/subject.html?sub=13929
Oxford English Dictionary. 2019. ”celery, n.” and “smallage, n.” OED Online. 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed October 04, 2019).
Rettner, R. 2019. No, Negative-Calorie’ Foods Aren’t a Real Thing, Study Says. April 15, 2019 Health https://www.livescience.com/65233-negative-calorie-foods.html
Riggs, T. J. 1995. Umbelliferous minor crops (Umbelliferae) pp. 481-484 in Evolution of Crop Plants. J. Smartt and N. Simmonds editors. 2nd editon. Longman Scientific and Technical, London.
Storl, W. D. 2016. A Curious History of Vegetables. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA. Online https://publicism.info/gardening/curious/7.html
Vaughan, J. G. and C. A. Geisler. 1997. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Walansky, A. 2017. Study Finally Confirms Eating Celery Burns More Calories Than It Contains https://www.foodandwine.com/fwx/food/study-finally-confirms-eating-celery-burns-more-calories-it-contains 6/22/17 Accessed 10/1/19