What you see: Yellowing arugula leaves.
What it is: The leaves are breaking down chlorophyll as they age.
Eat or toss? Eat! Nothing unsafe happening here, but once some of your arugula flashes the yellow card, it’s time to hurry up and eat the rest. As it loses green, it loses nutritional value too.
So, is it OK to eat yellow arugula? Here’s the story.
Your arugula breathes. Technically, respires, but, in any event, its cells take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide,* even as the leaves look to be lying perfectly still in their plastic clamshell container.
All plants respire, even after we harvest them, but leaves (like arugula) tend to do so particularly quickly. This is because the mission of a leaf is typically to grow fast and not concern itself with slowing down and storing things for later (unlike, say, a potato).
A fast-breathing arugula leaf ages much faster than the plodding potato. This is because with every “breath” the arugula is putting more of its internal plant machinery into motion and using more of its limited nutrient stash. And, since it’s now cut off from the rest of the plant, its stash can’t be replenished.
The arugula is also no longer enjoying bright lights that justify keeping its photosynthesizing engines going.
“The plant’s saying, ‘I don’t need all this expensive light-harvesting energy because it’s dark,'” said Jim Monaghan, director of the Fresh Produce Research Centre at Harper Adams University. “‘I need to stay alive. I need to start redistributing.'”
So, the cells start breaking down chlorophyll into smaller components that can more easily be used. When the chlorophyll is broken down, the leaf’s signature hue fades to yellow.
Thus we’re left with yellowing leaves. The process, called senescence, is what you see on fall trees—except that the leaf deliberately sends nutrients back into the rest of the tree before it naturally falls off.
“Senescence is self-programmed cell death,” Monaghan said. “It’s meant to break down and recirculate to the rest of the plant.”
Yellow arugula is safe, but ideally you’ll eat it while it’s still green
Yellowing indicates nutrient breakdown, which also means fewer nutrients are available to us leaf-eaters. But in terms of our human diets, the change indicated by a few yellowing leaves is pretty marginal and shouldn’t cause you to abandon your arugula. Instead, consider it a hint to hurry up and make some salad.
And if you want to get all official about it, consider that agricultural standards set by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe consider “slight defects in colouring” to be a nonissue.
To stave off yellowing, keep your arugula chilly (but not frozen!) to slow aging. (Sorry, however, to report that sleeping in a fridge does not slow the human aging process).
*Yes, takes in oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. That’s respiration. Photosynthesis, a different process, takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. The Royal Society of Chemistry has more.
- Jim Monaghan. Director of the Fresh Produce Research Centre. Harper Adams University. Newport, Shropshire. United Kingdom.
- UNECE Standard FFV-58 concerning the marketing and commercial quality control of leafy vegetables. 2017 Edition. Working Party on Agricultural Quality Standards of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
- Quality and Post Harvest Physiology of Rocket Leaves. Fresh Produce. Global Science Books. Anastasios S. Siomos and Athanasios Koukounaras. University of Thessaloniki.
- Quality Changes during Storage of Spinach and Lettuce Baby Leaf. Acta horticulturae. November 2010. A. Spinardi, G. Cocetta, V. Baldassarre, A. Ferrante and I. Mignani. Dipartimento di Produzione Vegetale, University of Milano
- Colour changes of fresh-cut leafy vegetables during storage. Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment Vol.2 (3&4) : 40-44. 2004. A. Ferrante1, L. Incrocci, R. Maggini, G. Serra and F. Tognoni. Dipartimento Produzione Vegetale, University of Milan.
- Chemistry for Biologists. Gas exchange. Royal Society of Chemistry.
When the arugula signal turns yellow, hurry up and eat!