Grape leaves may not be part of the typical American diet, but they are a staple in the cuisine of Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. In these countries, grape leaves are typically steamed and stuffed with rice, ground meat, vegetables and herbs. In a sense, they are as important in the Mediterranean diet as tortillas are in Mexican cuisine, except grape leaves are lower in fat and higher in some nutrients. You can find grape leaves in smaller ethnic grocery stores, and you can be buy them raw, canned or bottled.
Grape leaves are part of Mediterranean cuisine because grape vines thrive in the region. Grapes are made into red and white wines, whereas the leaves have developed into convenient and nutritious wrap for tasty finger foods. In Greece, rice, minced meat, parsley and spices wrapped in grape leaves are called "dolmathes," whereas a similar dish cooked in tomato sauce is called "warak diwali" in Arabic countries. Grape leaves are slightly bitter and not especially appetizing if you eat them raw, which is why they are not typically added to salads. However, once steamed or lightly marinated in some vinegar, grape leaves become much more palatable.
Low in Calories, Fat and Sugar
Like many other leafy greens such as spinach, grape leaves are very low in calories because they contain virtually no fat and almost no digestible carbohydrates or sugar. A handful of grape leaves has less than 30 calories, which is probably less energy than it takes for you to chew, swallow and digest them. Due to the lack of sugar, grape leaves have a very low glycemic index of nearly zero. The glycemic index is a measure of how a food impacts your blood sugar levels and insulin secretion. Consequently, grapes leaves are an excellent choice for diabetics and anyone worried about her weight.
High in Fiber
While grape leaves have virtually no digestible sugars, they are rich in fiber. The type of fiber in grape leaves is primarily insoluble fiber, which is often called cellulose or simply “roughage.” A very small amount of insoluble fiber is digested or fermented in your large intestine by friendly bacteria, but the vast majority of it passes through your gastrointestinal tract undigested. There are some health benefits to consuming insoluble fiber because it cleans your large intestine by bulking stool, and it reduces constipation by promoting regular bowel movements.
Grape leaves are an especially good source of calcium and vitamin A. One-hundred grams of canned grape leaves contain about 290 milligrams of calcium and a little more than 5,000 international units of vitamin A. Calcium is important for strong bones and normal muscle tone, whereas vitamin A is a potent antioxidant that promotes good vision, especially at night. The leaves contain less significant amounts of vitamins B-2, B-3, B-9, C, E and K, as well as iron, magnesium, copper, selenium and manganese.
Grape leaves have been used for many centuries in the Mediterranean region as herbal medicine. Ancient people ate grape leaves to combat a variety of issues including diarrhea, stomach aches, heavy menstrual bleeding, canker sores, liver inflammation and arthritis. Grape leaves contain compounds that are mildly anti-inflammatory, and they are able to reduce edema. Reducing edema is especially important for people with chronic vein problems of the lower legs.
- Superfoods: The Healthiest Foods on the Planet; Tonia Reinhard
- Human Metabolism: Functional Diversity and Integration; J. Ramsey Bronk
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.