A watercress company with a farm near Dorchester wants to improve our healthcare system with its 'superfood' soups. Laura Hanton finds out more about this nutrient-packed leaf.

Watercress has been grown in the UK for centuries. With more than 50 essential vitamins and minerals, it tops several nutritional scales, providing everything from vitamin A and protein to vitamin C, iron and calcium.

The plant has also long been associated with hospitals: Hippocrates is said to have built his first hospital near flowing spring water to ensure a good supply of watercress for his patients, while medieval monks who tended the sick similarly built their monasteries near clear water sources.

With this in mind, The Watercress Company (TWC) - founded more than two decades ago by chairman Peter Old - is introducing its watercress soups and smoothies to the menu at Dorset County Hospital (DCH) in Dorchester. What started as a way to reduce waste is fast becoming a means of boosting nutritional intake among patients.

Tom Amery, MD of TWC, which has a farm at Waddock Cross, near Dorchester, says: "We throw away around 90 tonnes of watercress each year, which is enough for 5.5m portions of soup. We came up with several ideas, but helping the NHS using produce that we would otherwise get rid of made the most sense."

In January this year, the company installed a fridge in the hospital restaurant offering free bags of watercress to patients, staff and visitors; 3,000 packets of the green stuff have since been snapped up. Bringing watercress to the menu is the next step.

"The NHS has a budget of £2.70 per patient per day for both food and drinks," Tom, who was a top fruit grower before joining the company 20 years ago, continues. "We have developed a watercress soup recipe that is affordable and nutrient dense, with high energy and protein levels, plus plenty of vitamins and minerals. The ultimate aim is for fresh soup to be frozen into blocks with all the other ingredients, making the meal preparation simple for catering teams."

The watercress used in the soup on trial has come from UK-grown winter crop not sold in shops, given its large leaves and thick stems. Ideal for soup, however, the watercress is combined with butter, skimmed milk powder, potatoes and other vegetables such as onion or leeks to increase the dish's nutritional benefits.

Exact ingredients are changeable, and the recipe can be altered to cater for intolerances or dislikes.

Speaking about the project, nutritionist Barbara Bray, who last year was awarded an MBE for services to food nutrition, commented: "It’s no easy task for the NHS to look after and feed a vulnerable population with a low budget. This collaboration between TWC and Dorset County Hospital is great to see as it provides a nutrient dense option which supports the needs of so many patients. It would be fantastic to see this extended across the health service, where so many will benefit."

Another advantage of a soup - as opposed to a salad, which TWC initially considered - is that it is palatable, comforting and easy to eat, which is important to consider for those who are elderly or unwell.

Lucy Williamson, a registered nutritionist who has been working closely with TWC ahead of this trial, agrees that older patients in particular may benefit from the watercress soup.

"I've worked with two elderly patients who were suffering from severe malnutrition, and watercress soup really appealed to them," she says. "It was easy for them to eat, and evoked positive memories of their childhoods. It's also full of calcium and Vitamin K, which is essential for strong bones, and rich in PEITC compounds proven to combat cancers."

A former vet, Lucy works to promote a balanced diet to keep healthy people healthy. "It's exciting to be working both in a hospital setting and with British farmers," she says. "I provide evidence-based nutritional advice and ensure they give clear, accurate messages to the public."

With five farms in and around Dorchester - at Waddock Cross, Tincleton West, Tincleton East, Brockill near Briantspuddle and Warmwell - TWC also has five farms in Hampshire and plots in Spain and Florida. The company has worked with universities across the world, leading studies that demonstrate the remarkable health benefits of watercress.

Currently, TWC is working with Northumbria University to investigate whether watercress can reduce the risk of skin cancer, while a previous study at the University of Southampton found that the leaf can help inhibit breast cancer growth by turning off a signal called Hypoxia Inducible Factor (HIF).

Lucy adds: "At the University of Toronto, researchers analysed a variety of foods reported to have a positive impact on mental health. Watercress topped the tables for its antidepressant score."

While DCH is the first trust where the watercress soup is being trialled, if successful, TWC hopes to roll the recipes out across the NHS. Poole is next on the list, and the company has also received interest from hospitals in Birmingham.

TWC is also developing new technology which will help reduce their reliance on single use plastic. The company is going back to the traditional bunches, wrapping them in paper coated in vegetable wax to eliminate the need for plastic packaging.

In addition to its commercial endeavours, TWC works closely with young people and the local community, visiting schools and colleges and attending fetes, festivals and shows. It is a key sponsor of the Alresford Watercress Festival in Hampshire, which celebrates the start of the UK season. This year, the festival falls on Sunday, May 17.

For more information about the company, and to keep up to date on the success of the trial, head to https://www.thewatercresscompany.com/