What Artichokes Are Really Hiding Under All Those Layers5 years ago | Nutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
The artichoke is one of the world’s oldest medicinal plants. They were seen in ancient Egyptian writings as a symbol of fertility and sacrifice. Ancient Greeks and Romans used this plant as a digestive aid. And reportedly in 16th century Europe, the artichoke was favored as a food by royalty.
In 1947, Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe was crowned as California’s first Artichoke Queen.
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom declared the artichoke as the official state vegetable of California in 2013.
But an artichoke is not really a vegetable. It is a variety of thistle native to the Mediterranean region and a member of the sunflower family. Vegetable or not, it’s fitting that Newsom made the artichoke California’s “veggie,” considering nearly 100% of the U.S.’s supply of artichokes comes from California.
If artichokes are left to grow wild, they blossom into large purple flowers and are no longer edible. They are available all year, and the peak seasons are spring and fall. There are different artichoke varieties, but the one you will most likely find at your local grocery store or farmers’ market is the Green Globe artichoke.
Artichokes are such a fun food to eat. Both the leaves and heart of the plant are edible, providing different flavors and textures for your tastebuds in just one simple plant food.
More importantly, eating artichokes may deliver some great benefits for your health.
Artichokes may help fight cancer.
Artichokes are rich in antioxidants, particularly polyphenols, quercetin and rutin.
- “Polyphenols are a category of chemicals that naturally occur in plants. There are more than 500 unique polyphenols. Collectively, these chemicals are known as phytochemicals,” according to Medical News Today. Polyphenols are known to help fight inflammation and cell damage that can lead to cancer. They may also have a beneficial effect on gut bacteria by acting as a prebiotic.
- Quercetin. “Among the flavonoids [a specific category of polyphenols] in the human diet, quercetin is one of the most important,” reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “In the last decades, several anticancer properties of quercetin have been described, such as cell signaling, pro-apoptotic [promoting cell death], anti-proliferative and anti-oxidant effects, growth suppression.”
- Rutin. Another flavonoid known to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. It may also help your body produce collagen and use vitamin C.
Artichokes may help lower your cholesterol.
Artichokes are cholesterol-free and contain very little saturated fat.
They contain a compound called cynarin, mostly concentrated in the leaves. Cynarin may encourage the liver to produce more bile, and bile plays a key role in helping the body get rid of excess cholesterol. Bile also helps your body digest fats and absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. The funny thing is your body actually needs cholesterol to make bile. Cholesterol is a necessary substance produced by the body. You just want to make sure your cholesterol level is not too low or high.
There are over-the-counter (OTC) artichoke leaf extracts that may help lower your cholesterol, but it is best to speak with a competent healthcare professional before you use these OTC products (especially if you are already taking medication).
If you have or are prone to bile duct obstructions, speak with your doctor before you add artichoke to your diet.
Artichokes may help with liver health.
Artichokes also contain an antioxidant called silymarin, which may help treat liver diseases and prevent liver damage.
“In chronic liver diseases caused by oxidative stress (alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases, drug- and chemical-induced hepatic toxicity), the antioxidant medicines such as silymarin can have beneficial effect,” (NIH).
Cynarin is also believed to have detoxifying and protective effects on the liver. (Cynarin may also help promote healthy digestion).
Some reports say that both of these antioxidants may even help prevent hangovers due to their liver-protecting properties, but we suggest just drinking in moderation!
Artichokes may enhance cognitive function.
Artichokes have natural vasodilating properties, meaning they can open and widen (dilate) the blood vessels. There are several drugs called vasodilators that are used to treat conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease.
Some reports say vasodilators also increase oxygen flow to the brain, improving cognitive function.
Artichokes may help regulate blood sugar.
Many reports praise artichoke leaf extract for its ability to lower fasting blood glucose. This may be particularly useful for people who are prediabetic.
As always, consult your doctor before you use artichoke leaf extract.
Now let’s take a closer look at the nutritional value of one medium-sized artichoke (cooked, boiled, drained, without salt):
- Calcium, 25 mg. Calcium is important for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. This mineral is also important for maintaining hair and nail health in perimenopausal and menopausal women. Adequate calcium intake may also decrease your risk for colorectal cancer.
- Magnesium, 50 mg. This mineral is needed by more than 300 human body enzymes to facilitate biochemical reactions. It helps create energy for the body and activates muscle and nerve tissues by enabling potassium and calcium transfer through your cell membranes. If magnesium levels in the body are too low, whole body systems don’t work properly, resulting in fatigue and cramps.
- Phosphorus, 88 mg. Adults 19 and older usually need about 700 mg of phosphorus daily. This mineral often does not get the credit it deserves, but it does so much for your body. Phosphorus is almost as abundant in your body as calcium and helps calcium build strong bones and teeth. Phosphorus is also important for how your body stores and uses energy, repairs cells and is needed to make proteins like the one responsible for the oxygen-carrying capabilities of our red blood cells.
- Potassium, 343 mg. Potassium may help lower blood pressure by balancing out negative effects of salt. According to Harvard Health, “[w]hen it comes to fighting high blood pressure, the average American diet delivers too much sodium and too little potassium. Eating to reverse this imbalance could prevent or control high blood pressure and translate into fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease.”
- Sodium, 72 mg. When it comes to enzyme operations and muscle contractions, an electrolyte like sodium is SUPER important! Sodium regulates the blood and protects the body from body function impairment. Sodium also regulates body fluids, while transmitting electrical impulses in the body.
- Folate, 107 mcg. Most adults need about 400 mcg of folate daily. If you are pregnant, you may need more. Folate is essential for cell growth and many other bodily functions.
- Choline, 41.3 mg. Choline is a nutrient that was recognized as an essential nutrient by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1998. “The importance of choline in the diet extends into adulthood and old age. In a study of healthy adult subjects deprived of dietary choline, 77% of the men and 80% of the postmenopausal women developed signs of subclinical organ dysfunction (fatty liver or muscle damage)," reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Ways to prepare artichoke?
I don’t know about you, but artichokes are one of those foods I’m a bit intimidated to prepare.
But we can do this. I promise!
To begin, when picking your artichokes go for the heaviest and firmest ones. They should be nice and green and not look dehydrated. The leaves (sometimes called petals) should still be closed.
As mentioned, the leaves and heart of the artichoke are both edible. Some people tend to go more for the heart, because it is juicy and tender. But the leaves are where more of the nutrients are concentrated, so don’t discard the leaves!
Steaming artichokes is a great way to preserve the nutrients. For a useful guide, check out How to Eat a Cooked Artichoke. This guide gives step by step instructions on how to cook an artichoke.
And the American Diabetes Association has a great Roasted Stuffed Artichoke recipe.
All you need are:
- 6 cups water
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 2 large fresh artichokes
- 2 slices whole wheat bread
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
This would make a great, healthy side when you have company over or want a snack in between meals. You can also grill artichokes for a simple side dish.
Artichokes also make a wonderful pizza topping, and the hearts of the artichoke are a great way to perk up everyday salads.
Are there any downsides to eating artichokes?
Artichokes appear to be overall safe to eat. Just proceed with caution and talk to a doctor if you have gallstones and/or are taking any medications. You always want to avoid drug interactions so that you will be healthy and your medication will be effective.
And artichokes may cause an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to the Asteraceae/Compositae families of plants, which include ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds and daisies.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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