I know that artichokes can seem a little intimidating when you first encounter them at the supermarket. I must admit, often, when my kids ask to buy them at the store, I make up an excuse why I don't have time to prepare them because the task seems daunting- but truly they are an amazing vegetable, and while a bit more labor intensive than say broccoli or green beens, totally worth it. Not only are they delicate yet packed with flavor, they are mighty superfoods too.
The globe artichoke derives its common name from the northern Italian words articiocco, meaning a pine cone. The artichoke is a perennial in the thistle group of the sunflower family and is believed to be a native of the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. In full growth, the plant spreads to cover an area about six feet in diameter and reaches a height of three to four feet. The vegetable that we eat is actually the plant’s flower bud. If allowed to flower, the blossoms measure up to seven inches in diameter and are a beautiful violet-blue color.
Artichokes are available twelve months a year with the peak season in the spring and fall. Today most artichokes grown worldwide are cultivated in France, Italy, and Spain, while California provides nearly 100 percent of the United States crop.
People around the world love to eat artichokes, particularly in the Mediterranean; and as we know, the Mediterranean diet is healthy, clean, ultra-nutritious, and supremely flavorful. As are artichokes- from the leaves to the heart, artichokes are simply mouth-watering. However, you might not be aware of the humble artichoke’s position as a nutrient powerhouse and the amazing health benefits you can have simply by adding this veggie to your diet.
Here are, what I have found, the some of best and most unexpected ways that artichokes can positively impact your health.
Artichokes are a superfood, which I know is a term that is over-used these days, but however artichokes are one of the originals! The phytonutrients in artichokes provide potent antioxidant benefits, and a 2006 study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a serving of artichokes provides greater antioxidant benefits per serving than many other foods traditionally considered to be antioxidant-rich such as dark chocolate, blueberries and red wine (though I am partial to red wine). Anthocyanins, quercetin, rutin, and many other antioxidants contained in fresh artichokes offer a range of health benefits ranging from cancer prevention and immune support to protection against heart disease.
There are a number of environmental and lifestyle factors which can cause oxidation of our cells, leading to cellular damage which can compromise the body’s ability to protect itself against disease and further toxins. The simple functions and processes that our body undergoes on a daily basis often produce compounds which are known as free radicals as a by-product stop. These free radicals, when left unchecked and unbalanced, can cause significant stress on our cells and lead to the kind of oxidative damage described above.
This was a surprise to me until I did my research:
In order, a list of the 10 most anti-oxidant rich foods:
- 1 cup artichoke hearts
- 1 cup cranberries
- 1 ounce pecans
- 1 cup blueberries
- 8 ounce grape juice
- 1 ounce unsweetened baking chocolate
- 3.5 ounces red wine
- 8 ounces fresh orange juice
- 1 kiwi
- ½ cup red bell pepper
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines published by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services recommend that men consume between 30 and 38 g of dietary fiber per day, and that women consume between 21 and 25 g per day. Currently, the average American consumes roughly half this amount, leading to many potential health effects such as an increased risk of gut-related diseases and colonic cancer. One large (120 g) artichoke provides a massive 10.3 g of dietary fiber, making them a powerful tool for helping to not just keep you regular but also to improve your digestive health overall.
However, the digestive benefits of artichokes are not limited just to their fiber content.
German doctors have long recommended artichoke leaf extract as a gentle remedy for indigestion and upset stomach. This may be due to a compound found in artichokes called cynarin which has been shown to increase the production of bile, helping to speed up the movement of food and waste through the intestines and reduce feelings of bloating. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Berlin with 247 individuals showed that 86% reported a improvement of symptoms such as bloating and flatulence after using an artichoke leaf extract supplement.
One of the major sources of fiber found in artichokes is inulin, which is a prebiotic. Prebiotics can increase the proportion of probiotics or ‘good bacteria’ in the gut.
In a 2001 study conducted by the University of Denver, 143 patients suffering from high levels of total blood cholesterol and were administered with artichoke leaf extract each day for a period of six weeks. When compared to placebo the artichoke leaf extract showed a clear reduction of around 20% “bad” LDL cholesterol and 18% total blood cholesterol; the group taking the placebo reduced their total cholesterol level by around 8%.
Douglas Schar, DipPhyt, MCPP, MNIMH suggests “[...] trying a natural remedies artichoke extract to decrease cholesterol levels before taking prescription drugs. Artichokes supplements are free of side-effects, and in my clinical experience, artichoke is a highly effective cholesterol reducer.”
Brain and Cognitive Benefits
Consuming one artichoke, provides around 12% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K.
This vitamin may offer protection against neuronal damage and degeneration, thus helping to keep cognitive diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease at bay. In a study published by the journal Nutrients, researchers found that eating a diet that included more vitamin K was associated with better cognition in elderly people.
Artichokes, as well as artichoke extracts from the leaves and stems of the plant have been historically recommended for liver health. Ongoing research seems to indicate that artichokes have qualities that may protect the liver and decrease blood lipids, such as cholesterol, in the body. Among the most powerful phytonutrients in artichokes, cynarin and silymarin have strong positive effects on the liver.
As already established, the antioxidant protection that some of the phytonutrients in artichokes can provide, but the cancer prevention benefits extend beyond this. Research suggests that phytonutrients found in artichokes can interfere with estrogen receptors and help to blunt the release of PSA. This suggests a great deal of promise in the use of artichoke leaf extract for the prevention and treatment of prostate cancer in men.
Artichokes provide around 107 mpg (micro grams) of folic acid per serving, which is more than a quarter of the daily recommended amount. Women who are pregnant or attempting to conceive should consume even more folic acid, since it can be instrumental in preventing neural tube defects in developing embryos, as well as increasing fertility in both men and women. Also, folic acid has been linked to prevention of other complications that can occur during pregnancy and childbirth, including pre-eclampsia, cleft lips, and congenital heart defects. The list of pregnancy-related health benefits attributed to folic acid is extensive and growing, so artichokes are a fantastic addition to the diet any pregnant woman or nursing mother.
Artichokes are excellent sources of potassium, and foods high in potassium such as bananas, sweet potatoes, and of course artichokes help to maintain a healthy balance of electrolytes within the body. Consuming plenty of potassium and magnesium is essential for offsetting the potentially harmful effects of consuming too much sodium (note that I said sodium here, not salt- remember most of the sodium in your diet likely comes from processed foods, not cooking with salt- which you should do!) and in particular can help to prevent or combat hypertension or high blood pressure.
As stated earlier, artichokes are a great source of Vitamin K. Another interesting benefit of vitamin K is the role that it plays in the formation of bones and the general support of ongoing bone health.
Artichokes also contain Vitamin C which, as well as being well known for its immune-boosting properties, is also directly involved in the formation of a protein known as collagen. Collagen is essential for the health of our skin, bones, and connective tissues.
Magnesium and potassium are also crucial building blocks of many tissues throughout the body, with magnesium helping to enhance the uptake and absorption of calcium. This quite clearly suggests further bone and joint health benefits offered by artichokes.
Another interesting and highly beneficial nutrient found in artichokes is manganese, which is used in the metabolism of cholesterol, amino acids, and fatty acids, making it absolutely essential in enabling the body to correctly utilise the nutrients in the foods we eat.
If you are trying to lose weight or maintain you weight in a healthy manner, optimising your metabolism should be one of the top priorities, and the manganese content of artichokes excellent tool to add to your arsenal for this purpose.
How to Buy an Artichoke
So hopefully after all of that, you are sold that artichokes are good for you. Now lets tackle the scary vegetable. Artichokes in the stores come in many varieties. Canned, jarred, fresh regular sized and mini. Artichokes are one of those ingredients (like hearts of palm) where it might just be easier to purchase prepared as they maintain a fair amount of their nutrients. However, you do sacrifice in flavor so if you are feeling adventurous, go for the fresh artichoke and follow the not quite so scary instructions below on how to prepare them.
If you do go the processed route though, try to find organic versions and make sure that they are packed in water, not oil! The ingredient list should pretty much just say artichokes, water, salt and maybe citric acid. I find hearts are best whole as quartered tend to be a bit mushy, and make sure to drain them well before you use them.
When you are at the market selecting fresh artichokes, select globes that are deep green, with a tight leaf formation, and those that feel heavy for their size. A good test of freshness is to press the leaves against each other which should produce a squeaking sound. Browning of the tips can indicate age, but can also indicate frost damage.
Fall and winter artichokes may be darker or bronze-tipped or have a whitish, blistered appearance due to exposure to light frost. This is called “winter-kissed.” Look for tender green on the inside of petals. Many consider these frosted artichokes to be the most tender with intense flavor. Avoid artichokes which are wilting, drying or have mold.
One medium to large artichoke will yield approximately 2 ounces of edible flesh.
How To Store an Artichoke
To store fresh artichokes at home, sprinkle them with a little water and refrigerate in an airtight plastic bag. Do no wash before storing. They should last a week when stored properly. Once you have prepped and trimmed an artichoke, place it is slightly acidified water (lemon or vinegar) in order to prevent oxidation and discoloration.
Artichokes can be used in many different ways such as simply stamina, roasting or in a multitude of Mediterranean dishes. Additionally, they are used in herbal teas throughout Asia, Eastern Europe, and Mexico and in liquer (Cynar, which is produced by the Campari Group, is popular in Europe).
No matter how you choose to consume your artichokes, don't be afraid of them next time you see them at your supermarket! Check back in the next couple days for a hack on how to prep and cook artichokes.