Artichokes are a versatile food, and although some would consider them a vegetable, they are actually an unusual variety of thistle! For nutritional purposes, they are primarily consumed due their associated benefits of protecting against various forms of cancer, bolstering immune system strength, lowering cholesterol, and protect against diseases such as diabetes, artherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke. Artichokes have also long been famous for detoxifying the body and improving the health of the liver, and aiding in digestive issues like indigestion, constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and diarrhea. Furthermore, this miraculous little thistle can reduce blood pressure, eliminate hangovers, and stimulate urination.
Artichokes are known in their natural form as cardoon, and their scientific classification is Cynara cardunculus, and it is native to the Mediterranean region, which is primarily why artichokes play such a major part of their cuisine on a number of levels. Artichokes can be found throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas, but they are less frequently encountered in Asian nations.
The edible part of the artichokes is buds that form within the flower head, before it fully blooms. Timing is key in cultivating artichokes, as they turn hard and nearly inedible once the flower has fully bloomed. Also, one of the most sought after parts of the thistle is the “heart”, which is the base from which the other buds spring. It is often considered a delicacy, or at least the most delicious part of the plant, and is typically more expensive.
Nutritional Value of Artichokes
Artichokes are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, while being a rich source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. It contains vitamins which include vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin B-6,B-12, A, E, D and vitamin K. Artichokes also provide minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc.
Health Benefits of Artichokes
Cancer Prevention: Artichokes have the highest antioxidant levels out of all vegetables, according to a study done by the USDA, and out of 1,000 plants different types of foods, they ranked #7 in antioxidant content. Antioxidants are one of the primary means of defense for the immune system against the effects of free radicals, natural byproducts of cell metabolism that can lead to a number of dangerous conditions and diseases in the body, including cancer and heart disease, among others. The antioxidant properties of artichokes come from a number of sources, one of which are polyphenols, which are found in high numbers in artichokes. Polyphenols have chemopreventive qualities, which means they can slow down, stop, or completely reverse the effects of cancer in patient. Their antioxidant ability comes from another source as well, their high levels of quercetin and rutin, two specific antioxidants that have been proven to reduce the chances of developing cancer.
Vitamin C is also a well known antioxidant, and it is found in significant levels in artichokes. Vitamin C has been shown to actively discourage conditions like mucositis and fibrosis, and also to reduce the chances of breast cancer. Finally, other studies have shown that the extract from artichoke leaves can be used to induce cell apoptosis (cell death) as well as cell proliferation when injected in cancerous masses, and can reduce the chances for and effects of prostate cancer, breast cancer, and leukemia. Finally, the flavonoids found in artichokes have been found to reduce chances of breast cancer as well. Basically, eat your artichokes if you want to avoid getting cancer!
Heart Health: Aside from its impressive abilities at fighting cancer, artichokes are also considered a heart-healthy addition to your diet for a variety of reasons. Certain ingredients in the leaves of artichokes have been found to reduce the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase the levels of good cholesterol (HDL, or omega-3 fatty acid). Cholesterol is a type of fat that builds up within the arteries of the cardiovascular system, blocks blood flow, increases blood pressure, and can lead to potentiall fatal heart attacks and strokes. Any method of reducing bad cholesterol is worthwhile, so give artichokes a chance at improving your heart health.
Blood Pressure: On a related note, artichokes are rich sources of potassium, the essential mineral that has an impact on numerous organ systems throughout the body. Potassium helps to neutralize the effects of excess sodium, which is notorious for increasing blood pressure. Artichokes therefore act as a vasodilator and is particularly useful for those already taking hypertension medicine to prevent the effects of potassium deficiency. Diabetics are also encouraged to eat artichokes to prevent the complications associated with blood pressure and that disease. Finally, a reduction in blood pressure can reduce the chances of heart attacks and coronary heart disease!
Liver Health: Artichokes were used as traditional liver tonics for centuries, but the exact mechanism of their impact was never full understood until modern science could properly research this versatile plant. Two antioxidants (again!) found in artichokes, cynarin and silymarin, have been shown to improve the overall health of the liver by reducing the presence of toxins and facilitating their elimination from the liver and the body. Some studies have even shown these antioxidants to actively promote regrowth and repair of damaged liver cells, which is one of the slowest organs in the body to regenerate. It seems that modern medicine finally caught up with what traditional medicine has known for generations!
Digestive Issues: Artichokes are a rich source of dietary fiber, which is one of the most beneficial nutritional staples for improving the health and functionality of your digestive system. Fiber adds bulk to the food you eat, which helps to keep your bowel movements regular and normal, and decreasing the symptoms of constipation, fiber can reduce chances of a variety of stomach and intestinal cancers, as well as bloating, cramps, excess flatulence, and general discomfort in the stomach. Furthermore, if you have problems with loose stool or diarrhea, fiber can absorb excess liquid and form healthy, predictable bowel movements in patients. Fiber also acts as a clean up crew for excess LDL cholesterol, thereby cleaning your arteries and further reducing your chances of heart disease.
Another extra benefit of artichokes in terms of digestion is its impact on the gallbladder. Artichokes soothe inflamed gallbladders and can solve the common problem of a blocked duct in the organ, thereby allowing normal function. Therefore, in a way, artichokes can be said to stimulate the production and secretion of gastric juices, as well as bile, which also aids in smooth digestion.
Hangover Cure: As mentioned earlier, artichokes can be a great salve to the liver, and can reduce any blockage, as well as reduce the levels of toxins in the blood by eliminating them quickly from the body. Therefore, artichokes make for a perfect hangover cure, and some people choose to chew on a few artichoke leaves after a night of heavy drinking!
Birth Defects: As if all of these other health benefits weren’t enough, artichokes even help pregnant women have healthy, normally-formed children. The high levels of folic acid found in artichokes can prevent neural tube defects from occurring in newborns. The neural tube closure process in vitro requires a certain amount of folate to occur properly, so folic acid is an essential part of a pregnancy diet.
Bone Health: Artichokes are one of the best foods on the market for acquiring vitamins and minerals, particularly minerals like magnesium, phosphorous, and manganese. These minerals are essential parts of increasing bone health and density, thereby reducing the chances of conditions like osteoporosis.
Metabolic Functions: Magnesium and Manganese are both essential parts of the body’s metabolic processes, and they are also found in significant amounts in artichokes. Magnesium is an important part of protein synthesis throughout the body, as well as optimizing the intake of calcium by the body, further strengthening bones. Manganese is slightly more involved than magnesium, and it impacts the metabolic rates of cholesterol, amino acids, and carbohydrates.
Brain Function: There are a number of aspects of artichokes that make them beneficial for brain health, including their quality as a vasodilator that allows more oxygen to reach the brain for elevated cognitive function, for phosphorous an essential mineral that is found in artichokes and is also packed into brain cells. Phosphorous deficiencies have been associated with a serious decline in cognitive ability, so if you want to keep your brain healthy and firing on all cylinders, eat the next artichoke you see!
Artichokes- Serving Suggestions
Before cooking artichokes, wash and cut the little thorns which are at the end of the leaves. Also cut the excess steam as that may be bitter in taste. Artichokes can be cooked in a pan of water, you may also add herbs and spices for added flavour. Once cooked it can be eaten hot or cold. It can be served with dips and sauces.
A Few Words of Caution: Although these benefits seem tremendous, there are dangers connected to almost any food item, and it is important to do your research. Some people are sensitive to the effects of artichokes due to allergies, particularly in terms of artichoke leaf extract, since it is in such a concentrated form. Since artichokes are technically a thistle, not a vegetable, they are closely related to ragweed, daisies, marigolds, or chrysanthemums. Many people who suffer from those allergies might also have a bad experience with artichokes.
Those patients with liver disease or gallbladder conditions already should not begin adding artichokes to their diet because they can exacerbate certain negative aspects of the disease. It should be used as a preventative method for liver and gallbladder disease, not a cure. Finally, it does make people urinate more frequently, so if you already suffer from an overactive bladder, artichokes could make that minor condition even worse.
Other than those specific warnings, artichokes are a valuable and irreplaceable element of cuisine; eat up and stay healthy!