Artichokes Aren’t Easy to Prep But They Are Nutrition Stars

| 16 Feb 2024 | 03:16

Some 99.9 percent of all commercially grown artichokes in the United States come from California. Artichokes are truly California’s vegetable. But that doesn’t mean they are free and easy or laid back.

It’s such a prickly vegetable, that it prompts some to ask: is eating an artichoke worth the effort? After all, like the lobster that hides its succulent meat in tiny nooks and crevasses or the pistachio nut whose shells can crack your teeth, the artichoke may be a mealtime challenge.

Start with those spikey leaves with the itty-nitty chunk of tasty flesh at the tip. Then there’s the hidden heart you must excavate like an archeologist digging for treasure, which it certainly is. The USDA describes a plain medium one as a nutrition star whose fleshy leaf tips and heart clock in at 64 calories with virtually no fat but almost as much dietary fiber as one cup of instant oatmeal, plus another 4 grams complex carbs, nearly 10 percent of the vitamin C an adult requires each day, about 14 percent of the daily potassium essential for nerve and muscle function, and a smidgen of iron. After that, how’s this for a bonus? Artichokes contain cynarin, a sweet-tasting compound that dissolve in water, including your saliva, to sweeten the flavor of anything you eat next.

Like other nutritious foods, artichokes offer the possibility of specific health benefits. Data from one study still in the early stages suggest that the potassium in artichoke leaf juice may help regulate mildly elevated blood pressure, thus lowering the risk of hypertension, heart disease and stroke. It also seems to help lower cholesterol levels, a fact remaining to be conclusively proven before your doctor hands you artichokes instead of statins for your own cholesterol control. Last, not least but also still early, a few reports appear to show that eating artichokes may improve liver function for patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

But nothing’s perfect. While artichokes have only a small amount of fat, some of their oils may trigger contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals. In addition, artichokes contain peroxidases, naturally occurring compounds that interfere with the active ingredient in the test for hidden blood in the stool. In other words, if you take this test after eating artichokes, the result might be a false positive, indicating colon cancer where none exists. But now that you’ve been warned, you know not to eat artichokes a few days before the test. Right?

Which brings us to the main event: How to get through to all the goodness. which generally sticks to meds not menus lays it out clean and simple: “Rinse the artichoke and then cut off the stem. Open the petals up a little bit, and then steam the artichoke for 30 to 40 minutes. Once your artichoke has been steamed, you have a few different options for eating it. Some people choose to peel away the petals of the artichoke and only eat the center, or ‘heart’ [but] to get the full health benefits, you can pull the leaves off the artichoke and scrape off the meaty part with your teeth.”

By the way, the word artichoke here means the globe artichoke, i.e. Cyanara scolymus, a botanical surprise. We may consider it a veggie but it’s actually a flower bud. Left on the vine it would eventually mature into a bright purple blossom. The Jerusalem artichoke, aka the sunchoke, is a totally unrelated plant, the crisp edible root of a cousin to the American sunflower that can be served raw or boiled, mashed, baked, or fried. Its abundant fruit sugar (fructose) lends a sweet taste, but it does not match the globe’s nutrients.

And to answer the question posed at the top of this story, yes, the globe is definitely worth the effort.