The Amazing Artichoke!

Article by Donna Hargrove, D.O., Nutrition Editor

Few vegetables can compete with the artichoke for providing large amounts of phytonutrients, minerals and fiber. Its GI health benefits have been known for centuries, yet the artichoke is still a mystery to many people.

History:

Humans have been eating artichokes, Cynara scolymus, for more than 3000 years.Its true origin may not be known but it is thought to have come from North Africa where it still grows wild. The cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, a naturally occurring variant, is native to southern Mediterranean areas. Globe artichokes, the most common variety, are known to have been cultivated in Naples around the 9th century. The fall of Rome is considered the reason for the disappearance of the artichoke until it’s rebirth in Italy in the 15th century. Catherine de Medici, who was married to King Henry ll of France, is credited with bringing the artichoke from her native Italy to France. The Dutch brought the artichoke to England, coming to the US in the 19th century to Louisiana by French immigrants and to California by Italian immigrants.

Cultivation:

The artichoke, a thistle plant and part of the sunflower family, is actually the flower bud. The bud is surrounded by petals with tiny thorns and contains the meaty core, or heart, and is topped with a fuzzy center, or choke. The petals and heart are edible, but the choke part is not eaten. This is not a mass produced crop, as planting and harvesting are done strictly by hand. The first artichokes are ready to harvest about 6 months after planting, with the largest ones at the top and smaller ones farther down the stems. Each artichoke must be hand cut at the proper size for shipping. Each pant may be harvested up to 30 times in a season. Most plants are able to produce for 5-10 years before replanting is required.

The artichoke is an important winter vegetable in Mediterranean cultures, with the main producers being Italy, Spain and France. In the US, California commercially produces 100% of the US crop, where they can be produced all year in various southern regions of the state, with the peak season being spring. The self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world, Castroville, CA, population less than 7,000, produces 80% of all US artichokes and holds an annual artichoke festival, which was started in 1959.

Nutrition Factoids:

The amount of antioxidants in each artichoke is one of the highest reported (fourth out of a list of 1,113 foods according to a study published in July 2006) for all vegetables. According to the California Artichoke Board, the following phytonutrients and their health benefits are found in artichokes:

Quercetin: A flavonoid that works to protect against cancer and heart disease.

Rutin: A flavonoid that promotes vascular health, working as an anti-inflammatory, to reduce cell growth associated with cancers.

Anthocyanins: Reduced risks of certain cancers, improved urinary health and memory.

Gallic Acid:  Thought to have anti-viral and anti-fungal properties, while also fighting certain cancer cells. It is also found in red wine and black tea.

Luteolin and Cynarin: These two are thought to lower cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation, while cynarin, the phytochemical that gives artichokes their distinctive taste, has shown the ability to regenerate liver tissue.

Caffeic Acid and Chlorogenic Acid: Contains anti-cancer, anti-microbial and anti-viral properties, in addition to reducing vascular constriction which may reduce hypertension and reduce LDL, the “bad” cholesterol.

Silymarin: Thought to aid liver health and possibly regeneration and repair.

In addition to phytonutrients, the artichoke has many minerals: potassium (400 mg per serving), magnesium, Vitamin C, protein and fiber. In fact, artichokes are superior in providing dietary fiber, providing 20% of the daily recommended amount in one artichoke.

One medium artichoke has 60 calories, 14 gm of carbohydrates, 4 gm of protein, 7 gm of dietary fiber and 25% of your daily requirement for Vitamin C.

In preliminary studies, artichokes have shown promise in their ability to reduce symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and to have protective effects on the liver.

chasing and Storing:

Select artichokes that are deep green with tight leaf formation and feel heavy for their size.  Fall and winter artichokes may be darker and have a blistered look due to exposure to frost. These so-called “Frost-Kissed” artichokes are tender with intense flavor, so look for these during the winter months. Store artichokes in a plastic bag in the produce section of your refrigerator for 7-10 days.

Preparing:

Artichokes should be washed prior to cooking. If you are cooking them whole, cut the stem off at the base to make a level surface for the artichoke to sit. With a sharp knife, cut the top off the artichoke and then snip the tips off each leaf with a pair of kitchen shears. This “opens” each leaf to absorb all the flavors you will use in the cooking process.

Artichokes can be boiled, steamed, roasted, baked and grilled.

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