Guest contributor: Alida Iacobellis, Dietetic Intern and MHSc Candidate
Do you ever get bored of the same old veggies day in and day out? If you tend to get stuck in a rut with carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce, you’re not alone! Being less than enthused about the vegetables on our plate can be one big barrier that gets in the way of us eating more of this highly nutritious food. The good news is, if we break out of our routines and habits just a little and take a look around the produce aisles (fresh, canned, and frozen), we find that we have many different vegetables to choose from depending on the time of year. One not-so-common example is the artichoke – probably because unless you grew up eating them, you likely have no idea what to do with them. Like all other veggies, artichokes have some amazing health benefits, and they might be just what you need to break out of your vegetable rut.
Globe artichokes are an ancient plant which originated from the Mediterranean area and have traditionally served as an important part of a Mediterranean diet. Today, artichokes are grown all over the world. Italy produces the largest amount of artichokes globally, followed by Spain, France, and Greece.
Health Benefits of Artichokes
Globe artichokes are a rich source of bioactive phenolic compounds, prebiotic fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, folate, vitamin C and vitamin K.
Due to the presence of a compound known as cynarin, artichoke leaf extracts have long been used in traditional medicine. Artichoke leaf extracts have been said to be protective of healthy liver function, anti-carcinogenic, and antibacterial. Artichoke leaf extract has also been shown to be effective for lowering cholesterol.
Artichokes and Digestive Health
Artichokes are a high fibre food, which most of us could use more of in our diet. Fibre is known to help improve digestion, but artichokes in particular contain a specific type of fibre called inulin which may actually aggravate symptoms in those with digestive issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Inulin is classified as a fructan which is a non-digestible form of fibre. Humans do not have the digestive enzymes required to digest fructans like inunlin, so this non-digestible fibre continues through our small intestine and into the large intestine mostly intact. Once it reaches the large intestine, bacteria start to ferment and break down the inulin. This of course can lead to some uncomfortable symptoms characteristic of IBS including gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
Those following a low FODMAP diet for IBS usually avoid foods high in fructans, like inulin, for the first few weeks of the diet where they are eliminating all high FODMAP foods. Other food sources of inulin include bananas, asparagus, garlic, onion, and leeks. But over time, as triggers become clearer and foods are re-introduced, it is important for those with digestive health concerns to add back into their diet as many food sources of inulin as they can comfortably tolerate. This is because research has shown that inulin can positively influence the composition of the gut microflora, have a beneficial effect on mineral absorption and blood lipids, and may be associated with the prevention of colon cancer.
If you’re currently following the low FODMAP diet, here’s what you need to know about artichokes.
- Fresh globe artichokes are high in oligosaccharides.
- Canned artichoke hearts are moderate in fructose.
- Pickled artichokes are high in oligosaccharides and moderate in fructose.
So, depending on which FODMAP groups you are most sensitive to, there may be one form of artichoke that your digestive system handles better.
Artichokes: A Natural Source of Prebiotics
Many of the digestive health benefits of consuming inulin come from the fact that inulin is a prebiotic. A prebiotic is a non-digestible fibre found in certain foods that is considered a preferred food source for all of the beneficial bacteria we want to grow in our gut – the probiotics. Fructans, such as inulin, are prebiotic fibers. Without prebiotics in our diet, probiotic bacteria in our gut will not be able to grow and colonize.
How to Cook with Artichokes
If you’ve ever encountered a fresh artichoke in the grocery store, it’s safe to say you might have been a little puzzled or even intimidated. In today’s world which favours convenience, artichokes aren’t exactly the easiest vegetable to prepare fresh. If you want to give it a try you first need to understand the anatomy of an artichoke.
Underneath the fibrous, green and purple outer petals of an artichoke, you will find thinner petals that are pale yellow in colour. You don’t want to eat the outer green petals are they are very tough, but the inner petals are nice and tender with a unique, mild, earthy flavour. At the very centre of the artichoke is the choke which is a fuzzy mass of fine hair-like material. The choke also needs to be removed, as this part is not edible. Underneath the choke is the artichoke heart, and underneath the heart is the stem, both of which are edible.
Canned, pickled, or frozen artichokes are also available in stores and completely eliminate all the hard work of getting to the edible part of the artichoke.
When cooking with artichokes, just remember that they go nicely with Mediterranean flavours and you can’t go wrong! Think olives, olive oil, tomato, balsamic vinegar, feta, oregano, basil, and lemon.
Artichokes at Breakfast
Frittata – Try adding some artichoke to a Mediterranean style frittata along with some tomato, feta, olives and spinach!
Artichokes at Lunch and Dinner
Sandwiches – Add a new dimension to your next grilled cheese sandwich by adding some spinach and artichoke.
Flatbreads – Try loading up a wholegrain flatbread with some hummus, artichoke, roasted red pepper, and balsamic reduction for a light meal.
Salads – Try this recipe for Asiago, Artichoke and Lentil Salad.
Soups – If you find yourself in the mood for some soup, try a creamy blend of potato and artichoke for a twist on a comfort food classic.
Pastas – Next time you’re throwing together a simple pasta meal, try adding some sliced chicken breast, artichokes, sundried tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, and a fresh squeeze of lemon for a dish that will transport you right over to Greece!
Artichokes at Snack Time
Hummus – Making your own hummus at home can be quite easy with the right kitchen tools, and also gives you complete creative control over what you can add in. Adding some artichoke to your next batch of hummus will provide extra flavour and beneficial phytochemicals for a nutritionally dense dip or spread.
Artichoke dip – In addition to the classic creamy, cheesy spinach and artichoke dip that is a feature at many restaurants, you might also want to try making your own version at home. How good does a warm artichoke olive dip sound!
Lattanzio V, Kroon PA, Linsalata V, Cardinali A. Globe artichoke: A functional food and source of nutraceutical ingredients. Journal of Functional Foods. 2009 Apr;1(2):131–44.
Bundy R, Walker AF, Middleton RW, Wallis C, Simpson HCR. Artichoke leaf extract (Cynara scolymus) reduces plasma cholesterol in otherwise healthy hypercholesterolemic adults: A randomized, double blind placebo controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 2008 Sep;15(9):668–75.