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Tuesday 23 September 2014

The health benefits of miracle artichoke

Don't be daunted by artichokes. This fantastic vegetable is not only tasty, but comes armed with a barrage of potent, healthful and cancer-fighting nutrients

Rozanne Stevens

Published 30/06/2014 | 02:30

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Rozanne Stevens
Artichoke

THE globe artichoke, cynara scolymus, is the immature flower of a thistle plant and one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world. This beautiful plant comes to fruition in summer and, though a little tricky to prepare, is a delight to eat and bursting with goodness.

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While artichokes may not be the easiest food to consume, the sheer volume of nutrients, minerals and phytochemicals found in this extraordinary vegetable make eating them well worth it.

Most people's favourite part of the artichoke is the heart, but the leaves are actually the source of the vast majority of its health benefits. In clinical studies, artichoke leaf extract has been proven to have potent disease-fighting and anti-ageing properties.

Artichokes are packed with phytonutrients such as quercetin, rutin, gallic acid and cynarin, which all help to protect against many health risks including cancer, heart disease, liver dysfunction, high cholesterol and diabetes.

In 2004, the United States Department of Agriculture conducted a comprehensive study analysing the antioxidant content of the most commonly consumed foods. To the surprise of many, artichokes ranked in the top four vegetables and seventh overall. Who would have thought a thistle could be so good for you?

Artichokes are probably best known for their cholesterol reducing and liver protecting properties.

The French have known this for years and often take artichoke extract during periods of indulgence, such as at Christmas, as it helps digest fatty foods and ease indigestion. Far more palatable, I think, than glugging back a chalky liquid or sucking on a lozenge!

Artichokes are a Mediterranean delicacy which you'll also find in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese dishes. Again making the Mediterranean way of eating so healthy.

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Cholesterol Fighter

We all know the dangers of high cholesterol and the increased risk of coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis. Since the 1970s, scientists have been testing cynarin in artichokes and artichoke leaf extract for their ability to reduce cholesterol levels. Cynarin in artichokes has been conclusively proven to reduce bad cholesterol dramatically.

In a 12-week, double-blind study, 75 patients received placebo or 1,280mg standardised artichoke leaf daily. At the end of the 12 weeks, the treated group recorded a modest reduction in total cholesterol of 4.2 per cent.

To further demonstrate the artichoke's heart-healthy powers, scientists set up a randomised, placebo-controlled study to examine the effect of artichoke leaf extract in patients with high cholesterol. All participants showed positive results.

Over six weeks, participants were split up, with half receiving artichoke extract and the rest a placebo. The patients receiving artichoke were shown to have an 18.5 per cent reduction in cholesterol level. Pretty impressive!

Digestive Health and IBS relief

The high concentration of cynarin in artichokes not only affects cholesterol, but can also improve digestive health. Cynarin is known to stimulate the production of bile, which enables us to digest fats and absorb vitamins from our food, making artichokes an excellent way to start any meal, especially if it is rich and high in fat, the way the French often do it.

Unlike Jerusalem artichokes, which are jokingly called 'fartichokes', studies have shown that artichoke leaf extract can be very helpful for people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and dyspepsia, or upset stomach.

In a study at the University of Reading, England, 208 adults who suffered from IBS and dyspepsia were monitored over a two-month period of treatment with artichoke leaf extract.

Results showed a 26.4 per cent reduction in IBS incidence among the participants at the end of the trial. Many subjects also reported a return to normal bowel function instead of the "alternating constipation/diarrhoea" typical of IBS. Dyspepsia symptoms also fell by 41 per cent after treatment and, in general, the participants noted a 20 per cent increase in quality of life after treatment.

Liver Function and Fatty Foods

Bile produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder is what helps us digest fats and remove dangerous toxins. Cynarin in artichokes boosts bile production and is very beneficial to the health of your liver.

Artichokes also contain the flavonoid silymarin, which protects the liver. Silymarin reduces the process of lipid peroxidation from occurring in the cell membranes of the tissues of the liver, making the artichoke the ideal vegetable to help your liver function better. Especially when you over indulge in fatty barbecues, Christmas feasts and birthday dinners.

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Cancer Prevention

There are many other powerful polyphenol-type antioxidants found in artichokes that researchers believe can contribute to the prevention and management of prostate cancer, breast cancer and leukaemia.

Studies have shown that the antioxidants rutin, quercetin and gallic acid found in artichoke leaf extract are able to induce apoptosis (cell death) and reduce the proliferation of cancer cells.

In research at Comenius University in Slovakia, artichoke leaf extract was studied for its ability to inhibit growth of leukaemia cells. Over a 24-hour period, leukaemia cells were treated with a variety of concentrations of artichoke leaf extract, with results suggesting that it slows down the reproduction of the leukaemia cells while inducing apoptosis of these cells as well.

In addition, researchers at the University of Georg-August in Germany have found that the many phytochemicals in artichokes help to block the secretion of cancer agents, thus inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.

How to prepare artichokes

Artichokes can look a bit intimidating but, have no fear, you can master it. Start by removing the tough leaves from close to the base and trim the stem to about 2cm long (or, on good-sized ones, remove the stem completely, so the artichoke will sit flat on its base).

Cook in plenty of lightly salted, boiling water or in a steamer, simmer for 15-30 minutes, depending on size and freshness.

Just-cut artichokes need less cooking to become tender. If you grow your own, cooking them within minutes of cutting reduces the cooking time dramatically to only seven or eight minutes for a small one. The best test to check that it is cooked is when a leaf from the middle pulls away easily and the heart is tender when pierced with a knife.

How to eat artichokes

In France, freshly steamed artichokes are typically served with a Hollandaise sauce or raspberry vinegar.

After steaming, you can also slice them in half, brush with oil or melted butter and grill on a griddle pan or barbecue. Serve with a squeeze of lemon. Don't worry, the artichoke is one of the few foods that it is both proper and polite to eat with your fingers.

Artichokes can be served hot or cold. To eat, just pull out the outer petals one at a time. Dip it in your favourite sauce and pull the leaves through your teeth, removing the soft pulpy portion. Discard the remaining tough portion of the leaf. Continue this until all the petals have been removed.

Use a spoon and remove the fuzzy centre at the base of the artichoke and discard it. What remains is the heart of the artichoke and it is entirely edible and delicious.

You can also buy these artichoke hearts preserved in tins or glass jars in herb oil. I prefer the artichokes in jars in the oil as I find the tinned ones in water can go stringy and tough. I love artichokes on pizza, in salads, in grilled pita pockets and in creamy chicken dishes.

For the keen gardener, artichokes make a beautiful border which you can eat too! So start planning for next summer. In the meantime, enjoy your artichokes steamed, grilled, dipped and dunked. And, of course, serve with vibrant salads and on anti pasti platters for your casual entertaining.

Come Christmas, don't forget your artichoke tincture to help your liver cope with all the festivities.

  • Recipes taken from Delish and Relish Cookbooks by Rozanne Stevens.
  • For healthy cookery courses and cookbooks, log on to www.rozannestevens.com and Twitter: @RozanneStevens

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