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Get to the heart of health with artichokes

by Doris Penner

Legend has it that the artichoke came into being when the Greek god Zeus turned his object of affection into a thistle-like plant after she rejected him. Certainly this vegetable is one of the most curious of edible plants with its arching deeply lobed leaves and light pink flowers on a tall stem. The edible part of the plant is the flower bud encased by several rows of bracts—an indication that it indeed belongs to the thistle family—with the inner bracts and the “heart” serving as the delicate portions fit for the table. While many people don’t bother to cook and serve artichoke since the formidable spiky casing makes it seem inaccessible, they are missing out on a nutritious vegetable, source of significant amounts of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.

It is no surprise that Canadians treat artichokes as a delicacy since it is raised in warmer climates and tends to be expensive when it lands in our supermarket. And to boot, once you have removed the tough outer scales or bracts, there seems to be very little left to eat. However, while they may not be part of your family’s regular diet, it is worthwhile to serve them occasionally as a treat or as part of a dinner party.

Conversation piece

Artichokes are not difficult to prepare—and will always provide a conversation piece. Look for young (baby) artichokes which are more tender and will yield more vegetable for the price. Simply steam or boil and serve with herbed butter. Or leave more of the bracts on, pull out the heart when cooked and impress your guests with a stuffed artichoke at each place.

So what health benefits do artichokes offer? While they contain a range of important nutrients such as vitamins C and K, and the minerals magnesium, manganese and phosphorus, two nutrients to focus on for their outstanding qualities are potassium and folate (vitamin B9).

Potassium is a mineral necessary for the proper function of many systems in the body; one of the more important roles is maintaining the health of the heart and cardiovascular system. The mineral as a key electrolyte, plays a vital role in keeping the heart functioning properly. Together with sodium—and it is very important to keep these two minerals in balance—it regulates the fluid levels in the body and thus enhances healthy blood pressure and a steady heart rhythm. Indeed, one of the symptoms of potassium deficiency is dysrhythmias of the heart which includes palpitations and the feeling of skipped beats.

Potassium also aids in muscle contraction in various parts of the body; it should be noted that the heart is a muscle—one that we must keep working properly to maintain our very life.

Another important function of potassium is to assist the nervous system by helping send nerve impulses. This indicates potassium is useful in keeping at bay conditions such as insomnia, depression as well as nervous disorders which show symptoms such as fatigue, muscular weakness and poor reflexes.

Low intake

It should be noted that a potassium deficiency may result not only from low intake of the mineral, but also from a severe case of diarrhea or vomiting (resulting from bulimia, for example), from constant ingestion of diuretic medicines (water pills) used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure, and chronic kidney disease.

Ways to avoid deficiency are to eat foods high in potassium such as artichokes, bananas, potatoes, oranges, apricots and wheat germ, switch to a diuretic that is “potassium-sparing” or, if necessary, ingest a potassium supplement (at the recommendation of your physician).

Artichokes are also valued for their folate content—one serving (the equivalent of one medium-sized “heart”) offers 107 mcg or about 26 percent of recommended daily intake. One of its key roles is in the formation of DNA and RNA, the body’s genetic material, and particularly important when cells and tissues are growing rapidly as in the stages of infancy, adolescence and pregnancy. Studies show, for example, that women with high folate intake (often a supplement is a wise choice) before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy may reduce the risk of having children with neural tube defects by 72 percent or higher. It bears noting that folate is crucial for brain function and plays a role in mental and emotional health at any time of life.

Folate may also protect the heart. Studies suggest that people with elevated levels of homocysteine are more likely to develop coronary heart disease or develop a stroke than those with normal levels. B complex vitamins (especially vitamins B9 or folate, B6 and B12) help lower homocysteine’s level. There is no hard evidence, however, that high homocysteine levels actually cause heart disease or are a symptom of heart problems.

Thus with the knowledge of health benefits artichokes offer, you may wish to include them in your diet. You should be aware that artichoke juice which includes most of the benefits of the fresh vegetable is available. It is pressed from the buds and sold in concentrated form—thus a little goes a long way. The one thing you will be missing by drinking the juice instead of the eating the vegetable is dietary fibre.