Health Benefits of Artichoke Hearts (Superfood Series)
Artichoke leaf supplements may be all the rage these days, but cooked artichoke hearts – the soft edible flower buds of the Globe Artichoke – deserve their own spotlight. Available fresh, canned, marinated and frozen, artichoke hearts are a versatile and healthy ingredient that can be used to add Mediterranean flair and beneficial nutrients to anything from stews to salads.
The potential health benefits of artichoke hearts range from detoxifying and liver-cleansing effects to cholesterol-lowering properties. These juicy flower buds are also a real superfood when it comes to antioxidant activity. Keep reading to get the full scoop on the potential medicinal properties of this Mediterranean superhero vegetable.
Globe Artichoke – A Superfood Packed with Antioxidants
The edible parts of the globe artichoke – that is, the juicy heart and the tender inner leaves of the immature flower bud – are right there on top of the list of vegetables with the strongest in-vitro antioxidant capacity. As you may know, antioxidants are beneficial substances that protect our bodies from cellular damage caused by free radicals. When eaten regularly as part of an overall healthy diet, antioxidant-rich foods such as artichoke hearts and leaves may provide anti-aging benefits and protection against degenerative diseases such as heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.
With an ORAC rating of 9,400, cooked artichokes have even more antioxidant potential than many of the world's top superfoods, including asparagus, beet greens, red cabbage, onions, broccoli, raw garlic, avocados and arugula (salad rocket). The ORAC method, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity method, is a standardized technique used by researchers to measure antioxidant potency of foods, drinks and supplements in an in-vitro setting. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in-vitro antioxidant capacity does not necessarily translate into in-vivo biological activity. That said, an animal study published in the August 2003 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that the edible part of the globe artichoke flower bud does have significant antioxidant activity also in vivo.
Detoxifying and Liver-Cleansing Effects
Globe artichoke is a common ingredient in liver detoxifying herbal supplements, and practitioners of alternative medicine often recommend artichoke extract or tea for people who can benefit from improved liver and kidney function. The potential cleansing and detoxifying effects of artichokes have been largely attributed to cynarin and chlorogenic acid, compounds that are believed to protect and heal the liver and help the kidneys filter out toxins from the blood. In addition, artichoke hearts are a good source of potassium, a nutrient known for its ability to reduce bloating and to flush out toxins.
Artichoke Hearts – A Natural Remedy for Digestive Problems?
If the above-describe health benefits of artichoke hearts are not enough to convince you to add this tasty superfood to your diet, consider this: artichoke hearts are also good for your digestive system. The cynarin in globe artichokes boosts the liver's ability to produce bile, a bitter fluid that is critical for proper digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine. Artichoke hearts are also an excellent source of fiber, with 100 grams (3.5 oz) of cooked artichoke accounting for a whopping 34% of the daily value for fiber.
Benefits of Artichoke Leaf Extract for the Heart Thanks to Cholesterol-Lowering Effects
One of the most researched medicinal properties of artichoke leaf extract is its ability to fight high cholesterol levels, one of the key pre-cursors to coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis (fatty deposits in blood vessels). In a double-blind study involving 75 participants, the patients received either 1,280 milligrams of standardized artichoke leaf extract or a placebo daily for twelve weeks. At the end of trial period, the artichoke group showed a modest but significant reduction of 4.2% in total cholesterol. In another placebo-controlled study, volunteers with high cholesterol levels were randomly assigned to take either 1,800 milligrams of artichoke dry extract or placebo extract daily over a six-week period. The patients in the artichoke group showed an 18.5% reduction in total cholesterol levels, compared with 8.6% in the placebo group. The reduction in LDL-cholesterol, the so-called 'bad cholesterol', was even more significant (22.9% in the treatment group, compared with 6.3% in the placebo group).
While the studies on the cholesterol-lowering properties of artichoke leaf extract are promising, very little is known about the effects of whole artichoke hearts on blood cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. However, we do know that artichoke hearts contain several compounds that suggest this Mediterranean superfood might indeed have heart health protecting properties. Just like the leaves, the heart and inner leaves of the globe artichoke contain cynarin, the compound that is believed to be largely responsible for the positive effects of artichoke leaf supplements on cholesterol levels. But artichoke hearts are also supercharged with folate and vitamin K, a nutrient combo with interesting cardiovascular benefits. Folate appears to promote cardiovascular health by breaking down homocysteine, an amino acid that is thought to promote atherosclerosis, while vitamin K pushes calcium into your bones, preventing it from depositing in the blood vessel walls.
Side Effects and Safety Considerations
Although artichokes hearts and artichoke leaf supplements have not been associated with many side effects, individuals with known allergies to artichokes, or related plants in the Asteraceae family, should avoid eating artichoke hearts or using artichoke leaf extract. Furthermore, individuals with gallstones or certain other health problems involving the gallbladder may be advised by their doctor to avoid artichoke supplements due to their purported ability to stimulate gallbladder contraction. Finally, very little is known about the safety of concentrated artichoke supplements in pregnant and nursing women, young children and people with severe liver or kidney problems.
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