Dear Dr. Blonz: I enjoy eating artichokes, but am skeptical of the claim I read that they can help cleanse the arteries. I would appreciate a comment about this. Also, are artichokes best if eaten raw or steamed? Is the expensive canned version just as healthy? How often should artichokes be eaten, and how much at a time? — T.T., Walnut Creek, California
Dear T.T.: This is a good time to be discussing artichokes, as spring is their peak season.
The artichoke is in the same family as the sunflower and the thistle. The globe-shaped “vegetable” that we eat is actually the immature bud of a beautiful 7-inch purple flower. That helps explain why springtime, when flowers typically emerge, is when we see artichokes at farmers’ markets. (If you were planning to attend, the annual Artichoke Festival in Monterey, California — where you can sample anything and everything artichoke — has been postponed until August.) If left to bloom, the artichoke loses its appeal as a food, but the blossom can serve nicely as a table decoration.
Artichokes are not typically consumed raw, but are eaten after being steamed, boiled or baked, at which point they can be enjoyed hot or cold. Those that come canned are also excellent.
The artichoke is high in vitamin C and fiber, and is a good source of folate and magnesium. The artichoke plant contains several beneficial phytochemicals, some of which are antioxidants and others that may be of help to the liver.
One compound, cynarine, encourages the production of liver bile, which is used to emulsify ingested fats (lipids) during digestion. This plays a role in how we handle dietary cholesterol, but it’s not the same as “artery cleansing” — no facts to back that claim. Another compound, silymarin, is a mixture of substances also found in milk thistle (an artichoke relative, as mentioned). It has been shown to have liver-protective properties, and the liver makes cholesterol when the body needs it. (Interesting side point: Even if we had no cholesterol in our diet, the liver would make all we needed.)
But it is important to understand that while the part of the artichoke that’s eaten may contain some phytochemicals, most tend to be found in the leaves of the plant. If a website mentions “evidence” to support a claim, be sure to check the source to see what part of the plant was used in the research.
How often should you eat artichokes, you ask? Let your palate be your guide. The artichoke does indeed have healthful attributes, but it is one player in what should be a grand cast of whole-food characters.
(Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco. He is the author of the digital book “The Wellness Supermarket Buying Guide” (2012), which is also available as a free digital resource at blonz.com/guide.)
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