By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
One of the oldest foods known to man, artichokes date all the way back to the 300s B.C. Greek philosopher Theophrastus described them in his writings, and the ancient Greeks and Romans considered artichokes both a delicacy and an aphrodisiac.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that artichokes were introduced to America. French immigrants brought them over when they settled in the Louisiana territory. As a result, this area of the U.S. boasted the first commercial artichoke fields, and they flourished until the 1940s. Today, however, nearly all of the artichokes grown commercially in this country hail from one state—California.
Though widely considered a vegetable, an artichoke is actually an edible, immature flower bud from a plant in the thistle family. Timing is everything when it comes to cultivating artichokes. They need to be picked before the flower blooms because once it does, it’s no longer edible. If allowed to flower, though, the blossoms can measure up to 7 inches long and are a vibrant violet color.
Artichokes are readily available all year long, with the peak growing season in spring—specifically March, April, and May. There are more than 140 varieties, though only about 40 are grown commercially.
Since they are native to the Mediterranean region, artichokes are a part of the heart-friendly Mediterranean diet. They are very low in calories and sodium, free of fat and cholesterol, and a great source of fiber (5-6 grams for one artichoke). They are also a good source of vitamin C, folate, potassium, and magnesium, making them quite nutritious too.
Even more impressive, artichokes contain robust levels of antioxidants. In fact, according to a comprehensive analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that examined the antioxidant content of common foods, artichokes ranked as the top “vegetable,” and seventh overall. Some of the most powerful antioxidant phytonutrients in artichokes are cynarin, silymarin, quercetin, rutin, and gallic acid.
Artichoke Health Benefits
The antioxidant content of artichokes is what contributes to many of the wonderful health benefits they offer. As a cardiologist, I love their ability to naturally lower cholesterol, which may help protect against heart disease and stroke.
A study published in 2008 assessed the effect of artichoke leaf extract on cholesterol levels in 75 otherwise healthy adults with mild to moderately high cholesterol. Participants consumed either 1,280 mg of the extract or a placebo for 12 weeks. Total cholesterol decreased an average of 4.2 percent in the treatment group, and increased an average of 1.9 percent in the placebo group.
A more recent 2018 meta-analysis that looked at data from nine trials concluded that “supplementation with artichoke extract was associated with a significant reduction in both total and LDL [cholesterol], and triglycerides, suggesting that supplementation may be synergistic with lipid-lowering therapy in patients with hyperlipidemia.”
Artichokes’ potassium content enhances heart health as well. This essential mineral neutralizes the effects of sodium, which is known to increase blood pressure.
Heart benefits aside, artichokes have a long history of use in detoxifying the liver (one of my seven pillars of health), aiding in digestion, and treating digestive concerns such as constipation, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The antioxidants cynarin and silymarin play the greatest role in artichokes’ liver-supportive benefits. They have been shown to help promote the repair of damaged cells in the liver and boost bile production—which is essential for the elimination of toxins from the body and the digestion of fat.
Artichoke has been found to improve the health of patients with liver disease too. In a study of patients suffering from nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), two months of supplementation with artichoke extract improved liver enzymes and significantly reduced triglycerides and cholesterol, compared to placebo.
Additionally, artichokes benefit digestion and can be used to help to treat and prevent digestive disorders. This is likely due to both their fiber and antioxidant nutrient content. Fiber keeps bowel movements regular, decreases constipation, and eases bloating and stomach discomfort. But a study of 208 patients with IBS also showed that taking artichoke leaf extract resulted in a significant decrease in symptoms and a shift from constipation/diarrhea to a much more normal bowel pattern. So there’s something in artichokes besides fiber that works to support the digestive system –my guess is the antioxidant phytonutrients which contribute to other health benefits of artichokes, including bolstered immunity, improved blood sugar levels, and even anti-cancer properties.
How to Cook an Artichoke
Cooking an artichoke properly takes a few steps—but it’s well worth the effort.
First, wash the artichoke just prior to cooking. Avoid washing and then storing, as this can cause moisture buildup and spoilage.
Next, cut off and throw away the stem and remove the outer leaves closest to the stem. If you want to also cut off the prickly leaf tips at the top of the artichoke, you can, but it’s not necessary as they will soften up when cooked (I would, though, especially if you’re serving the leaves to small children).
In my opinion, the easiest way to cook an artichoke is to boil it. It’s a foolproof method, it works for all varieties, and it doesn’t require any special equipment. Simply fill a pot with lightly salted water and bring to a boil. Add the artichoke, reduce heat, and simmer while covered for 20-30 minutes, or until you can easily pull a leaf out of the center.
Here is how to cook an artichoke using other methods:
- Steaming—This is as easy as boiling, but you do need a steamer basket. Fill a pot with one inch of water. Place the steamer basket inside the pot. Bring the water to a boil, then place the artichoke in the basket. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20-25 minutes. Steaming and boiling are my preferred methods.
- Microwaving—Place the artichoke in a microwave-safe dish with a half-cup water. Cover the dish, and microwave for 8-9 minutes. As with boiling and steaming, the artichokes are done with you can easily pull a leaf off. In general, I do not recommend microwaving food unless it is the only viable option, though.
- Baking/Roasting—This takes the most time compared to other cooking methods and it requires a bit more careful monitoring to prevent overcooking and drying. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Drizzle the artichoke with a little lemon juice and olive oil. Wrap the artichoke tightly in foil and cook 70-80 minutes.
If you have a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, you can use that too. If you love summertime grilling, try throwing an already-boiled artichoke (cut in half lengthwise) on the grill to make it a little crispy. And if you don’t feel like cooking up a fresh artichoke, you can always find frozen and jarred at your grocery store.
How to Eat Artichokes
Once the artichoke is fully cooked, you eat it by breaking off a leaf, one at a time. You’ll see at the base of the leaf is a little “meat.” Most people like to dip it in melted butter, mayo, or some other sauce. I prefer (and highly recommend) a gourmet extra-virgin olive oil. It just tastes so fresh and flavorful, and more importantly, it’s a far healthier choice. Using a flavored olive oil can also give it a really nice kick. In the video below, my son, Step, and I try several flavored oils:
After dipping, draw the meaty section of the leaf through your teeth to remove it. Discard the rest of the leaf, and repeat until all the leaves are gone and you get to the center. Scrape off the prickly covering of the heart (called the choke) to expose the inner heart. Then prepare fight over who gets to indulge in this decadent, delicious treat! (In my family, we cut it into pieces as best we can!)
Only one caveat when it comes to artichokes: Since they are a thistle, they are closely related to ragweed, daisies, marigolds, and chrysanthemums. If you are allergic to any of these, you may want to avoid eating artichokes.
- Bundy R, et al. 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. Last accessed April 25, 2019.
- Bundy R, et al. Artichoke leaf extract reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and improves quality of life in otherwise healthy volunteers suffering from concomitant dyspepsia: a subset analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Aug;10(4):667-9. Last accessed April 25, 2019.
- CABI. USDA Study of Food Antioxidants Published. 2004. Last accessed April 25, 2019.
- California Artichoke Advisory Board. Health and Nutrition. Artichokes.org. Last accessed May 2, 2019.
- Rangboo V, et al. The effect of artichoke leaf extract on alanine aminotransferase aspartate aminotransferase in patients with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. Int J Hepatol. 2016;2016:4030476. Last accessed April 25, 2019.
- Sahebkar A, et al. Lipid-lowering activity of artichoke extracts: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2018;58(15):2549-56. Last accessed April 25, 2019.
© 2019 Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.