The okra is a vegetable that many people relate to the Southern U.S., but since it is more identified as a warm-weather vegetal, it is also commonly found in areas of Africa, as well as in South America and in the Middle East.
The okra has the color of a fresh corn husk and the texture of a grooved cucumber. It is spike-shaped (hence its name lady’s fingers and, in some cultures, bamia pods). When sliced, the okra looks like a tiny star fruit.
The okra pods grow on a large, leafy and perennial plant with beautiful, hibiscus-like flowering appearance. Belonging to the Malvaceae (mallows) plant family [along with hibiscus, cocoa, and cotton] it bears the botanical name Abelmoschus esculentus and it may have a history behind as long as the pyramids. In some areas of the world, okra seeds are also known as one of the best-tasting coffee substitutes.
When it comes to harvesting time, these cute little edibles are best harvested early so that they don’t become tough and difficult for processing. Attention must be paid because this can happen very quickly. Indeed, from the time they flower till the optimal harvest time, it can be a matter of only 4 days!
Ideally, they should be harvested every few days. Pruning some of the lower leaves of the plant after the first harvest is said to speed up production. Keep this on record in your farmer’s almanac!
Whole okra pods can be stored in freezer bags [or alternatively can be frozen for postponed preparation], or it can be put in cans [in this case it tastes like it just came from the garden].
Advice: Wearing gloves during harvest will prevent the fruit’s tiny spines from irritating your skin (depending on the variety), similarly to some varieties of cucumbers.
Okra culinary uses as health food
Although most people describe the taste of the okra similar to that of the eggplant, the texture is different, which will give your dish a different feel altogether. When cooked down, the okra develops a gelatinous look that lends itself well to soups and sautés. In truth, the okra mucilage has been used as a sizing for glazed paper products in China.
One of the great advantages of okra is that the entire veggie can be used, seeds included too, after the ends have been trimmed, of course. Also, because it can be used raw, curried (especially the seeds), pickled and more, the culinary options for the okra are numerous.
In the Caribbean fare, people often serve okra with fish in a soup. Its leaves can be cooked or eaten raw in salads as well. One simple way to do this is to add other types of greens (such as Romaine, arugula or spinach, for a variation in flavors and crunchy tinge. The okra can be sliced or chopped, stir fried with other veggies such as zucchini, onions and red or green bell peppers and made into burritos or tacos with cheese, or served on top of cooked quinoa.
In comparison, the okra is made in hearty stews with beef or lamb in the Middle East meals whereas an Indian-inspired dish might combine okra with onions sautéed in butter and seasoned with coriander, ginger, cumin, salt and pepper.
Okra traditional medicinal uses
Since the okra is an ancient crop used in various diets way back, it was also known as a ‘bona fide medicinal.’ Its leaves were used for pain relief and urinary issues. For instance, in the Congo, it was a used as a “melem” to help with a safe childbirth of pregnant women.
On the other hand, in Malaya, the okra root has been used as a treatment for syphilis. The okra mucilage has even been used as a plasma replacement and topically as a moisturizer. When cooked down and added to water, it was referred to as “supreme” remedy for people suffering from weakness or depression.
However, it’s still used to treat lung inflammation and sore throat, and to add bulk to stools as a laxative, as well as to rid the body of liver toxins, according to holistic medicine sites.
Okra nutritional aspects
Nutritional benefits of the gelatinous mucilage of the okra, especially when cooked, are recommended for people suffering from constipation, as it does help move and push food through your gut.
The okra is an excellent fiber source to maintain a healthy digestive system, and it also contains good portions of iron, calcium, and magnesium. It is said to provide 43% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of manganese and 36% of the RDA of infection-fighting vitamin C.
Okra calorie count:
100 grams of raw okra contains 33 calories and includes a whopping 44% of the bone-strengthening vitamin K you need daily, which is valued as a co-factor for blood-clotting enzymes. The folate in the okra accounts for 22% of the RDA in a 1-cup serving, which is important for pregnant mothers who need to decrease the risk of neural tube defects in their babies.
Medical News Today states: “People who do not eat enough folate are at a higher risk for breast, cervical, pancreatic, lung and other cancers. Researchers are unsure of why folate intake and cancer risk are connected.
There is no evidence that taking a folate supplement lowers the risk for cancer. As a result, getting folate from food like the okra is important. Getting enough folate is especially important for women who are pregnant and people who are dependent on alcohol.”
Vitamin A content in the okra, important for good vision, skin health and more, includes flavonoid antioxidants, such as beta-carotenes, xanthan and lutein. Other nutrients include vitamin B6, thiamin, calcium, niacin, phosphorus and copper. To “get along” with its traditional uses, the compounds in the okra help maintain healthy mucous membranes.
Okra’s effect on blood sugar
In diabetes-suffering individuals, animal studies suggest that the okra pods may help alleviate diabetic symptoms, due to its myricetin content. The myricetin is a flavonoid also found in garbanzo beans, blueberries, turnips and chia seeds, among other foods.
The myricetin in okra was isolated and dispensed to rats, which responded with increased sugar absorption in their muscles, consequently lowering their blood sugar. A review in Food Science and Human Wellness of 2012 listed several other animals included in similar studies with similar results. Yet, not all research results worked the same in humans.
The study indicates that myricetin may prove to be an important breakthrough in fighting diabetes. In fact, ISRN Pharmaceutics published a study in 2012, aslo explained in Medical News Today. Researchers fed rats liquid sugar as well as purified okra through a feeding tube.
Rats who consumed the okra experienced a reduction in blood sugar spikes after feeding. The study’s authors think this is because the okra blocked the absorption of sugar in the intestines.
As noted, the study indicated that the okra may have blocked sugar absorption in the intestines, but also introduced the idea that it may also obstruct the effectiveness of the diabetes drug “metformin,” so simultaneous ingestion is not recommended.
The Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences related another study, pointing to a possible feedback between the okra intake and decreased blood sugar levels. Scientists maintained the blood sugar level of rats for a period of 14 days, then fed them powdered okra peel extracts and seeds amounting to 2,000 milligrams per day per kilogram of body weight. At the end of their experiment, no poisonous effects were observed!
Okra – more health benefits from eating it
Similarly to most green vegetables, the okra provides a unique group of plant-based nutrients with all the important vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting compounds. For instance, a protein in okra, called lectin, is also found in peanuts and beans.
In a study, researchers extracted lectin from the okra to test it on breast cancer cells and found the cancer growth to not only decrease by 63%, but to kill high amount of 72% of the cancer cells. In another review published in the Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal it is stated that the preliminary phytochemical studies showed that flavonoids, tannins, sterols and triterpenes were present in okra.
Phytoconstituents, such as flavonoids are commonly present in vegetables and fruits, which provide the health-benefits, associated with diets rich in plant-food. Flavonoids are a class of secondary plant phenolics, found ubiquitously in fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants, which are known to play a pivotal role as dietary antioxidants for the prevention of oxidative damage in the living system.
Furthermore, a large number of biological actions of flavonoids have been attributed to their potent antioxidant properties; as they act in different ways, including direct quenching ROS, chelation of metal ions and regeneration of membrane-bound antioxidants.
There is a 2013 study that demonstrated how the antidepressant activity of the okra was linked to mood improvement, which could make it helpful for people suffering from depression. Interestingly, Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, said okra was the “preferred vegetable” among athletes at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, possibly for more reasons than its taste.
Because of its physiological effects, it has gained some interesting names including ‘green panax’ in Japan and ‘plant viagra’ in the USA.
It is due to the polysaccharides in the okra which are thought to open up the arteries in a similar way to viagra.
Okra – possible safety risks associated with its consumption
Apart from the possibility that consuming okra while taking the diabetic drug metformin may lower the drug’s expecting effect, experts note that this vegetable also provokes an allergy in some people. Moreover, the okra contains oxalates, naturally occurring substances in many plant-based foods. So, over-consumption of the okra product may produce a kidney stone risk in individuals with this predilection.
Last, the okra contains high quantity of fructan, which is a carbohydrate that can induce diarrhea, cramps and bloating in some people, so people with irritable bowel syndrome are advised to caution when ingesting okra or dishes with it.
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