Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nutrition Nerd Alert: National Artichoke Hearts Day!

Are you obsessed with artichokes like I am?  I lived in Los Angeles during part of my childhood until I was 12.  When I moved back for graduate school in 2007, it was one of the first things I bought at the farmer's market and cooked for myself that summer.  Artichokes used to intimidate me because they can be difficult to prepare.  I stuck to baby artichokes and artichoke hearts canned in water to add to antipastos and chop salads.  I tried repeatedly to steam them myself but always struggled to prepare them without losing half of the heart.  I was so traumatized over a ruined batch a few years ago that I did what I always do - consult my mom!  She studied horticulture in college and is a self-taught cook (her homemade bread or grilled, well, anything are not to be missed).  She's one of those people who have an idea for any question you can come up with.  She's incredible (Love you, Momm!!).  Thanks to her tips I've had the confidence to steam them myself ever since.

So why all the trouble to prepare the artichokes myself when I could buy them prepped already?  Well, for starters the Nutrition Nerd in me knows that fresh is better than processed vegetables (that includes the chopping and preparation needed to can artichokes and artichoke hearts).  Artichokes also increase their antioxidant capability (by up to 15 times) when steamed.  Antioxidant capability is just a fancy way of saying the antioxidants are more bioavailable (aka more active and effective).  Boiling, the second best option, can increase antioxidant capability by 8 times (still great!).

Some of my favorite artichoke heart nutrition facts:
  • Artichoke hearts naturally contain both vitamin C and iron.  That means you absorb this non-heme iron source better than from plants that do not contain vitamin C.  Add a squeeze of lemon to enhance this effect and brighten the inherent flavors, too!  Not too much, though, as too much acid tends to make artichokes taste bitter.
  • Artichokes contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which are in the carotenoid antioxidant family.  That means artichokes are great for your eyes!  While artichokes are relatively fat-free, carotenoids are fat-soluble.  Paired with a light vinaigrette including a small amount of healthy oils will help absorb these eye-protecting wonder antioxidants!
  • Being from the thistle family, artichoke hearts contain silymarin.  Silymarin is an antioxidant known to be hepatoprotetive aka liver-protecting.  With its 10% of daily fiber, it's great for your digestion in other ways, including cholesterol reduction!
  • Talk about nutrition density!  For a minimal number of calories, artichokes also contain potassium, folate, phosphorous, and calcium.  Artichokes are also a good source of magnesium and chromium (meaning 10-19% of your daily value).  Magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body.  Chromium enhances the activities of insulin, making it vital to diabetes prevention.
If you've ever had canned artichoke hearts (even if they're in spices and/or oil) - the flavor is nothing compared to freshly steamed artichokes.  They're also a great food for kids.  It's fun to peel off and eat the bits of the heart that remain on the leaves.  Just be careful of the "choke" - a sure sign that they are part of the thistle family.  In fact, they're a perfect green category addition to National Nutrition Month!  BONUS!

Artichokes grow wild in southern Europe to this day and have been cultivated in California since the 17th century (thank you Spanish settlers).  Originally, artichokes were deep fried and served to the noble class in ancient Rome.  They're even mentioned in Greek mythology!  Today, there are many healthier ways to serve them (although I have to say I'd love to try a fried one someday!).  Just over 80% of our artichokes in the US come from one place - Castroville, California.  Who wants to go with me to the Artichoke Festival in May?!

If you're new to artichokes, I recommend starting with the NY Times Recipes for Health link here.  Tips for selecting them at the farmer's market or grocery store are here.  It's a little early for seasonal artichokes, but there's plenty of time to learn a few tricks before they're ready for you!

Special note:  Thanks to my fellow RD-to-be classmate, Nancy, for inspiring me to write a Nutrition Nerd Alert today!  I've been wanting to start these for AGES.  They'll be shorter than this, normally, but I got too excited about artichokes :)

Peace, love, and nutrition,


  1. I missed your chit chat on Twitter last night, but just wanted to share that we had artichokes for dinner on Tuesday. My 8 yr old loves them. Yum! Do non-Californians love them as much?


    Roasting artichokes :]

    See you for May Artichoke Festie!

  3. Carrie - Yum!!! I'm going to have some artichokes this weekend. I have been craving them ever since I researched all about their nutrition :) They are such a fun kids' food!!

    Nancy - Dang that recipe looks AMAZING! I am saving it! Can't wait for our road trip :)

  4. You go girl! I have yet to master the art of steaming an artichoke, but I think you've inspired me to give it another try.

  5. EGAD--I'm a veggie blogger and I missed National Artichoke Hearts Day! I'm putting that puppy on the calendar for next year. (I'm a nutrition nerd too, can you tell?) Also, you've inspired me to [attempt to] prepare my own artichoke hearts this spring. Love your blog!

  6. I'm sorry this is so very delayed - but I'm so excited to see that you all were inspired to use artichoke hearts. Thank you for your comments!

    How did all of your attempts turn out?!