OKRA: The Under-Rated Green Superfood
WHAT ARE OKRAS?
Okra is originally from Africa and are the seedpod of the flowering okra plant, which belongs to the same family as hibiscus and cotton. The scientific name of this interesting plant is Abelmoschus esculentus.
Okra is often referred to as ‘ladies fingers’ and comes in two colours- red and green. Both varieties taste the same, and the red one turns green when cooked. Biologically classified as a fruit, okra is generally utilized like a vegetable in cooking. It’s cultivated in warm and tropical climates, such as those in Africa, South Asia, Southern United States and South America.
Okra was originally brought to the Americas during the African slave trade and is mostly known from the famous Cajun/Creole dish called ‘Gumbo’. "Gumbo" is a West African word for okra, which would explain the origins of that classic Louisiana dish. In some places, okra is still called Gumbo.
Okra is also common in vegetarian dishes worldwide including Indian, Lebanese, Japanese, Ethiopian, and Armenian food. Okra is an unusual vegetable to many, but for people in Africa and certain regions, it’s a healthy green staple. In Ghana it’s used to make okra stew and the mucilaginous slime is a normal part of cooking okra and is beneficial both nutritionally and gastronomically. Not only is okra a unique and surprisingly versatile vegetable to add to many recipes but it’s super nutritious.
CLIMATE CHANGE & AGRICULTURE:
Okra is a good crop as our world faces more effects of climate change as it is extremely tolerant, heat loving and drought tolerant because of its heavy root system that allows it to mine for water. That same root system means you can grow okra with few petrochemical-based fertilizers, it doesn't suffer from many pest problems and doesn’t have to be sprayed often. Okra offers multiple rewards from a single planting, you can harvest the leaves early on, the pods can be harvested later, you can also let it go to a seed crop and still have stalks that offer a fibre crop. Okra can displace a lot of modern big agriculture in a positive way.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF OKRA:
Okra is associated with a wide variety of health benefits and has an impressive nutrient profile.
- A rich nutrient-dense food.
- A source of niacin (a form of vitamin B3 essential for energy product, DNA manufacture, healthy skin and metabolising vitamin C and folate).
- Contains minerals such as phosphorus, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium zinc & copper.
- Contains vitamins such as A, C, K, E, B6 & folate.
- Rich in raw polysaccharide (RPS), a potent compound that has been shown to bind to lectins, effectively blocking their ability to cause harm in the gut.
- Contains a substance called myricetin, which is known to improve and increase sugar absorption by muscles and can help in lowering the high sugar level in the blood.
Okra is low in calories, fat, and carbohydrates, it contains some protein and fibre, which makes okra unique to many other fruits and vegetables which lack protein. Eating enough protein is associated with benefits for weight management, blood sugar control, bone structure, and muscle mass.
Okra is brimming with antioxidant compounds known to combat oxidative stress including catechins and quercetin. Catechins are found in superfoods like green tea and cocoa and are also found in okra. This antioxidant-rich compound has been linked to the prevention and treatment of chronic illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by reducing the oxidative stress load on the colon and by demonstrating anti-inflammatory effects. The ability to reduce oxidative stress may also be linked to a decrease in cancer. Quercetin – a plant pigment is similarly found in green tea and has properties that are anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and antiviral.
Evidence also suggests that eating a diet rich in polyphenol-packed foods like okra is connected to better heart health. Better brain health. The same polyphenols which help improve heart health also does wonders for the brain. Studies have found that polyphenols are good at entering the brain compared to other antioxidants. With high concentrations of polyphenols and other antioxidants, okra has been shown to have powerful medicinal properties, including protecting against fatigue.
Okra may not be the most conventional vegetable in the garden, but it has a rich content of vitamins and minerals, as listed in the USDA National Nutrient Database. Okra boasts a large amount of vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, and vitamin K. We all know vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient that contributes to your overall immune function, this is because it protects us from environmental oxidative stress and Vitamin C deficiency can be highly disruptive for a whole lot of body functions. Vitamin K is essential for healthy blood clotting and strong bones. Vitamin A supports vision, immunity, and reproductive health.
Okra contains high levels of nutritious mucilaginous fibre, colloquially called “okra slime”. Most of the health benefits are due to the presence of minerals, vitamins, and organic compounds found in this gooey sticky substance.
The mucilage or ‘okra slime’ is a beneficial component, apart from the goodness it retains, it also acts like a soluble fibre which aids in food digestion. A 2016 study by a team of international researchers says that the fibre content of okra can help improve digestion. The study found that the high amount of fibre in the vegetable helped improve the absorption process in the large intestine and stimulated peristalsis in the body. This slimy texture can then be a helping hand in keeping digestive processes more efficient and helping to prevent constipation. The soluble fibre may also help to lower cholesterol and protect against CVD and heart disease. A study relating to this was conducted in China and published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry (July 2014).
Okra is a common Ayurvedic food that is being used to helps improve insulin sensitivity, to help lower blood sugar levels and control different types of diabetes. Some people with diabetes reported that drinking okra water in the morning on an empty stomach helps improve blood sugar control. The drink is made by putting okra pods in water and soaking them overnight. Some of the valuable nutrients in the skin and seed pods will be absorbed into the water. Organic Okra powder is available to buy online and in certain shops, you can add the powder to water and drink it as a daily supplement.
Okra is under-rated and deserves its spot amongst the coveted ranks of green superfoods foods everywhere.