Okra, both a common pod vegetable and nightshade vegetable (but it’s actually a fruit!), is also called “gumbo” in the U.S. When we think of okra we usually think of Southern cooking, including cajun and creole cuisine, but did you know that this veggie also has numerous nutrition benefits too?
Considered an edible ornamental flowering hibiscus, okra is an annual, erect herb with stems that contain stiff hairs. The whole plant has an aromatic smell resembling that of cloves.
The plant itself resembles the cotton plant, but it has much larger and rougher leaves and a thicker stem.
Okra has many interesting uses and is known to be an economically important vegetable crop because its fresh leaves, buds, flowers, pods, stems and seeds all have value. It can be used in salads, stews, fresh or dried, and fried or boiled.
No matter how you enjoy it most, it’s a good source of fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, folate and more.
Let’s start off with the most basic question: What is okra?
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a hairy plant that belongs to the mallow family (Malvaceae). This plant is native native to Africa and the tropics of the Eastern Hemisphere.
Is okra a fruit or vegetable? It’s technically a fruit because it contains seeds, but it’s most commonly considered a vegetable, especially when it comes to culinary uses.
The only parts of the plant that is eaten are the unripe pods or fruit.
The inside of pods contain oval, dark-colored seeds and a good amount of mucilage, which is a gelatinous substance that makes it a great addition to recipes that you want to thicken.
Many people wonder: Why is it slimy?
That mucilage or “slime” inside of the pods consists of exopolysacharrides and glycoproteins. This gooey aspect of the pods actually provides some really incredible benefits, especially those related to prevention of diabetes (more on that later).
Okra was apparently discovered in the Abyssinian center of origin of cultivated plants, an area that includes present-day Ethiopia, the mountainous or plateau portion of Eritrea, and the eastern, higher part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
People have been growing okra in the U.S. for centuries. While records of okra during early American colonial times are lacking, it must have been common among French colonists. It was being grown as far north as Philadelphia since the mid-1700s.
Is okra a superfood? While it might not be as nutrient-dense as veggies such as spinach and kale, it’s packed with some valuable nutrients.
Nearly 10 percent of the recommended levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid are also present in a half cup of cooked okra.
Known as a high-antioxidant food, it can fight free radical damage and support improvements in cardiovascular and coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, digestive diseases, and even some cancers. Additionally, it’s abundant in several other vitamins and minerals, including thiamine, riboflavin/vitamin B2 and zinc.
Studies show that okra seeds are especially rich in protective compounds, including:
A half cup (about 80 grams) of cooked okra nutrition contains approximately:
In addition, okra nutrition contains some:
Okra and acorn squash are both thought of as vegetables, but since they contain seeds they are technically types of fruit. If you’re following a keto diet or another low-carb diet, it’s helpful to know that okra, acorn squash and asparagus are all acceptable choices.
Asparagus is the lowest in carbohydrates followed by okra followed by acorn squash. All three “vegetables” are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and key vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin A and potassium.
You can find all three of these healthy options in your grocery stores year-round, but if you’re looking to buy them seasonally at your local farmers market, okra is usually available in late summer/early fall while acorn squash is definitely a fall crop and asparagus is a spring veggie.
What are the benefits of eating okra? According to a 2019 report published in the journal Phytochemical Research, Abelmoschus esculentus “possesses a number of important biological activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory, antibacterial, anticancer, antidiabetic, organ protective, and neuropharmacological activities.”
In both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, okra is considered a cooling food. “Hot” and “cold” foods don’t refer to temperature, but rather whether or not a food item has a cooling or a heating effect within our bodies after it’s consumed.
In Ayurvedic medicine, this veggie is said to have a moistening effect on the body, which makes it a good choice for balancing the dryness often experienced by someone with a Vata dosha. In the East, the unripened fruit and leaves have a lengthy history of use in traditional medicine as an ingredient in pain-relieving poultices.
What happens when you eat okra every day? Here are some of the top health perks associated with this veggie:
In addition to healthy bones, calcium is needed to regulate heart rhythms, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also helps with muscle function and nerve-signaling functions.
For those who suffer from the symptoms of lactose intolerance or are vegans or vegetarians, calcium provided by vegetables can help make up for a lack of dairy.
The soluble fiber within okra helps naturally reduce cholesterol and, therefore, can help decrease the chance of developing issues such as cardiovascular disease, according to the Journal of Food Processing & Technology.
Specifically, it’s loaded with pectin fiber, which can help reduce high blood cholesterol simply by modifying the creation of bile within the intestines. A scientific review published in 2018 in the International Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences points out that nearly half of the contents of okra pods are soluble fiber in the form of gums and pectins.
In addition, the mucilage of okra binds excess cholesterol and toxins found in the bile acids, making it easier for the liver to eliminate them. The mucilage also has other medicinal applications when used as a plasma replacement or blood volume expander.
Okra pods are a fantastic source of vitamin A and beta-carotene, as well vitamin C, which are important nourishment for sustaining healthy eyesight (along with healthy skin). Additionally, this nourishment may help inhibit eye-associated illnesses, such as macular degeneration.
Okra nutrition benefits are so plentiful that it’s been called the “perfect villager’s vegetable” due to its dietary fiber and distinct seed protein balance of both lysine and tryptophan amino acids.
The amino acid composition of this veggie’s seeds is actually comparable to that of soybeans, which are a popular plant-based protein source. The seeds provide essential amino acids that you must get from your diet, since your body cannot make them on its own.
Okra helps stabilize blood sugar by regulating the rate at which sugar is absorbed from the intestinal tract. The seeds contain blood glucose normalization qualities and lipid profiles that may help naturally prevent diabetes.
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences, researchers in India found that when rats were fed dried and ground okra peels and seeds, they experienced a reduction in their blood glucose levels, while others showed a gradual decrease in blood glucose following regular feeding of okra extract for about 10 days.
In addition to scientific research, many diabetics have reported lowered blood sugar levels after soaking cut-up okra pieces in water overnight and then drinking the juice in the morning. In fact, in countries like Turkey, roasted seeds have been used for generations as a traditional diabetes medicine.
Okra contains insoluble fiber, which helps keep the intestinal tract healthy by decreasing the risk of some forms of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. It also has liver detoxification, antibacterial and chemo-preventive activities that support normal digestion and gut health.
One study found that consumption of okra could enhance communication of microbiota-gut-brain axis via regulation of inflammation responses.
According to some experts, this veggie can help protect intestinal barrier function and lubricate the intestines. It’s capable of adding bulk to stools, and therefore, it helps prevent constipation and works as a natural laxative.
Unlike harsh laxatives that can irritate the intestinal tract, the mucilage is soothing and helps encourage easier elimination.
Okra is usually available in late summer/early fall in most parts of the U.S. Look for it at your local grocery store or farmers markets. Choose pods that are brightly colored and firm.
How can you grow it at home?
This vegetable requires cool climates when seeded and then humid climates to grow. It typically grows best in locations where temperatures go above 85 degrees Fahrenheit most days, such as the Southern United States.
It is easily injured by frost, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The fruit is a long pod, generally ribbed and spineless in cultivated varieties. However, pods vary in length, color and smoothness depending on the variety and grow best in well-drained and manure-rich soil.
It’s best to gather the pods while they are green, tender and at an immature stage.
How do you store cut okra?
Store the pods in the refrigerator whole rather than cut.
How long will it keep in the fridge? Whole pods will usually last two to three days in the fridge and two to three months in the freezer.
Can you freeze the pods without cooking them? Yes, you can freeze them fresh for later use.
How do you know when okra goes bad? If your pods are soft, squishy and/or brown, it’s time to throw them away.
What does okra taste like?
The pods provide excellent flavor and a pleasant mucilaginous consistency.
For some, it is an acquired taste. Due to its stringy mucous within the pod, it often is unappealing to consumers. However, the slimy texture can be reduced by cooking in salted water.
Don’t forget that one of benefits of okra water is how it can naturally thickens recipes.
How can it be prepared?
Okra can be boiled, fried, steamed, grilled, battered or eaten raw. The fruits of the okra plant are preserved by pickling or drying and grinding into powder. They’re used to make things like soups, sauces and salads.
The principal use of okra is in soups like gumbos and various culinary preparations in which meats form an important factor. Okra is also sometimes cooked similarly to the way green peas are cooked — the very young and tender pods are often boiled and served as a salad with French dressing.
For those growing up in the Southern U.S., okra is a staple and most often served fried with a generous cornmeal coating. However, there are lots of other healthy ways to add it to your diet.
For starters, if you like classic fried okra, try this healthy version of a fried okra recipe: Oil-Free Gluten-Free Oven-Fried Okra.
Here a few other recipes to get you started:
Is it safe to eat raw okra?
Yes, you can the pods raw. Just make sure you wash them thoroughly first.
If you’re wondering, how do I clean them? Wash the pods in warm water, and make sure they are completely dry before using them if you are looking to reduce their slime.
Can you eat the whole pod?
Before eating okra raw or cooking it, trim off a thin slice of the stem end or top of the pod. The rest can be consumed.
How do you cook okra without it being slimy?
One method is to cook it whole. If you’re going to slice it, aim for bigger chunks.
To reduce slime, some cooks soak whole okra in a mixture of vinegar and water for 30 to 60 minutes before using it in recipes. According to experts, adding lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or chopped tomatoes can also lower the slime that remains in your final product. Plus, those are some really healthy and flavorful additions to any meal.
Can okra be bad for you? While generally a healthy food, it does contain solanine like some other fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Some people with joint conditions like arthritis try to avoid solanine.
In addition, it’s high in vitamin K, and people on blood thinners are often advised to avoid too many high-vitamin K foods.
What are the side effects of eating okra? Okra contains a good amount of fructans, a type of carbohydrate that can lead to gas, cramping, diarrhea and bloating for some people with bowel/gut problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Check with your doctor before consuming it if you have a condition like IBS.
Okra is also high in oxalates so check with your doctor if it’s OK to eat if you’re very prone to kidney stones.
While allergic reactions to this plant are rare, some experience allergy symptoms when harvesting and eating this veggie, so use caution if you’re allergic to similar plants, such as hollyhock, rose of Sharon and hibiscus.
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