Eating 10 Portions of Fruits and Vegetables Daily Best for Health

Eating five portions of fruits and vegetables daily is considered sufficient for good health. But according to a new study, the greatest benefits come from eating 10 portions a day.
[A colorful selection of fruits and vegetables]
Researchers say eating 10 portions of fruits and vegetables daily is best for preventing disease and premature death.

From an analysis of 95 studies assessing the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption, researchers found that eating 800 grams of fruits and vegetables daily – or around 10 portions of 80 grams – was associated with the lowest risk of disease and premature death.

Apples, pears, green leafy vegetables, and cruciferous vegetables were found to be among the most beneficial for health.

Lead author Dr. Dagfinn Aune, of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Current guidelines recommend that adults should aim to eat around five cups of fruits and vegetables daily – two cups of fruits and three cups of vegetables – to help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

While consuming five portions of fruits and vegetables daily is beneficial, Dr. Aune and colleagues set out to determine how many fruits and vegetables need to be consumed for maximum protection against disease and early death.

To reach their findings, the researchers analyzed the data of 95 studies that looked at the health benefits of fruit and vegetable intake.

In total, the studies involved almost 2 million participants and around 43,000 cases of heart disease, 47,000 cases of stroke, 81,000 cases of cardiovascular disease (CVD), and 94,000 deaths.

The team analyzed the fruit and vegetable intake of each participant, looking specifically at how much they consumed daily and the specific fruits and vegetables consumed.

Up to 33 percent lower risk of disease and death with 10 portions daily

One portion of fruits of vegetables was defined as 80 grams – the equivalent of a small banana, pear, or apple, or three heaped tablespoons of cooked vegetables, such as peas, broccoli, or cauliflower.

The researchers then calculated the association between fruit and vegetable intake and the risks of heart disease, stroke, CVD, cancer, and premature death.

The team found that, compared with no fruit and vegetable consumption, participants who ate just 200 grams of fruits and vegetables a day – the equivalent to around 2.5 portions – saw health benefits. These included an 18 percent reduced risk of stroke, a 16 percent reduced risk of heart disease, a 13 percent lower risk of CVD, and a 4 percent reduced risk of cancer.

Eating 200 grams of fruits and vegetables daily was also associated with a 15 percent lower risk of premature death.

However, the researchers found that the more fruits and vegetable participants ate daily, the greater the benefits.

Compared with subjects who consumed no fruits and vegetables, those who ate up to 800 grams – or 10 portions – each day were found to have a 33 percent lower risk of stroke, a 28 percent reduced risk of CVD, a 24 percent lower risk of heart disease, and a 13 percent decrease in cancer risk.

A 31 percent reduction in premature death was also associated with a daily fruit and vegetable intake of up to 800 grams.

What is more, the researchers calculated that if everyone ate 10 portions of fruits and vegetables daily, then around 7.8 million premature deaths could be prevented across the globe annually.

Which fruits and vegetables are best?

The team found that apples, pears, citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables (such as chicory and spinach), and cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage and broccoli) were best for reducing the risk of stroke, CVD, heart disease, and premature death.

The greatest reduction in cancer risk was associated with intake of green vegetables (such as green beans), yellow vegetables (such as peppers and carrots), and cruciferous vegetables.

Consumption of raw and cooked vegetables was associated with reduced risk of premature death, but the team did not have enough data to determine which specific fruits and vegetables reduced this risk.

While the study did not investigate the mechanisms behind high fruit and vegetable intake and reduced risk of disease and death, the team notes that fruits and vegetables have been linked to lower cholesterol and improved blood vessel and immune system function.

“This may be due to the complex network of nutrients they hold,” notes Dr. Aune. “For instance, they contain many antioxidants, which may reduce DNA damage, and lead to a reduction in cancer risk.”

Overall, the researchers believe their findings highlight the importance of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthful diet.

“We need further research into the effects of specific types of fruits and vegetables and preparation methods of fruit and vegetables. We also need more research on the relationship between fruit and vegetable intake with causes of death other than cancer and cardiovascular disease.

However, it is clear from this work that a high intake of fruit and vegetables hold tremendous health benefits, and we should try to increase their intake in our diet.”

Dr. Dagfinn Aune

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Your 12 Best Organic Bets

When considering your produce, remember that nine out of ten Americans do not eat the recommended 2 portions of fruit and 2 1/2 portions of vegetables each day. So your first step might be to simply incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet. However, with all the headlines about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other food-safety issues, many people are considering organic options more often.While more research is needed for confirmation, “some evidence suggests that organic produce may contain more vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial plant compounds than conventionally grown produce,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, the national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago. In any case, in addition to the advantage of lower pesticide levels, organically grown products is also Earth-friendly: sustainable organic farming enhances the soil and conserves water—a boon to all of us in the long term.

Get to know the top 12

Since organics often cost more to produce and therefore may cost shoppers more, those not up to buying organic everything can still benefit their families’ health by concentrating on where they get the most bang for the buck.

The Environmental Working Group—a Washington DC-based watchdog organization of scientists, policy experts, lawyers, and other professionals who review studies and data to expose threats to our environment and health—has compiled a list based on extensive analysis of contaminants in produce. The EWGclaimsthat you can lower your pesticide exposure by 90% simply by choosing the organic varieties of the following fruits and vegetables—presented from most to least important.

  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Domestic blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Sweet bell peppers
  8. Spinach, kale, and collard greens
  9. Cherries
  10. Potatoes
  11. Imported grapes
  12. Lettuce

You can start slowly and purchase just a few items each week. Make one out of every ten foods you buy organic. Pick one thing—apples, peaches, or potatoes, for instance. Environmentalists and health professionals agree: If we can get a lot of people to do a little, it will make a big difference!

15 low-risk favorites

The produce in this list does not appear to absorb pesticides as easily and is safe to consume in non-organic form, including:

  1. Onions
  2. Avocados
  3. Sweet corn
  4. Pineapples
  5. Mango
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Kiwi fruit
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Cantaloupe
  12. Watermelon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Sweet potatoes
  15. Sweet onions

Remember, the important thing is to get what fruits and veggies you can into your home. If they’re within reach—such as in your fridge or in a fruit bowl on the dining room table—you’re more likely to eat more. And eating more fruits and vegetables may well be more important to your health bottom line than avoiding pesticides. Counsels Blatner, “Consume the minimum recommended amount every day—no matter how it’s grown!”

What is Healthy Eating? What is a Healthy Diet?

Healthy eating means consuming the right quantities of foods from all food groups in order to lead a healthy life.

Diet is often referred to as some dietary regimen for losing weight. However, diet simply means what food we eat in the course of a 24-hour, one week, or one month, etc. period.

A good diet is a nutritional lifestyle that promotes good health. A good diet must include several food groups because one single group cannot provide everything a human needs for good health.

When we eat matters too

A large breakfast helps control body weight – a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, Israel, explained in the journal Obesity that a big breakfast – one containing about 700 calories – is better for losing weight and lowering one’s risk of developing heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Prof. Daniela Jakubowicz and team stressed that when we eat our food may matter as much as what we eat.

How do you define healthy eating?

The crucial part of healthy eating is a balanced diet. A balanced diet – or a good diet – means consuming from all the different food groups in the right quantities. Nutritionists say there are five main food groups – whole grains, fruit and vegetables, protein, dairy, and fat & sugar.


Whole grains

According to the USDA (United States Dept. of Agriculture), we should consume at least 3 ounces of whole grains per day. A whole grain, unlike refined grains, still has the bran and the germ attached. Whole grains are rich in fiber, minerals, and vitamins. When grains are refined the bran and germ are removed.

It is not possible to know whether food is made from whole grain just by looking at it.

To be really sure you have to read the label. In the list of ingredients, the word whole or whole grain needs to appear before the name of the grain.

Whole grain products include bread, pasta, and cereals – they need to be made with 100% whole grain.

Whole grain foods and flours include 100% whole wheat, brown rice, bulgur, corn, buckwheat, oatmeal (oats), spelt and wild rice.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are rich in vital vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Fruit and vegetables have a high vitamin, mineral and fiber content – these nutrients are vital for your body to function well.

Several studies have proven that a good intake of fruit and vegetables may protect from developing heart disease, diabetes type 2, and cancer.

Most health departments throughout the world recommend that we consume five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. This could include either fresh, frozen or canned, or dried fruit and veggies.

A portion means either one large fruit, such as an apple, mango, or a banana, or three heaped tablespoons of vegetables. It could also include one glass of 100% fruit or vegetable juice.

A fruit/vegetable drink is one portion, no matter how big it is. Beans and pulses can also count as one portion.


Protein

We need protein for the building and repairing of tissue in our body. Protein-rich foods also include essential minerals, such as iron, magnesium, zinc, as well as B vitamins.

Douglas Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The University of Texas Medical Branch says that proteins should make up about 20 to 25 percent of our nutritional intake.

The following foods are good sources of protein:

Tofu, an example of a plant sourced protein.
  • meat
  • poultry
  • fish
  • eggs
  • beans
  • nuts
  • quorn
  • soya (includes tofu)

Nutritionists advise that the fat in meat should be trimmed and drained away after cooking. The skin should be removed from poultry.

For people who are not vegetarians, nutritionist advises we consume fish at least twice a week, preferably fish rich in omega oils, such as trout, fresh tuna, sardines, mackerel, and salmon.

The canning process of tuna removes the essential oils, hence only fresh tuna is considered as an oily fish.

It is better for your health to grill, roast or microwave meats and fish, rather than frying them.

Vegans, who do not eat any foods from animal sources, may get their protein from nuts, seeds, soya, beans, and quorn. Vegans may have to supplement their zinc and B12 vitamin intake as these foods are not rich in them.


Legumes

Legumes are plants in the pea family that produce pods that split open naturally along a seam (dehisce), revealing a row of seeds.

Legumes help improve glycemic control.

The following are the most commonly eaten legumes:

  • soy
  • peas
  • peanuts
  • mesquite
  • lupins
  • lentils
  • clover
  • carob
  • beans
  • alfalfa

Researchers from the University of Toronto, Canada, reported in Archives of Internal Medicine, October 2012 issue, that eating plenty of legumes helps improve glycemic control in people with diabetes type 2, as well as reducing the risk of developing coronary heart disease.


Dairy

Although butter, cream and even sometimes eggs are often classed as dairy products, in nutrition they are more frequently placed in the protein (eggs) or fat & sugar category. Dairy products are a good source of calcium which is important for healthy bones and teeth.

Dairy products include milk, yogurts, cheese, and some soy dairy products. Nutritionists say we should aim for low-fat dairy products.

People who do not consume animal sourced foods can get their calcium intake from other products, such as broccoli, cabbage and soya milk and yogurts with added calcium.


Fats and sugars

These include sugar, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, jam, butter, margarine, mayonnaise, non-diet sodas, etc. – all products with a very high fat or sugar content.

There are two basic types of fats – saturated and unsaturated. Cream, margarine, and fried foods are high in saturated fats, while vegetable oils and oily fish are rich in unsaturated fats. Saturated fat consumption should be kept to a minimum because excess consumption significantly increases the risk of developing such diseases as heart disease.

Even sugary foods and drinks, like some sodas and sweets, should be kept to a minimum because they are high in calories and bad for your teeth.

Healthy eating and the World Health Organization (WHO)

The WHO makes the following 5 recommendations – they apply both to populations and individuals:

  • We should aim for an energy balance and a healthy body weight.
  • We should limit our energy consumption from total fats. We should also aim for more unsaturated fats and less saturated fats.
  • We should up our consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.
  • We should consume as little simple sugars are possible.
  • As well as making sure our salt is iodized, we should also limit our consumption of salt/sodium.

WHO also recommends that we:

  • Consume enough vital amino acids to provide “cellular replenishment and transport proteins”. These can be found in animal-sourced proteins and some selected plant sourced proteins. A combination of other plants, with the exception of rice and beans, may also provide essential amino acids.
  • Consume essential quantities of vitamins and certain minerals.
  • Should avoid directly poisonous and carcinogenic substances.
  • Avoid consuming foods that may are contaminated with human pathogens, such as E. coli and tapeworm eggs.

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) issued by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)

The HEI is a measure of diet quality that reviews how people are conforming to Federal dietary guidance. The HEI was first formulated by the USDA in 1995 and was renewed in 2005.

The standards were created using a density approach – they are expressed as a percentage of calories per 1,000 calories. The components of the 2005-HEI can be seen below:

Healthy Eating Index – 2005 components and standards for scoring

  • Total Fruit (includes 100% juice)
    Maximum points 5
    Standard for maximum score ≥0.8 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Fruit
  • Whole Fruit (not juice)
    Maximum points 5
    Standard for maximum score ≥0.4 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Whole Fruit
  • Total Vegetables
    Maximum points 5
    Standard for maximum score ≥1.1 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Vegetables
  • Dark Green and Orange No Dark Green or Orange Vegetables and Legumes
    Maximum points 5
    Standard for maximum score ≥0.4 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No dark green or orange Vegetables or Legumes
  • Total Grains
    Maximum points 5
    Standard for maximum score ≥3.0 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Grains
  • Whole Grains
    Maximum points 5
    Standard for maximum score ≥1.5 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Whole Grains
  • Milk
    Maximum points 10
    Standard for maximum score ≥1.3 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Milk
  • Meat and Beans
    Maximum points 10
    Standard for maximum score ≥2.5 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Meat or Beans
  • Oils4
    Maximum points 10
    Standard for maximum score ≥12 grams per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – No Oil
  • Saturated Fat
    Maximum points 10
    Standard for maximum score ≤7% of energy
    Standard for minimum score zero – ≥15% of energy
  • Sodium
    Maximum points 10
    Standard for maximum score ≤0.7 gram per 1,000 kcal
    Standard for minimum score zero – ≥2.0 grams per 1,000 kcal
  • Calories from Solid Fats, Alcoholic beverages, and Added Sugars (SoFAAS)
    Maximum points 20
    Standard for maximum score ≤20% of energy
    Standard for minimum score zero – ≥50% of energy

Consequences of unhealthy eating

According to Gov.UK, most people in England are either overweight or obese (This includes 61.3% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15).

In the US, the states of Mississippi and Alabama have obesity rates above 30%, while 22 other states have obesity rates all over 25%.

A balanced diet is a crucial part of healthy eating.

At least 200,000 people in the UK die prematurely each year as a result of stroke, coronary heart disease and some other illnesses that are linked to unhealthy eating and lifestyle. Many who do not die do not enjoy a painless, unrestricted and disability-free old age.

According to many studies, the USA ranks last among industrialized countries when it comes to preventable deaths – many of these deaths are due to poor diet, as well as the lack of exercise.

Nutritionists say that over four-fifths of men and over two-thirds of women consume excessive amounts of dietary salt in the UK. What many don’t know is that 75% of their salt intake is already in the food they buy.

It is estimated that one-third of all cancers could be prevented if everybody had a good diet. Healthy eating also protects from diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, strokes, and rotting teeth.

Plant-based diets protect from chronic diseases

An article published in Food Technology, in October 2012 showed that plant-based diets either minimize or completely eliminate many people’s genetic propensity to developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Peter Tarver, senior writer/editor of the journal referred to a WHO (World Health Organization) bulletin which informed that in 2008, worldwide, 63% of all deaths were caused by non-communicable chronic diseases and conditions, such as diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, obesity and certain cancers.

Poor diets contribute significantly towards the development and progression of all of these diseases.

What is Beta-Carotene? What Are The Benefits of Beta-Carotene?

Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment found in plants and fruits, especially carrots and colorful vegetables.

The name beta-carotene comes from the Greek “beta” and Latin “carota” (carrot). It is the yellow/orange pigment that gives vegetables and fruits their rich colors. H. Wachenroder crystallized beta-carotene from carrot roots in 1831, and came up with the name “carotene”.

Beta-carotene’s chemical formula – C40H56 – was discovered in 1907.

The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A (retinol) – beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A. We need vitamin A for healthy skin and mucous membranes, our immune system, and good eye health and vision.

Beta-carotene in itself is not an essential nutrient, but vitamin A is.

Fast facts on beta-carotene

Here are some key points about beta-carotene. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • Beta-carotene is a red/orange pigment found in many fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A, an essential vitamin
  • Vitamin A is toxic at high levels
  • Beta-carotene is a carotenoid and an antioxidant
  • Foods rich in vitamin A include onions, carrots, peas, spinach and squash
  • One study showed that smokers with high beta-carotene intake might have an increased risk of lung cancer
  • Some evidence suggests that beta-carotene might slow cognitive decline
  • Beta-carotene supplements interact with certain drugs, including statins and mineral oil
  • Beta-carotene might help older people retain their lung strength as they age.

Beta-carotene from food is a safe source of vitamin A

Vitamin A can be sourced from the food we eat, through beta-carotene, for example, or in supplement form. The advantage of dietary beta-carotene is that the body only converts as much as it needs.

Excess vitamin A is toxic. Toxic vitamin A levels can occur if you consume too many supplements.

Beta-carotene is an antioxidant

A Flamingo
The flamingo’s characteristic red-orange color is caused by beta-carotene in their diet.

Beta-carotene, like all carotenoids, is an antioxidant. An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules; it protects the body from free radicals.

Free radicals damage cells through oxidation. Eventually, the damage caused by free radicals can cause several chronic illnesses.

Several studies have shown that antioxidants through diet help people’s immune systems, protect against free radicals, and lower the risk of developing cancer and heart disease.

Some studies have suggested that those who consume at least four daily servings of beta-carotene rich fruits and/or vegetables have a lower risk of developing cancer or heart disease.

beta-carotene-foodsWhich foods are rich in beta-carotene?

The following foods are rich in beta-carotene:

  • Apricots
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Chives
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Grapefruit
  • Herbs and spices – chili powder, oregano, paprika, parsley
  • Kale
  • Ketchup
  • Many margarines
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Plums
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes.

If you follow a healthy diet rich in beta-carotene you do not need supplements. As mentioned above, supplements can lead to undesirable excesses in beta-carotene levels – this cannot occur if your source is from the food you eat.

Smokers and beta-carotene lung cancer risk

A French study involving adult females published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (September 2005 issue) found that smokers with high beta-carotene levels had a higher risk of lung cancer and other smoking-related cancers than other smokers. They also found that non-smokers with high beta-carotene intake had a lower risk of lung cancer.

They found that the risk of lung cancer over a ten-year period was:

  • 181.8 per 10,000 women for non-smokers with low beta-carotene intake
  • 81.7 per 10,000 women for non-smokers with high beta-carotene intake
  • 174 per 10,000 women for smokers with low beta-carotene intake
  • 368.3 per 10,000 women for smokers with high beta-carotene intake.

Further research has suggested that the high intake among smokers is nearly always due to supplements, and not food intake.

Beta-carotene may slow down cognitive decline

beta-carrot-juice
Carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene.

Men who have been taking beta-carotene supplements for 15 or more years are considerably less likely to experience cognitive decline than other males, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported in Archives of Internal Medicine (November 2007 issue).

Oxidative stress is thought to be a key factor in the cognitive decline, the researchers explained. Studies have shown that antioxidant supplements may help prevent the deterioration of cognition.

Their study, involving 4,052 men, compared those on beta-carotene supplements for an average of 18 years to others who were given a placebo. Over the short-term, they found no difference in cognitive decline risk between the two groups of men, but in the long-term, it was clear that beta-carotene supplements made a significant difference.

The researchers emphasized that there may have been other factors which contributed to the slower decline in cognitive abilities among the men in the beta-carotene group.

Beta-carotene drug interactions

Drug interaction refers to a substance interfering in how a medication works, by either making it less effective, increasing its potency, or changing what it is supposed to do.

The following drugs may be affected by beta-carotene supplements:

  • Statins – the effectiveness of simvastatin (Zocor) and niacin may be decreased if the patient is taking beta-carotene with selenium and vitamins E and C.
  • Some cholesterol-lowering drugs – cholestyramine and colestipol can reduce blood levels of dietary beta-carotene by thirty to forty percent.
  • Orlistat (Xenical, Alli) – this is a weight control medication. It can undermine the absorption of beta-carotene by up to 30%, resulting in lower blood beta-carotene levels. Those choosing to take a multivitamin while on orlistat should take them at least two hours before having their medication.
  • Mineral oil – used for the treatment of constipation can lower blood levels of beta-carotene.

Long-term alcohol consumption can interact with beta-carotene, raising the chances of developing liver problems.

Beta-carotene slows down lung power decline as people age

The British Medical Journal published a report in March 2006 which showed that high blood beta-carotene levels compensate for some of the damage to the lungs caused by oxygen free radicals.

They measured the FEV1 of 535 participants and measured their beta-carotene blood levels. FEV1 measures how much air you can breathe out in one go. They found that those with high beta-carotene levels had a much slower decline in FEV1 measures.

Food as Medicine: Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus, Malvaceae)

History and Traditional Use


Range and Habitat

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a naturalized tropical and subtropical annual grown extensively in Asia and Africa. Growing up to 6 feet in height, okra plants have sturdy stems, long, broad, serrated, deeply-lobed leaves, and delicate yellow flowers marked with red or purple color toward the base.1,2 The edible portion of okra is the immature pod or fruit which contains the seeds.3 Inside the tapering, the fuzzy pod is a soft tissue that exudes a mucilaginous (sticky) juice when cooked.4 The pods are commonly green, but other varieties have red or burgundy pods. Considered one of the most reliable annual edible vegetable crops of the tropics (the Latin term esculentus means edible), okra is tolerant of both hot, dry as well as hot, humid climates and is widely cultivated in West Africa, India, Southern Europe, and the Americas.5

Related to hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) and marshmallow (Althaea Officinalis), okra was originally classified in the genus Hibiscus and was later reclassified into the genus Abelmoschus in the 18th century.3 Okra is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, where it still grows wild, although there is no definitive proof of its origin.3 Okra has been cultivated by the Egyptians since the 12th century BCE. From there it traveled to central Africa, the Mediterranean, and India.6 By the 17th century CE, okra had reached the New World via the slave trade in Africa and by the 19th century, it had spread to China.2

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Okra is comprised primarily of water, carbohydrates, and protein with very little fat and a fair amount of dietary fiber.3 Okra is also a significant source of vitamin C and contains many other micronutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, iron, beta-carotene, and B vitamins. The carbohydrate content of okra is primarily in the form of mucilage, a long chain polysaccharide molecule made up of sugar units and amino acids. Thin-layer chromatography analytical methods indicate that the polysaccharides in okra gum contain galactose, galacturonic acid, rhamnose and glucose.7 This water-soluble mucilage is the source of okra’s viscous, slippery consistency, which is linked to okra’s effectiveness in treating gastritis and other conditions where the mucilage acts as a demulcent agent, i.e., it provides relief to inflamed mucous membranes.

Phytochemical studies show that okra pods contain flavonoids, tannins, sterols, and triterpenes.5Flavonoids are important compounds that are responsible for protecting tissues from oxidative damage in a variety of ways. Quercetin is the major antioxidant in okra gum, which is a key player in controlling inflammation in the body.7

Okra contains a moderate amount of oxalate, a compound that both is created by the human body and is present in plants. Because oxalate is excreted through urine and can calcify in the kidneys, high levels of oxalate intake along with genetic predisposition may lead to the development of kidney stones. Different types of kidney stones exist, but approximately 75% of patients diagnosed with kidney stones in the United States suffer from stones made of calcium oxalate.8 Physicians may recommend that patients with kidney stones or with a history of kidney stones follow a low-oxalate diet; however, a food’s oxalate content does not necessarily correlate with its oxalate bioavailability in the human body. Okra has been shown to have low oxalate bioavailability as compared to similar oxalate-rich foods such as peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) and almonds (Prunus dulcis).9 Oxalate absorption from dietary sources can be reduced when paired with foods with high calcium or magnesium content.10

Historical and Commercial Uses

Ancient cultures quickly noted okra’s mucilaginous nature and its subsequent benefits to the digestive system. Okra was used by Egyptians to prevent the development of kidney stones.5 In folkloric practice, fresh, tender okra pods were consumed to cure constipation, leucorrhea (abnormal vaginal discharge), spermatorrhea (excessive, involuntary ejaculation), diabetes, and jaundice. The mucilage from okra is used commonly in traditional Asian and African medicine to treat gastritis, gastric ulcers, and to lubricate the intestines.5,11,12

The acceptance of okra as a relatively modern medicinal agent can be found in J.M. Nickell’s Botanical Ready Reference, a book published in 1911 in the United States for physicians and pharmacists.13 Arranged alphabetically by Latin binomial, okra appears as the first entry on the list of herbal drugs and medicinal agents. The actions noted for okra capsule (fruit) are “mucilaginous, demulcent, and edible.”

Okra mucilage has been used traditionally in Arabic, West African, Caribbean, and Eastern Mediterranean cooking.6 The most common culinary application of okra is as a thickener for soups and stews. The most well-known application may be in Louisiana’s Creole gumbo stew, which may derive its name from a corruption of the Bantu word for okra: kingombo. It is also used as a substitute for egg whites and as a fat replacement in chocolate bars, cookies, and frozen dairy desserts.7 Okra can be boiled, baked, sautéed, stuffed, or fried. Sautéing or quickly frying the okra reduces the sticky texture significantly.4 The gummy texture can also be mitigated by cooking okra with cornmeal.14

The water extract of okra, also known as okra gum, is used as an industrial lubricant and as an emulsifier to stabilize foams and suspensions.9 It is also utilized medically in plasma replacement therapy.3 The seeds of the okra pods are roasted and powdered into a flour for use as a coffee substitute in Turkey, and in Nigeria, the nutritious flour is an important staple and often added to soups and other foods.4,15

In vitro studies done on the chemical composition and antioxidative properties of Nigerian okra, seed flour demonstrated that antioxidant activity correlated positively with roasting time.15 This study showed that antioxidants within the okra seeds had the greatest benefit in protecting the human large intestine from oxidative damage.

okraModern Research

Laboratory research suggests that okra and its extracts can be useful in the treatment of a variety of disease states. A recent in vitro study indicated that Abelmoschus esculentus lectin (AEL), a protein extracted from okra, binds carbohydrates on the surface of cancer cells, thus causing apoptosis (programmed cell death) and significantly and selectively inhibiting breast cancer cell proliferation.16

Modern research suggests that okra’s effectiveness in the treatment of gastrointestinal complaints can be attributed to the presence of rhamnogalacturonan polysaccharides, which disrupt the adhesion of Helicobacter pylori bacteria to stomach tissue;11 these bacteria are associated with stomach ulcers.

The polysaccharide compounds bind non-specifically to different strains of H. pylori, inhibiting the binding of the pathogens to gastric cells. The rhamnogalacturonan’s appear to interact with H. pylori’s surface proteins, potentially providing a preventative treatment approach. Okra’s mucilage could also inhibit the recurrence of H. pylori infections by preventing re-colonization of the stomach following antibiotic eradication therapy.

An in vitro study published in 2007 by the USDA Agricultural Research Service compared the effectiveness of the bile acid-binding, cholesterol-lowering drug cholestyramine to the natural bile acid-binding ability of the common vegetables okra, beets (Beta vulgaris), asparagus (Asparagus Officinalis), eggplant (Solanum malongena), turnips (Brassica rapa subsp. rapifera), green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus), and cauliflower (B. oleracea var. botrytis).17 Okra was found to be more effective at binding bile acids than any other vegetable evaluated in the study, and 34% as effective as cholestyramine.

An animal study conducted in 2011 found that okra peel and seed powder had the ability to normalize blood levels of both lipids and sugars in diabetic rats.18 Oral administration of okra significantly reduced blood levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, low-density lipoproteins (LDL), very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), and hemoglobin A1C as well as significantly increased blood levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and hemoglobin. While both parts of the plant were effective in a dose-dependent manner, the seed powder had a more pronounced effect than the peel, especially on blood glucose levels. These results indicate that consumption of okra may help reduce hyperlipidemia and hyperglycemia in diabetics, thus helping to prevent cardiovascular disease and other comorbidities associated with diabetes. These effects could be related to okra’s ability to bind bile acids.

Among other factors (e.g., soil, climate, season, etc.), cooking and preparation methods can impact the nutrient content of vegetables. A study on the effects of different cooking methods on the nutrient content of okra pods compared the mineral content of raw and cooked okra of both organic and conventional varieties.19 Raw okra had the highest concentration of all elements tested, indicating some degree of nutrient losses during cooking, with the most pronounced difference found in potassium concentration, while calcium losses were relatively minimal.

There were significant mineral losses following boiling and baking, but the effect was less pronounced with sautéing.19 This could be due to the water solubility of nutrients found in okra, including but not limited to its mucilage. While the loss of mineral content may seem undesirable, the marked reduction of minerals from cooking could be beneficial for those with kidney disease. For example, potassium levels can be reduced by up to 60% by boiling okra and pouring off the water, making boiled okra safer than raw okra for a potassium-restricted diet.

An in vitro study in 2011 examined the effects of okra gum extract on both cell viability and bacterial growth.7 Okra gum extract had antibacterial effects on seven of eight strains of bacteria tested, and was most effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Mycobacterium sp., M. aurum, Xanthobacter Py2, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. In fact, okra gum extract was completely effective in inhibiting the growth of S. aureus (which can cause skin infections, pneumonia, meningitis, and septicemia) as well as P. aeruginosa(known for causing fatal lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis). Major lipid fractions isolated from okra gum extract were 34% palmitic acid and 26% stearic acid, both of which have antibacterial properties against S. aureus and Listeria monocytogenes. The results of this study demonstrate the potential use of okra extract as an antibacterial agent with possible applications in the food and pharmaceutical industry.

A study on rats explored the traditional uses of okra in liver disease.5 Hepatotoxicity was induced in rats that were then given an okra gum extract that quenched all free radicals present, thus preventing lipid peroxidation of liver cell membranes. The hepatoprotective and antioxidant activities of the okra extract are comparable to standard silymarin, isolated from milk thistle (Silybum marianum) fruit, making okra extract a potentially important substance for protecting chemically-damaged liver tissue. Human clinical trials are needed to explore this potential therapeutic application.


Nutrient Profile20

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 1 cup [approx. 100 g] raw okra pods)

33 calories
2 g protein
7.5 g carbohydrate
0.2 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup [approx. 100 g] raw okra pods)

Excellent source of:

Vitamin K: 31.3 mcg (39.1% DV)
Vitamin C: 23 mg (38.3% DV)

Very good source of:

Folate: 60 mcg (15% DV)
Vitamin A: 716 IU (14.32% DV)
Magnesium: 57 mg (14.3% DV)
Thiamin: 0.2 mg (13.3% DV)
Dietary Fiber: 3.2 g (12.8% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.22 mg (11%DV)

Good source of:

Potassium: 299 mg (8.5% DV)
Calcium: 82 mg (8.2% DV)
Phosphorus: 61 mg (6.1% DV)
Niacin: 1 mg (5% DV)

Also provides:

Zinc: 0.6 mg (4% DV)
Iron: 0.6 mg (3.3% DV)
Vitamin E: 0.27 mg (2.5% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Recipe: Spicy Okra Stew

Adapted from New Flavors for Vegetables21
Ingredients:

  • 3 large ripe tomatoes
  • 1 lb fresh okra, stems removed, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4-1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Directions:

  1. Prepare a small saucepan of boiling water and a separate bowl of ice water. Blanch the tomatoes: cut a shallow “x” at the bottom of each tomato, then cook in boiling water for 10 seconds. Immediately submerge in the ice water, let stand for 10 more seconds, then drain. Peel the skin from the tomatoes and chop the flesh.

  2. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until just softened, 2-3 minutes. Add the okra and sauté until lightly browned, approximately 10 minutes, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook until tender.

  3. Add the garlic, salt, pepper, and spices, stirring until combined and fragrant, then add the tomatoes and 1 cup of water. Simmer until the tomatoes have broken down and the mixture begins to thicken. Adjust seasoning to taste, then remove from heat and stir in the chopped parsley.

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