okra

Take a second look at the humble okra.

When you think about favorite vegetables, okra is typically not at the top of the list.  This often-forgotten food has an undeserved bad reputation because of its slimy texture when boiled.   Okra, which is actually a fruit, is packed with disease-fighting antioxidants and heart-healthy fiber.  Okra grows especially well in hot, humid climates such as the southern United States.  As a result, okra has become an important part of southern cuisine. 

Okra is a warm season vegetable in the mallow family.  The scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus, and the common names are Ladies’ Fingers and Okra.  It is a tall, upright plant with a hibiscus-type yellow flower with a purple center.  Okra originally came from Africa.  The pods of the okra plant are harvested when they reach a length of about three inches in length.  The leaves, flower buds, and flowers of the okra plant are also edible.  

Okra contains a wide range of antioxidant vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fatty acids, and is a good source of dietary fiber.  According to the journal, Molecules, the okra pod contains polyphenolic compounds, carotene, folic acid, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin C, vitamin A, oxalic acid, and amino acids.  In addition, numerous studies suggest that the polysaccharides in okra have antidiabetic properties which lower blood glucose levels by stimulating glycogen synthesis in the liver and delaying intestinal absorption of glucose.  Okra is also associated with improved lipid profiles and heart health.  The fiber in okra helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by decreasing the absorption of cholesterol.  Antioxidants, such as phenolic compounds, found in okra protect against atherosclerosis by preventing the oxidation of free radicals.  Okra is also rich in folate which is important for a healthy pregnancy and for forming red blood cells.  Folate lowers the risk of neural tube defects.  

It is important to note that okra is rich in oxalates.  Oxalates can combine with calcium to form calcium oxalates, the main component of kidney stones.  Individuals who are susceptible to developing kidney stones should limit the amount of oxalate-rich foods they consume at one time.   

On an interesting side note, the okra has been adopted as the unofficial mascot for Delta State University, affectionately known as the Fighting Okra.  This fun mascot has his own YouTube videos and makes frequent appearances at football games and other campus events.  He has been known to repel from buildings and occasionally arrives in one of Delta State’s flight school planes.  Can you think of a better or more unique mascot?  

If you thought okra was only for boiling, go to your local farmer’s market or Pontotoc’s Saturday Off-The-Square Market, buy some fresh okra, and give this versatile, nutritious vegetable a second chance.  When buying fresh okra, look for firm, bright green pods that are not too large.  The University of Nebraska-Lincoln recommends storing fresh okra in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator for up to three days.  Avoid okra that is moldy, limp, or discolored.  Always wash okra pods before cooking.  Andrea Mathis, registered dietitian and founder of Beautiful Eats and Things, offers the following heart-healthy recipe using okra.

Sauteed Kale with Chickpeas, Okra, and Tomatoes (Serves:  6)

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp oil 
  • 1 (12 oz) package Nature’s Greens Organic Kale Greens 
  • 2 cloves garlic minced 
  • 1 onion thinly sliced 
  • 1 (15.5 oz) can chickpeas drained & rinsed 
  • 2 cups grape tomatoes sliced in half 
  • 8 oz fresh okra 
  • 1/2 tsp paprika 
  • Salt and pepper to taste 

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat and start cooking the garlic and onions. Add in the kale, chickpeas, and tomatoes.  Cook for 5 minutes or until kale becomes tender.
  2. Toss in okra and cook for an additional 5 minutes.  Season with paprika and salt/pepper to taste.

Tip:  To make the okra less slimy, add the okra in towards the end of cooking.  

References

Mathis, A. (n.d.).  Beautiful Eats and Things.  Retrieved from: https://www.beautifuleatsandthings.com

Clemson Cooperative Extension (2020).  Okra Factsheet.  Retrieved from: https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/okra/

Durazzo, A., Lucarini, M., Novellino, E., Souto, E. B., Daliu, P., and Santini, A. (2019).  

Abelmoschus esculentus (L.): Bioactive Components’ Beneficial Properties - Focused on Antidiabetic Role - For Sustainable Health Applications.  Molecules, 24(38).  

North Carolina State University Extension (n.d.).  Abelmoschus esculentus.  Retrieved from: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2021).  Okra.  Retrieved from: https://food.unl.edu/article/okra

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