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By Karen Alexander, Oncology Wellness Specialist


The Health Benefits of Okra

Okra is a popular vegetable in the Southern United States. It originated in Ethiopia and quickly spread to North Africa, the Mediterranean, Arabia and India by the 12th century BC. It is called lady’s fingers in England, gumbo in the United States, guino-gombo in Spanish-speaking countries, guibeiro in Portugal, and bhindi in India.

Okra is very multifaceted. The immature pods are eaten as vegetable in salads, soups, and stews. Okra’s flowers are pretty and may be used as table or plate decorations, and okra seeds can be roasted and ground to form a caffeine-free substitute for coffee.

One cup of okra has 20 calories, 4 grams of fiber, 7 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of protein, no fats, and is a great source of vitamin K, C, B6, B1, folate, magnesium and copper. The okra seed is rich in protein and unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic acid.

Vitamin K plays a role in bone health and clotting, and may prevent excessive bleeding. One cup of okra has almost 70% of your daily target of vitamin K. Please note that if you are taking Coumadin or any other blood thinner, you might want to ask your doctor before increasing the amount of okra in your diet. One cup of okra also provides about 40% of your daily target of vitamin C. Vitamin C plays an important role in wound healing, formation of collagen, absorption of iron, and the maintenance of cartilage, bones and teeth. It also has a positive impact on the immune system.

Okra is very high in fiber, which helps to slow sugar assimilation through the intestines and to manage blood glucose. Fiber also supports colon health by absorbing toxins, bile acid and excess water in its path and removing them from the body. Okra’s polysaccharides may inhibit the adhesion of Helicobacter pylori, a stomach bacterium that can lead to gastritis and gastric ulcers. Finally, okra has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties due to its high levels of vitamin C, phenols, and flavonoids, among others.

How to Grow Okra in Your Backyard

Okra is in season from June until November. You should plant your okra a week to 10 days after the last frost in your area, when the soil has warmed to somewhere between 65° and 70°F. Before planting, make sure to soak the seeds and wrap them in moist paper towels or leave in water overnight to accelerate germination. Plant okra in fertile, well-drained soil in full light about ½ to 1 inch deep and 12 to 18 inches apart. If you prefer, you can first plant the okra seeds indoors in peat pots under full light, 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost. Then when you transplant the okra to your garden, make sure to space them 1 to 2 feet apart to give them enough room to grow. Keep the plants well-watered throughout the summer months. An inch of water per week is ideal, but use more if you are in a hot, arid region.

Okra yields a lot. It’s time to harvest the okra pods when they are tender and immature (about 2 to 3 inches), checking them at least every other day. After the first harvest, remove the lower leaves to help speed up production. Use pruning shears for clean cuts. If the pod is hard to cut, it is probably too old to use. Wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting okra to prevent skin irritation due to okra’s short hairs. Seven-day-old fresh okra pods have the highest concentration of nutrients.

Fresh okra should be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for no more than 2 to 3 days. Keep the pods unwashed and completely dry so they do not absorb any moisture, and if the pods become too soft or begin to turn brown, discard them. If you want to freeze fresh okra, make sure to blanch it first. Unblanched okra will lose nutrients, flavor and color when frozen. 

The Recipe of the Week: Okra and Corn with Tomatoes

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced into rounds
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon each thyme, red pepper flakes and basil
1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
3 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
4 ears corn (about 2 cups), kernels removed (you can also use frozen or canned whole kernel corn, drained)
2 cups small okra pods, left whole or cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1/2 cup water or chicken stock
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Heat olive oil in a 10 inch iron skillet or heavy pan and add onions, bay leaves, thyme, basil, and red pepper flakes. Sauté, stirring until onions are limp. Add bell pepper and continue cooking until the onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, okra, water, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add corn and cook 5 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve hot.

Yield: 6 Servings

*Recipe via Illinois.Edu


Have a great weekend!

Karen Ambrosio Alexander, BSND, MSCN

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