Okra may be best known for its role in gumbo, star stew of Southern Creole cooking, but this slender green gem is so much more.
This ancient vegetable is native to Ethiopia and was first cultivated by the Egyptians in the 12th century B.C.E., before it made its way throughout Africa, as well as India, Brazil, and China. Slave traders brought it to North America, where it flourished in the South. Beloved worldwide, okra dons many different monikers, including lady's fingers, gumbo, and bhindi. Starring in many international and regional dishes, okra is not only culturally significant, it's also a nutritional powerhouse.
Part of the Mallows (Malvaceae) family, okra (Abelmoschus esculentum) is related to cotton, hollyhock and hibiscus. Okra is a tropical herb cultivated for its green seed pod, which is eaten as a vegetable. When cut, it secretes a mucilaginous liquid responsible for its slimy texture, which is also a natural thickener in dishes like soups and stews, including gumbo. Low calorie and high in dietary fiber -- a one-cup serving dishes out 16 percent DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories/day) -- okra also delivers a duo of bone-protecting vitamin K (80 percent DV) and calcium (12 percent DV), and a trio of B vitamins essential for converting food to fuel -- thiamin, vitamin B6 (both 14 percent DV), and folate (18 percent DV).
A good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, okra has been shown to help lower blood cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart diseases, and maintain a healthy intestinal tract (Journal of Food Processing & Technology, 2015). A review of research articles from several databases shows that the mucilage in okra binds to cholesterol, inhibiting its absorption and decreasing its level in the blood. Okra extract also has a hypoglycemic effect, which helps lower blood glucose levels, making it useful in diabetes management (Iranian Journal of Medical Sciences, 2016).
The finer points
Available year round, okra is a hot-weather vegetable, so it's best in the summer months. Younger is better with okra. Choose smaller (no longer than four inches) pods that are bright green and hard when squeezed. Tips should snap off, like a green bean. Refrigerate, unwashed, in a paper bag and use within a few days. Although it's a fried fan's favorite, it is even better in a healthy sauté with a colorful menagerie of tomatoes, onions, corn and peppers. Also, try roasting young okra for a crisp (not slimy!) side with a drizzle of lemon and fresh herbs, and definitely test its thickening effect in soups and gumbo.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)