Two very different vegetables are known as Artichokes, and each has specific health benefits. The Globe Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus) is the flower bud of a large thistle, having spine-tipped leaves with edible bases and an edible heart. The Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), also called the Sunchoke, is the tuber of a type of sunflower and resembles a longer, thinner potato. Globe Artichokes have been cultivated since ancient times, with probable origins in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Jerusalem Artichokes are native to eastern North America and were domesticated and grown by Native Americans long before the arrival of any Europeans.
Both types of Artichoke are low in fat and calories, so are excellent choices for traditional weight loss diets. Contributing essential minerals and fiber, Jerusalem and Globe Artichokes are a healthy addition to any eating plan. Globe Artichokes are particularly high in antioxidants, in the form of vitamin C and phytonutrients, which are thought to protect cells against the attack of free radicals.
The two major phytonutrients found in Globe Artichokes are Cynarin and Silymarin. These are of particular interest for their ability to lower cholesterol, protect and support liver function, increase bile production and prevent gallstones. Standardized supplements of Globe Artichoke extract with stated minimum amounts of active ingredients are available in tablets, capsules, gels and liquids. The notable side-effect of everything tasting sweet after eating an Artichoke can be attributed to Cynarin. Studies suggest that Silymarin, which is also found in Milk Thistle, may also help control blood sugar in type II diabetics.
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels, particularly of the small particle LDL form of cholesterol, are strongly associated with heart disease. Globe Artichoke consumption has been linked to lowering cholesterol and triglycerides in the bloodstream and increasing the relative level of high density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as the "good" cholesterol. The liver makes bile acids from cholesterol and stores them in the gallbladder. By increasing the production of bile acids, Artichoke extract helps the liver reduce the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
The ancient Romans prescribed Globe Artichokes to alleviate hangover symptoms, but a randomized study found Artichoke extract fairly ineffective against alcohol-induced hangovers. However, recent studies have shown that Silibinin, the active component of Silymarin, protects the liver from the poison found in the death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) and from carbon tetrachloride toxicity. Globe Artichokes have a mild diuretic effect that may assist in lowering blood pressure for some people.
Artichoke has been traditionally used to alleviate mild indigestion. The cynarin contained in an Artichoke increases bile production, which in turn helps the body digest fats more efficiently and receive greater benefit from the fat-soluble vitamins. Bile works by emulsifying the fats consumed, rendering them more easily absorbed and processed by the small intestine. Most gallstones are created when high concentrations of cholesterol in the gallbladder crystallize. Gallbladder or biliary disease is diagnosed when gallstones cause pain by stretching or blocking the bile duct. People who have had gallstone symptoms in the past should be aware that increasing bile production can push existing stones into the bile duct. Studies indicate that Artichoke Leaf extract can reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional dyspepsia, activity that may be related to improved fat digestion.
Jerusalem Artichokes are unusual in that they store energy as the carbohydrate inulin instead of starch. Inulin has limited digestibility for humans and doesn't impact blood glucose so is useful to diabetics and those looking to lose weight. Raw Sunchokes have a crisp texture, a mild slightly sweet flavor, and make a good substitute for chips and crackers. Boiled and mashed, they are similar to potatoes and when steamed they hold their shape and are more carrot-like in texture. Consumers will also find inulin listed as an ingredient on low carbohydrate snack foods like meal-replacement bars.
Soluble fiber like inulin is thought to help to lower cholesterol. Consuming inulin increases the body's absorption of calcium and magnesium. It is considered probiotic because it fosters the growth of good bacteria in the gut, but eating too many Jerusalem Artichokes can cause flatulence in people with fructose malabsorption, so a gradual increase in the amount consumed over time is recommended.