By Dr. Mercola
A vegetable many people associate with the Southern U.S., okra is more correctly identified as a warm-weather crop, so it's found in areas of Africa, where it may have originated, as well as South America and the Middle East.
Okra is the color of a fresh corn husk, has the shape of a spike (which is why it's also known as lady's fingers and, in some cultures, bamia pods) and the texture of a grooved cucumber. Sliced, it might remind you of a tiny star fruit.
Okra pods measuring 2 to 3 inches long grow on a large, leafy and perennial plant with beautiful, hibiscus-type flowers. From the Malvaceae (mallows) family — surprisingly along with cocoa, hibiscus and cotton — it bears the botanical name Abelmoschus esculentus and may have a history as old as the pyramids.
These amazing little edibles are best harvested early so they don't become tough, which can happen quickly, since from the time they flower until optimal harvest time can be a matter of just four days, according to the Farmer's Almanac.1 Ideally, they should be harvested every few days.
Removing some of the lower leaves of the plant after the first harvest is said to speed production. In spite of its ability to thrive in hot weather, it does appreciate around 1 inch of water per week.
Wearing gloves during harvest will prevent the fruit's tiny spines from irritating your skin (depending on the variety), similar to some cucumbers.
Uncut, uncooked okra can be placed in freezer bags and frozen for later preparation, or you can can it,2 the result of which is said to taste like it just came from the garden. In some areas of the world, okra seeds are also known as one of the best-tasting coffee substitutes.3
Culinary Uses for Okra
While some people equate the taste of okra to the flavor of eggplant, the texture is different, which will give it a different ambiance altogether. When cooked down, it develops a gelatinous quality that lends itself well to soups. (In fact, okra mucilage has been used as a sizing for glazed paper products in China.)4
One of this veggie's best calling cards is that the entire fruit can be used, including the seeds (after trimming off the ends), and because it can be used raw, curried (especially the seeds), pickled and more, the culinary options are plentiful.
In the Caribbean, people often serve okra with fish in a soup. Its leaves can be cooked in a manner not unlike beet greens or dandelion greens or eaten raw in salads. (One way to do this is to add other types of greens, such as Romaine, arugula or spinach, for a variation in flavors and crunch.)
Okra can be sliced or chopped, stir fried with other veggies such as zucchini, onions and red or green bell peppers and made into burritos or tacos with cheese, or served on top of cooked quinoa.
In the Middle East, bamiya is a hearty stew made using okra along with beef or lamb. An Indian-inspired dish might combine okra and onions sautéed in butter seasoned with coriander, ginger, cumin, salt and pepper.5
Traditional Medicine Using Okra
Because it's an ancient crop used for food from way back, okra was also known as a bona fide medicinal. The leaves were used for pain relief and urinary problems. In the Congo, it was a remedy to help ensure a safe delivery for pregnant mothers. In Malaya, the root has been applied as a treatment for syphilis.
The mucilage has even been used as a plasma replacement and topically as a moisturizer. Cooked down and added to water, it's referred to as "supreme" for people suffering weakness or depression.
It's still used to treat lung inflammation and sore throat and to add bulk to stools as a laxative, as well as to rid the body of liver toxins, according to Holistic Online.6 The same site noted okra's effectiveness for acid reflux, atherosclerosis, cataracts, colorectal cancer and multiple sclerosis (MS).
Nutritional Aspects of Okra
References to the gelatinous mucilage in okra, especially when cooked, are parallel to applications noted by nutritionists who recommend it for people suffering from constipation, as it does help move food through your gut.
Okra is an excellent fiber source to maintain a healthy digestive system and also contains good amounts of calcium, iron and magnesium. It also provides 43 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of manganese and 36 percent of the RDA of infection-fighting vitamin C.
One cup of raw okra (100 grams) contains 33 calories and includes a whopping 44 percent of the bone-strengthening vitamin K you need for one day, which is important as a co-factor for blood-clotting enzymes.
Nutrition and You7 also notes that the folate in okra imparts 22 percent of the RDA in a 1-cup serving, which is important for pregnant mothers to decrease the risk of neural tube defects in their babies. Medical News Today reveals:
"People who do not eat enough folate are at a higher risk for breast, cervical, pancreatic, lung and other cancers. Researchers are unsure of why folate intake and cancer risk are connected.
There is no evidence that taking a folate supplement lowers the risk for cancer. As a result, getting folate from food like okra is important. Getting enough folate is especially important for women who are pregnant and people who are dependent on alcohol."8
Vitamin A content in okra, important for good vision and more, includes flavonoid antioxidants, such as beta-carotenes, xanthan and lutein. Other nutrients include thiamin, vitamin B6, calcium, niacin, phosphorus and copper.
To go along with its traditional uses, the compounds in okra help maintain healthy skin and mucous membranes.
Okra's Impact on Blood Sugar
For diabetic individuals, animal studies suggest okra pods may help alleviate diabetic affects, due to its myricetin content. Myricetin is a flavonoid also found in blueberries, garbanzo beans, turnips and chia seeds, among other foods.
The myricetin in okra was isolated and dispensed to rats, which responded with increased sugar absorption in their muscles, consequently lowering their blood sugar.
A 2012 Food Science and Human Wellness review9 listed several other animals included in similar studies with similar results; however, not all research worked on humans.10
Still, the study indicates that myricetin may prove to be an important breakthrough in the fight against diabetes. In fact, ISRN Pharmaceutics published a study in 2012,11 explained in Medical News Today:
"Researchers fed rats liquid sugar as well as purified okra through a feeding tube. Rats who consumed the okra experienced a reduction in blood sugar spikes after feeding. The study's authors think this is because the okra blocked the absorption of sugar in the intestines."12
As noted, the study indicated the okra may have blocked sugar absorption in the intestines, but also introduced the idea that it may also obstruct the effectiveness of the diabetes drug metformin, so simultaneous ingestion is not recommended.
The Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences13 submitted another study pointing to a possible link between okra and decreased blood sugar levels.
Scientists maintained the blood sugar level of rats for a period of 14 days, then fed them powdered okra peel extracts and seeds amounting to 2,000 milligrams per day per kilogram of body weight.
At the conclusion of the study, no poisonous effects were observed. While the rats that ate the okra had lowered blood sugar levels after 28 days, the end of the study precluded discovering how long the decreased levels may have been maintained.
More Health Benefits From Eating Okra
Like most other vegetables, okra provides a unique set of nutrients and, therefore, a unique set of plant-based nutrients with all the related vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting compounds.
A protein in okra, called lectin, is also found in peanuts and beans. In one study,14 researchers extracted lectin from okra to test on breast cancer cells and found the cancer growth to not only decrease by 63 percent, but to kill 72 percent of the cancer cells. In another review published in the Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal:15
"The preliminary phytochemical studies showed that flavonoids, tannins, sterols and triterpenes were present in okra. Phytoconstituents, such as flavonoids are commonly present in vegetables and fruits, which provide the health-benefits, associated with diets rich in plant-food.
Flavonoids are a class of secondary plant phenolics, found ubiquitously in fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants, which are known to play a pivotal role as dietary antioxidants for the prevention of oxidative damage in the living system.
Furthermore, a large number of biological actions of flavonoids have been attributed to their potent antioxidant properties; as they act in different ways, including direct quenching ROS, chelation of metal ions and regeneration of membrane-bound antioxidants."
A 2013 study demonstrated that the antidepressant activity in okra was linked to mood improvement, which could make it helpful for people suffering from depression.16 Interestingly, Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, said okra was the "preferred vegetable" among athletes at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, possibly for more reasons than its taste.
"Because of its physiological effects, it has gained some interesting names including 'green panax' in Japan and 'plant viagra' in the USA. The polysaccharides in okra are thought to open up the arteries in a similar way to Viagra."17
Possible Safety Risks Associated With Okra Consumption
Besides the possibility that eating okra while taking the diabetic drug metformin may lower the drug's effect, experts note that this vegetable also elicits an allergy reaction in some people.
Additionally, okra contains oxalates, naturally occurring substances in many plant-based foods. Over-consumption may produce a kidney stone risk in certain individuals with that predilection. Okra contains high amounts of fructan, which is a carbohydrate that can induce diarrhea, cramps and bloating in some people, so people with irritable bowel syndrome are advised against ingesting foods containing this substance.