Food as Medicine: Artichokes

Artichoke in bloom
Artichoke in bloom

Food as medicine is an ancient concept, of course. It has a documented history over 5000 years in Asia, and at least a couple millenia in Europe. And now much of traditional lore about chicken soup to treat colds, and garlic to ward off illness is now backed by scientific study.

To explore this further, I’ve borrowed a book from the library called, “Herbs, Demystified” by Holly Phaneuf, PhD. It’s not part of Linda Bladholms’ similarly-titled series explaining the mysteries of ethnic groceries, instead Dr. Phaneuf writes in plain-speak (most of the time) about the medicinal value of and clinical research, if any, behind some of the herbs and plants that are gaining popularity as medicinal and wellness foods. (The book is subtitled: “A Scientist Explains How the Most Common Herbal Remedies Really Work”)

Take artichokes, for instance. I love artichokes, but never thought of them as a medicinal food until earlier this year when I saw a local TV program highlighting healthy eating. The show featured 2 local naturpathic doctors who use both food and alternative therapies as medicine in their practice. One of the doctors is of Vietnamese descent and described how her grandmother would make a “tea” by simply boiling halved artichokes. She recommended it for maintaining good liver function and said it promotes clear skin.

When I had cooked artichokes before, it was always in highly seasoned (lemons, onions and peppers) water, which was then discarded. I’m always drawn to “grandmother wisdom,” though, so we decided to try it. We were expecting a bitter or funny-tasting brew, but were happily surprised it had a clean, mildly sweet, and pleasant taste. In fact, it tasted exactly like an artichoke heart. We’ve since adopted the practice of boiling artichokes in plain water, so we can also drink the “tea” afterwards.
Lovely organic chokes Halved artichokes 2 Treats: Artichokes and
And now we have Dr. Phaneuf’s explaination about why this may or may not be a good practice. She concludes her six page review of research into artichokes by saying:

  • they contain beneficial anti-oxidants,
  • may reduce cholesterol,
  • may improve both HDL/LDL cholesterol ratios and
  • may improve bile production (hence, digestion).

She also warns, however, that further research is needed about whether artichokes can worsen an existing gallstone condition, and whether they deplete valuable CoQ enzymes. She also cautions that people who are allergic to other members of the daisy family (which also includes chamomile, milk thistle, dandelion and echinacea), may be allergic to artichokes too. Please refer to pages 31-37 of Dr. Phaneuf’s book for her full article. And of course don’t attempt any changes in your medical program (for instance, stop taking your prescriptions and eating artichokes instead!) without consulting with your medical provider.
If Dr. Phaneuf’s caveats don’t apply to you, then “A Santé!” “Zum Wohl!” “Kampai!” “Salud!”

(UPDATE – 7 APRIL 2008 – To wash artichokes, especially if you intend to drink the “tea,” it is important to clean away as much pesticide residue as possible from non-organic produce. Following the advice from this NPR story, “What does it take to clean fresh food,” instead of just spraying the vegetables, I prefer to soak the artichokes in a solution of 1/2 cup of white vinegar in 1 gallon of water (2 TBL. of vinegar to 1 liter/quart water). This allows the solution to get between all the packed leaves. Then rinse under running water, and drain.)

What do you do with the artichoke after making “tea”? Try Stuffed Artichokes with Italian-style Dressing orSouth Asian Style Stuffing.

Read more about the health benefits of artichokes at, here.