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Artichokes have been around for a long time. Originally found around the Mediterranean Sea, they were used by the ancient Romans to treat poor digestion.
Somewhere along the line, the Romans realized artichokes also made great appetizers, and they have been a traditional Italian food ever since.

The Latin name for this greenish-purple vegetable is Cynara scolymus. Sometimes called French or Globe artichoke, it's the flower of the plant that is sold in grocery stores. But don't confuse it with the Jerusalem artichoke, which is really a tuber that grows in North America.

One medium artichoke supplies 20 percent of the vitamin C you need for the day. With only 60 calories, it's also a good source of potassium and magnesium, both important for a healthy heart. And like most fruits and vegetables, it's packed with disease-fighting antioxidants that nutritionists rave about.

3 ways artichokes keep you healthy

Steps up digestion.

As it turns out, the ancient Romans were onto something when it comes to artichokes and digestion. An ingredient in artichoke leaves helps your liver form bile - something necessary for good digestion. If your liver doesn't produce enough bile, your food doesn't get broken down properly, and you end up with stomach pains and indigestion.

If you feel sick to your stomach, overly full, and have abdominal pain after eating a normal-sized meal, you may suffer from dyspepsia - a fancy name for poor digestion.

Several scientific studies showed dramatic improvements in people with dyspepsia after being treated with artichoke extracts. You can also get help for your indigestion the way the ancient Romans did - by eating a delicious artichoke with your dinner.

Chokes out heart disease.

Bile from your liver does more than help you digest food. It also helps break down cholesterol from the fat you eat. But a liver that doesn't produce enough bile lets too much cholesterol get by - kind of like the I Love Lucy episode where the chocolate assembly line starts moving too fast for her to keep up. People with liver problems can have high cholesterol even if they eat a low-fat diet.

That's where artichokes come in. Because they can help you make more bile, you might be able to lower your cholesterol by eating them. A study in Germany showed that taking artichoke extract for six weeks caused LDL cholesterol, the bad kind, to fall by more than 22 percent. As a bonus, artichokes might also be able to block some new cholesterol from forming in your liver.

Lowers blood sugar.

Your liver is busier than you might think. In addition to breaking down fatty foods, it also stores extra glucose (sugar) in the form of glycogen and turns it back into glucose whenever it gets a phone call from your blood saying that supplies are too low. This is a great system in a perfectly working body. But some people have faulty phone lines, and their livers work day and night cranking out glucose their blood doesn't need. This overproduction of glucose can lead to diabetes and other health problems.

In animal studies, researchers found that substances in artichokes kept livers from making too much glucose. More studies need to be done, but scientists think artichokes might someday be useful to people with noninsulin-dependent diabetes. In the future, people might use plants, like artichokes, to keep their blood sugar production in check.

Pantry pointers

Choose artichokes with even, green color. Don't buy any that look wilted, dried out, or moldy. Heavy, small heads are best.

Small artichokes are good for appetizers, and larger ones can be used for stuffing with a variety of fillings and served as an entree.

Be sure to trim about an inch off the top with a sharp knife. And then trim about one-quarter inch from the tips of the leaves since this part is inedible and rough on your hands.

Artichokes can be steamed in a steamer basket or boiled in water. They should be tender and ready to eat in about 30 minutes. If you're in a hurry, you can microwave them more quickly. First, rinse them with water to add some moisture. Then wrap each one in microwaveable plastic wrap. For four artichokes, microwave on high for 10 to 15 minutes or until the meaty part at the base of the artichoke is tender.

You can serve these veggies hot or cold. Some people serve a dipping sauce with artichokes. It would be a shame to ruin a lowfat food with a rich sauce, so try a low-calorie, yogurt-based dip.

If you've never eaten an artichoke, you might be a little confused about what part is edible. The outer leaves are hard and a little bitter, but at the bottom of the leaf, where they pull away from the stem, there is a soft, velvety hunk of "meat" that you can eat by gently pulling the leaf through your teeth. After you've nibbled all the leaves this way, you're left with the best part of the artichoke - the heart. This is a soft, nutty-flavored center that can be eaten whole. Just scrape off the soft fuzz with a spoon before you dig in.


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