Okra, also called lady fingers or gumbo, is a very nutritious pod vegetable that looks similar to a cucumber, only a little thinner and more pointed. The plant is cultivated throughout tropical and warm temperate regions worldwide, although it’s particularly popular in West Africa, the Caribbean and Southern Asia. Okra is especially high in fiber, vitamin C and folic acid. You may be unfamiliar with how to prepare okra, but making the effort to add it to your diet is an inexpensive, low-calorie and tasty way of consuming many essential nutrients.
Okra is a perennial flowering plant that belongs to the mallow family. Its scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus. Okra pods can grow up to 12 inches in length, but they are typically between 3 and 6 inches long. The fibrous green pods contain many small, round white seeds arranged in rows. The pods are harvested while immature and eaten as a vegetable. They have a mild taste and texture, similar to eggplant. Okra leaves are also consumed, sometimes raw in salads, sometimes cooked like beet greens.
Okra is considered an especially healthy vegetable due to its high fiber, vitamin C and folic acid content, although it’s also a good source of vitamin B-6, niacin, vitamin K, beta-carotene, calcium, potassium and phosphorus. For example, 100 grams of raw okra pods contains about 3.3 grams of fiber, 21 milligrams of vitamin C and 88 micrograms of folic acid, according to “The Nutribase Complete Book of Food Counts.” Okra is also low in calories, containing only 30 calories per 100 grams. The fibrous green pods are fat-free, although the white seeds within the pods contain unsaturated fat such as oleic and linoleic fatty acids.
Potential Health Benefits
The fibrous and mucilaginous nature of okra pods promotes digestion and helps to relieve constipation. Due to the high antioxidant properties of vitamin C, beta-carotene and other flavonoids, the pods also help to combat free radicals and prevent tissue damage and aging. Folic acid, also known as vitamin B-9, is especially important during pregnancy because it decreases the incidence of neural tube defects in newborns. Vitamin C-rich foods such as okra can stimulate your immune system and help prevent or combat infections. B-vitamins such as B-6 and niacin are important for metabolism and energy production.
Although okra leaves are sometimes eaten raw, the pods are usually cooked in some fashion. The pods are often sliced or chopped into smaller sections and either boiled, stewed or fried on low heat, which removes most of the mucilaginous content, but preserves most of the vitamin and mineral content. Once cooked and softened, okra pods are often mixed with other vegetables, rice or meat. In the Caribbean islands, for example, okra pods are stewed with fish to make a soup. Okra pods can be pickled and preserved like other vegetables, too. Fresh okra pods are available in most grocery stores, but avoid selecting ones that are soft. Instead, look for crispy pods that are a dark green color.
- The Nutribase Complete Book of Food Counts; Art Ulene
- Public Health Nutrition: From Principles to Practice; Mark Lawrence and Tony Worsley
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.