Okra, both a common pod vegetable and nightshade vegetable eaten in the Deep South, is also called “gumbo” in the U.S. Although when we think of gumbo we usually think of soups, cajun and creole cuisine, okra has numerous health benefits. An edible ornamental flowering hibiscus, okra is an annual, erect herb with stems that contain stiff hairs. The whole plant has an aromatic smell resembling that of cloves and somewhat resembles the cotton plant, but okra has much larger and rougher leaves and a thicker stem.
It’s best to gather the pods while they are green, tender and at an immature stage. The okra plant is an annual, requiring warm, humid climates preferably where temperatures go above 85 degrees F, and is easily injured by frost as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (1) The fruit is a long pod, generally ribbed and spineless in cultivated varieties; however, pods vary in length, color and smoothness depending on the variety and grow best in well-drained and manure-rich soil.
The International Knowledge Sharing Platform states that there are many okra uses, as it’s an economically important vegetable crop of which its fresh leaves, buds, flowers, pods, stems and seeds have value. (2) As a vegetable, it can be used in salads, soups and stews, fresh or dried, and fried or boiled. It offers mucilaginous consistency after cooking. Often, the extract obtained from the fruit is added to different recipes like stews and sauces as a thickener to increase the consistency, and the leaves have been known to help reduce disease-causing inflammation.
Okra is packed with valuable nutrients. It’s a high-fiber food, for starters: Nearly half of its nutrition is a soluble fiber in the form of gums and pectins. Nearly 10 percent of the recommended levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid are also present in a half cup of cooked okra.
Here’s a measurement of the nutrition in okra, both cooked and sliced (3):
- 1.5 grams protein
- 5.8 grams carbohydrates
- 37 micrograms folic acid
- 13 milligrams vitamin C (22 percent DV)
- 46 milligrams magnesium (11.5 percent DV)
- 460 IU vitamin A (9.2 percent DV)
- 2 grams dietary fiber (8 percent DV)
- 257 milligrams potassium (7.3 percent DV)
- 50 milligrams calcium (5 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligrams iron (2.3 percent DV)
Okra Nutrition Benefits
A powerhouse of valuable nutrients, okra provides numerous health benefits. Known as a high-antioxidant food, okra may support improvement in cardiovascular and coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, digestive diseases, and even some cancers. Okra is also abundant in several vitamins and minerals, including thiamin, vitamin B6, folic acid, riboflavin/vitamin B2, zinc and dietary fiber.
Here are seven okra nutrition benefits:
1. Source of Calcium
Okra provides ample calcium and magnesium, helping prevent both calcium deficiency and magnesium deficiency. In addition to healthy bones, calcium is needed to regulate heart rhythms, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. (4) It also helps with muscle function and nerve-signaling functions.
For those who suffer from the symptoms of lactose intolerance or are vegans or vegetarians, okra can help provide enough calcium to make up the lack of dairy. It provides nearly 51 milligrams of calcium per serving, and while that is not enough for the day with the recommendation daily value at around 1,000 milligrams for most adults, it can be integrated as part of the diet on regular basis.
2. Improves Heart Health
The soluble fiber within okra helps naturally reduce cholesterol and, therefore, decreases the chance of cardiovascular disease, according to the Journal of Food Processing & Technology, making the consumption of okra is an efficient method to manage the body’s cholesterol levels. (5) Okra additionally is loaded with pectin that can help reduce high blood cholesterol simply by modifying the creation of bile within the intestines.
3. Improves Eyesight
Okra is also used to improve eyesight! Okra pods are fantastic source of vitamin A and beta-carotene, which are both important nourishment for sustaining excellent eyesight (along with healthy skin). (6) Additionally, this nourishment may help inhibit eye-associated illnesses.
4. Good Source of Protein
Okra nutrition benefits are so plentiful that it’s been called the “perfect villager’s vegetable,” with its robust nature, dietary fiber and distinct seed protein balance of both lysine and tryptophan amino acids. The amino acid composition of okra seed protein is actually comparable to that of soybean — the protein efficiency ratio is higher than that of soybean, and the amino acid pattern of the protein renders it an adequate supplement to legume- or cereal-based diets. (7)
Indeed, the okra seed is known to be rich in high-quality protein, especially with regard to its content of essential amino acids relative to other plant protein sources, making okra one of the top vegetable protein foods out there.
5. Helps Lower Cholesterol
Research from the Pakistan Journal of Food Science found that nearly half of the contents of the okra pod is soluble fiber in the form of gums and pectins, which help lower serum cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart diseases. That means you can add okra to the list of cholesterol-lowering foods. Okra binds excess cholesterol and toxins in the bile acids, making it easy to eliminate and thus preventing many health problems.
Okra also assures easy passage of the waste from the body. The mucilage in okra has medicinal applications when used as a plasma replacement or blood volume expander. The mucilage of okra binds cholesterol and bile acid, carrying toxins dumped into it by the liver with it.
6. Helps Stabilize Blood Sugar
Okra helps stabilize blood sugar by regulating the rate at which sugar is absorbed from the intestinal tract. The okra seed contains blood glucose normalization qualities and lipid profiles that may help naturally treat diabetes. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences, researchers in India found that when subjects were fed dried and ground okra peels and seeds, they experienced a reduction in their blood glucose levels, while others showed a gradual decrease in blood glucose following regular feeding of okra extract for about 10 days. (8)
Outside of scientific research, many people with diabetes have reported decreasing blood sugar levels after soaking cut-up okra pieces in water overnight and then drinking the juice in the morning, while in Turkey roasted okra seeds have been used as a traditional diabetes medicine for generations. (9)
7. Good for Digestion
Okra contains insoluble fiber, which helps keep the intestinal tract healthy by decreasing the risk of some forms of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. The book “Health Benefits: From Foods and Spices” by John P. Hunter III explains that okra helps lubricate the large intestines due to its bulk laxative qualities; therefore, it helps prevent constipation and works as a natural laxative. Unlike harsh wheat bran, which can irritate the intestinal tract, okra’s mucilage soothes, facilitating elimination more comfortably.
Okra Nutrition History
Okra’s scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus or Hibiscus esculentus. In various parts of the world, it’s known as okra, lady’s fingers, gumbo, okro (English); gombo, bendakai, bhindi (India), Kacang bendi (Malay) and quimgombó (Spanish).
“The Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (Volume 2)” authored by George Gregory (1754–1808) reports that okra is from the hibiscus family Syrian mallow, a genus of the polyandria order, in the monadelphia class of plants, and in the natural method ranking under the 37th order, columniferre. (10) Of this genus, there are 45 species; one of the most remarkable is the esculentus, or eatable hibiscus, which rises to five or six feet and has broad five-parted leaves and large yellow flowers. The pod or okra is from two to six inches long,and one inch in diameter. When ripe, it opens longitudinally in five different places and discharges a number of heart-shaped seeds.
Some of the world’s most powerful women, Cleopatra of Egypt and Yang Guifei of China, loved to eat okra, according to the history record.
Whether using the word okra or gumbo, both of these names are of African origin. (11) Gumbo is believed to be of a Portuguese corruption, quingombo, of the word quillobo, native name for the plant in the Congo and Angola area of Africa.
Okra was apparently discovered in the Abyssinian center of origin of cultivated plants, an area that includes present-day Ethiopia, the mountainous or plateau portion of Eritrea, and the eastern, higher part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
Since the Spanish Moors and the Egyptians of the 12th and 13th centuries used an Arab word for okra, it probably was taken into Egypt by the Muslims from the East who conquered Egypt in the seventh century. It’s also believed that the plant was taken from Ethiopia to Arabia across the narrow Red Sea or the narrower strait at its southern end. Then it was spread over North Africa, completely around the Mediterranean, and eastward, reaching India after the beginning of the Christian Era.
Modern travelers have found okra growing wild along the White Nile and elsewhere in the upper Nile country, as well as in Ethiopia. One of the earliest accounts of okra is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216, describing the plant in detail stating that the pods were eaten when young and tender.
It makes sense that it was likely introduced to this country by the French colonists of Louisiana in the early 1700s. It had been introduced to the New World, however, before 1658, reaching Brazil supposedly from Africa and known in Surinam in 1686.
While records of okra during early American colonial times are lacking, it must have been common among French colonists. It was being grown as far north as Philadelphia in 1748, and Thomas Jefferson said it was known in Virginia before 1781. From about 1800, it has been written about by numerous gardeners with several distinct varieties known as early as 1806.
For those growing up in the South, okra is a staple and most often served fried with a generous cornmeal coating. However, it is most popular in dishes and areas in Louisiana, in particular with Creole cooks in New Orleans.
It is not uncommon to hear negative comments about okra, but that is mostly because many people do not know how to prepare it.
There are many uses for okra. (12) Okra is usually boiled, but it can also be fried, steamed, grilled, battered or eaten raw. The fruits of the okra plant are preserved by pickling or drying and grinding into powder. They’re used to make soups, sauces, stews, curries and even salads.
The principal use of okra is in soups and various culinary preparations in which meats form an important factor, as in the well-known gumbo soups, to which young pods provide excellent flavor and a pleasant mucilaginous consistency. (13) Okra is also sometimes cooked similarly to the way green peas are cooked; the very young and tender pods are boiled and served as a salad with French dressing. The stem and mature pods contain a fiber that is employed in the manufacture of paper.
For some, it is an acquired taste; however, when served alone, okra is typically fried. Most often it is found within other vegetables and in soups and stews. Because of the stringy mucous within the pod, it often is unappealing to consumers — however, many of the crops today are used mostly at large soup companies. The slimy texture can be reduced by cooking in salted water.
Okra can easily be dried for later use. A little dried okra in prepared dishes produces much of the same results as the fresh product. Often the seeds, rather than the whole young pods, are of most interest. When ripe, the seeds yield an edible oil that is the equal of many other cooking oils. In Mediterranean countries and the East, where edible oils are more scarce than in the U.S., okra oil is common. The ripe seeds of okra are sometimes roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee. In Turkey, the leaves are used to soothe or reduce inflammation.
One of the main reasons that okra is not eaten enough in the average American’s diet? We don’t know what to do with it! But fortunately there are many great okra recipes, especially from the Deep South, that are comforting, delicious and nutritious when the right, healthy fats are used. (14)
Honey and Sesame Roasted Vegetables
- 2 orange carrots
- 2 purple carrots
- 1 small yellow squash
- 1 small zucchini
- 2 cups okra
- 1 sweet potato
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher sea salt
- 2 tablespoons cold-pressed sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon local honey
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Wash and chop all veggies.
- Grease a large baking sheet with a small amount of sesame oil. Place chopped veggies onto the greased baking sheet.
- Blend the honey, cinnamon and sesame oil and drizzle the over top, massaging and spreading evenly into veggies.
- Sprinkle on sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
- Bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove from oven and flip veggies, and bake for another 35–40 minutes until golden brown and slightly crisp.
The USDA notes that no copper, brass or iron cooking vessels should be employed in preparing okra because the metal will be absorbed and the pods covered or even rendered poisonous. The cooking should be done in agate, porcelain or earthenware.
Read Next: What Are Nightshade Vegetables?
- USDA, “Okra Grades and Standards”: http://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/okra-grades-and-standards
- Food Science and Quality Management, 2014, “Nutritional Quality and Health Benefits of Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus): A Review”: http://iiste.org/Journals/index.php/FSQM/article/view/17617
- University of Illinois, “Okra”: http://extension.illinois.edu/veggies/okra.cfm
- National Osteoporosis Foundation, “Food and Your Bones”: http://nof.org/foods
- Journal of Food Processing & Technology, 2015, “Nutritional Quality and Health Benefits of Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus): A Review”: http://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/nutritional-quality-and-health-benefits-of-okra-abelmoschus-esculentusa-review-2157-7110-1000458.pdf
- International Ophthalmology Clinics, 1998, “Vitamin A deficiency and its effects on the eye”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9532479
- Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 1975, “Okra seeds: a new protein source”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1238449
- Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences, July-September 2011, “Antidiabetic and antihyperlipidemic potential of Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench. in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3178946/
- Diabetes.co.uk, “Okra”: http://www.diabetes.co.uk/natural-therapies/okra.html
- U.S. National Library of Medicine, A Dictionary of Art and Sciences”: http://collections.nlm.nih.gov/bookviewer?PID=nlm:nlmuid-60210040RX2-mvpart
- Texas A&M Horticulture, “Okra, or “Gumbo,” from Africa”: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/publications/vegetabletravelers/okra.html
- Kew Gardens, “Abelmoschus esculentus (okra)”: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/abelmoschus-esculentus-okra
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Okra: Its Culture and Uses”: http://organicroots.nal.usda.gov/download/ORC00000462/PDF
- Eating Well, “Okra Recipes”: http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes_menus/recipe_slideshows/okra_recipes
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