All choked up

All choked up

Evaluating the accuracy of nutrition information is no easy task, and false information can spread like lightning in the Internet age, doing damage quickly.

Some fraudulent or intentionally misleading press releases and other examples come to mind. However, a semibenign error recently floated my way through Facebook.

I've been a Facebook "fan" of an herbal-supplement company whose high-quality products I've bought and sold for many years. The company posted a link to a "Dr. Oz" episode in which the doctor touted artichoke leaf's health benefits and invited a "world expert on alternative medicine," a Canadian homeopathic doctor, to comment.

Dr. Oz held up an artichoke, the luscious bud we pick off store shelves to steam or boil. The problem was they were not talking about the leaflike bracts we strip and dip into curried or horseradish-mustard mayo, nor the artichoke "heart," our ultimate reward. Instead, they were talking about health benefits of the artichoke's lower (basal) leaves — a completely different part of the plant — and as a result, they shared inaccurate botanical information on national television.

Probably little harm came from this small error, though anyone expecting artichoke leaf to taste anything like artichoke bracts or hearts would have been in for an unpleasant surprise. They would rapidly cease eating because the leaves and their extracts are very bitter.

After watching the clip, I considered posting a comment on the fan page, but I noticed some diligent herbalists had already done so. One mentioned it would have perhaps been better to have an herbalist or botanist on the show rather than the featured homeopath, who hailed from Toronto, a place where it would be a challenge to ripen artichokes anyway. Someone truly familiar with the plants would have mentioned that artichokes are actually members of the thistle family, and one of very few varieties that people commonly eat in North America.

Artichokes contain around 350 milligrams of potassium per medium-sized bud. Higher potassium intake offers help with the seemingly omnipresent problem of high blood pressure. Artichokes contain lots of fiber and other B vitamins, including folate, critical to nervous-system development in embryos and maintaining cervical cellular health for women. They also contain some lutein and zeaxanthin, keys to visual acuity.

Artichoke leaf does indeed possess medicinal value, and it's best consumed in the form of a liquid herbal extract, although many Europeans drink a predominantly artichoke-based liqueur called Cynar. Two of artichoke leaf's key roles are as a stimulant of digestive secretions, possibly enhancing digestion, and for stimulating bile flow and lowering cholesterol.

Hmm, maybe artichoke leaf isn't such a bitter pill after all.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.

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