Okra or "Ladies' Fingers": Characteristics, Uses, and Benefits

Do you know what okra is? Also known as "ladies' fingers", it's an exotic fruit that you can take advantage of in your kitchen. Learn all about it here!
Okra or "Ladies' Fingers": Characteristics, Uses, and Benefits

Last update: 07 October, 2021

Okra, or ladies’ fingers, is a fruit used in gastronomy as a vegetable. It’s originally from Africa, and it belongs to the cotton and hibiscus family.

Although the cultivation of okra is lost in the pages of history, it has spread throughout Asia, America, and the United States. This fruit is a pod that resembles the bell pepper but has elongated striations. If you gut it, the slices will have a star shape.

Okra also goes by the names of bamia, bhindi, gombo, and many others. It’s very versatile in the kitchen in its raw or cooked form. However, its mucilage gives it a slimy consistency that’s unappealing to some consumers. So, it’s often best in stews, such as the popular New Orleans gumbo, which has African roots fused with French and Spanish origins.

Nutritional values

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture describes the nutritional composition of a 3 ounce serving of okra or ladies’ fingers. The energy intake is only 33 calories, as it is 90% water and only 7% carbohydrates. Soluble fiber predominates, which the body doesn’t digest.

It contains 21 milligrams of vitamin C, covering 26% of the recommended nutritional value. It provides 53 micrograms of vitamin K and 26% of the recommended value.

As highlighted by Nutrients magazine, science recognizes vitamin C for being a potent antioxidant and for participating in immune function. Meanwhile, vitamin K if very helpful for blood coagulation.

Therefore, experts recommend consuming okra in its raw form to take full advantage of its vitamin C content. This is because heat destroys it. The magnesium, vitamin A, and B6 that okra contains cover 14% of the daily requirements, and the fruit covers 15% of our folic acid needs.

Although its protein level is only 2%, it’s higher than that of other fruits and vegetables. One review highlights that protein consumption participates in weight control and muscle mass synthesis.

Possible benefits of okra or ladies’ fingers

Okra provides a series of health benefits due to the presence of antioxidant components, such as polyphenols. It also has soluble fiber and lectin. Below, we’ll tell you more.

1. It’s a source of antioxidants

Okra’s a fruit that contains many antioxidants, which some experts describe as compounds that block the damage that free radicals cause.

The journal Nutrients has confirmed the antioxidant effect of polyphenols and flavonoids such as isoquercetin in okra. A review in this regard linked the protective role of polyphenols against cardiovascular diseases in human intervention studies, animal models, and laboratory studies.

Other experts have also found the positive effect of polyphenols in the prevention of brain aging and its consequences on cognition, learning, and memory.

An elderly man with memory loss looking at a list.
A diet rich in antioxidants is able to prevent cognition problems associated with memory.

Read also: Types of Antioxidants: Properties and Uses

2. Ladies’ fingers may be beneficial for diabetes

Medical studies on the management of diabetes with okra consumption are still in the early stages of research. Some of them indicate that okra water can improve blood sugar levels in pregnant rats with gestational diabetes.

At the same time, science has also demonstrated the lowering effect of roasted okra seeds on blood sugar. That’s why it’s part of the treatment of diabetes in Turkey.

High levels of fiber are important when it comes to the dietary approach to diabetes. Studies show that fiber intake can promote better glycemic control and increase insulin sensitivity. Okra contains 7% soluble fiber.

3. It reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases

The predominant fiber in okra is of the soluble type, through the mucilages that give it that particular stickiness when it is raw. Therefore, it serves as a thickener in culinary preparations.

This mucilage can bind to cholesterol during digestion and excrete it through the feces instead of absorbing it in the intestine. This helps to clean the arteries and decrease the risk of heart attack or heart disease.

In a study evaluating okra’s ability to lower blood lipids, testing involved 3 groups of mice: One on a high-fat diet without okra, and the other two on the same diet with 1% or 2% okra powder supplementation.

It was found that the group taking the okra powder supplement eliminated more cholesterol in the feces. The mucilage showed strong binding to bile acids at the laboratory level. This may contribute to its potential application in the treatment of high cholesterol.

Another contribution of okra regarding heart disease has to do with its high polyphenol content. In this regard, a long-standing study in 1139 people showed that those who consumed diets rich in polyphenols had lower levels of inflammatory markers.

4. It has anti-fatigue benefits

The consumption of okra may lead to faster recovery after exercise. This is demonstrated by a study on the improvement of recovery times and fatigue levels when consuming this fruit.

5. Okra may have anti-cancer effects

Lectin’s a type of protein found in some vegetables, including okra. It could inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

In this regard, a laboratory study on breast cancer cells found that the lectin in okra can prevent the growth of malignant cells by 63%. In metastatic mice, okra extract was also found to cause the death of melanoma cancer cells.

Despite these favorable results, it should be noted that these studies were conducted at the laboratory level with no application in humans. More research is needed to obtain definitive conclusions.

6. Ladies’ fingers may favor the development of pregnancy

One serving of okra covers 15% of the needs of folic acid or vitamin B9. This vitamin is fundamental in pregnant women, helping to diminish the risk of defects in the neural tube. According to recommendations, pregnant women should consume up to 400 micrograms of folic acid per day.

Potential risks and contraindications of okra

Caution should be exercised when consuming okra during the treatment of some diseases. In diabetes, for example, a study reveals that it shouldn’t be combined with metformin, as it may interfere with its absorption. Diabetic patients should inform their doctor if they’re looking for alternative treatments with this fruit.

Other precautions to take into account is that it contains high levels of oxalates, which turn into kidney and gallstones. When preparing it, some precautions should also be taken, because its surface has a kind of very small hairs that can be aggressive to the stomach and skin.

A pile of fresh okra.
If a diabetic patient consumes metformin, they should inform their doctor about the inclusion of this fruit in their diet, as there may be interactions.

How to use okra

Okra is very versatile in the kitchen. It can be prepared raw for salads or dehydrated to enhance its flavor.

However, since the mucilage it contains causes some suspicion among consumers, a good way to use it is in the form of stews, due to its thickening power. You can also fry it in a batter.

In addition, it combines very well with other vegetables and herbs, such as coriander, tomato, bell pepper, and parsley to prepare meat or fish.

It’s also great in pickled sauces. In fact, here’s a great recipe:

Pickled sauce with Okra

This is an excellent alternative to replace the bitterness of the pod with a sour flavor. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Simply place garlic, peas, and black pepper on the bottom and okra pods on the top, in repeated layers.
  • Then add sugar, salt, and vinegar.

Overall, okra is a food that provides heart, brain, and pregnancy benefits. So, except for some precautions to take into account, it can be a part of a healthier nutritional pattern.

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