Food as Medicine: Artichoke and Cardoon (Cynara scolymus and C. cardunculus)

History and Traditional Use

Range and Habitat
Artichoke and its relative cardoon are large, spiny perennials that can grow to eight feet tall with silvery, lobed leaves up to 2.5 feet in length. Each stalk of an artichoke or cardoon plant typically produces three to five flower buds. Unopened flower buds are around three to five inches in diameter and vaguely resemble pinecones. Buds that are left to open produce a thistle-like bluish-purple flower. Artichoke and cardoon are native to the Mediterranean and northern Africa but do well in most mild climates. In the United States, artichoke and cardoon are grown commercially in California. Artichoke and cardoon typically reproduce using root divisions rather than sexually by seed.

cardoons-jpg__800x600_q85_cropPhytochemicals and Constituents

The heads and leaves of artichoke and cardoon have high levels of bioactive chemicals. Caffeic acid is the primary phenolic compound found in both plants, specifically mono- and dicaffeoylquinic acid compounds. Caffeoylquinic acid has exhibited antioxidant, antibacterial, anticancer, and antihistamic properties. Flavonoids such as luteolin and apegenin, and phytosterols such as taraxsterol, are also present in the plants. Artichoke heads contain anthocyanin pigments in the form of glucosides and sophorosides, which give the leaves their green and violet appearance. Phenols, flavonoids, phytosterols, and anthocyanins are all potent antioxidants that protect the cells of the body from damage and inhibit LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol oxidation.
In addition to potent bioactive compounds, artichoke and cardoon are good sources of inulin, an indigestible carbohydrate that acts as a natural prebiotic, which “feeds” the beneficial bacteria in the human (or animal) gut. This may contribute to the beneficial digestive properties of artichoke and cardoon. While cooking the vegetable can decrease its overall flavonoid concentration, the steaming process has been found to increase its antioxidant capacity considerably.
Historical and Commercial Uses
Modern artichoke and cardoon are believed to be descended from the wild cardoon, a much pricklier and less appetizing plant native to northern Africa and Sicily. Currently, Italy is the leading producer of artichokes, followed by Spain, France, and Greece. Cardoon has much more limited cultivation, though it has traditional importance as both food and medicine in northern Mediterranean areas.

The history of the Cynara genus dates back to ancient Greece. The first written record of Cynara appeared in the writings of Theophrastus in the fourth century BCE. In the first century CE, Pliny the Elder recommended artichoke and cardoon for intestinal distress and freshening the breath; he also recommended it for more unusual applications, including curing baldness and the conception of boys. Both Greeks and Romans used the artichoke leaf as a choleretic (bile-increasing) agent and a diuretic. The artichoke also gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac and spread through Europe to appear on the tables of monarchs including Catherine de Medici of France and Henry VIII of England.

Many of the traditional uses focus on liver health as it is a hepatoprotective agent. However, the plant has also been traditionally used as a digestive aid. In Germany, the preparations made from the leaves are still used for these purposes and as an appetite stimulant among pediatric populations.

Commercially, globe artichokes are available fresh, canned, or frozen. The inedible parts of the artichoke, including the leaves, external bracts, and stems, represent approximately 80% of the plant’s biomass; however, these by-products still contain high levels of polyphenols and inulin, and are being investigated as a low-cost source of these health-promoting compounds for commercial products and dietary supplements. Extracts of artichoke and cardoon flowers contain natural enzymes which have a history of use as a vegetable alternative to calf rennet in cheese making. The bitter nature of artichoke and cardoon also makes these plants popular flavorings in digestifs, apéritifs, and other alcoholic formulations.
Modern Research

Current research affirms the long-standing medicinal uses of artichoke and cardoon as hepatoprotective and intestinal soothing agents, as well as their chemoprotective and cardioprotective abilities. Recent clinical trials show that artichoke leaf extract (ALE) has the potential to reduce total cholesterol and LDL levels and, in some cases, to reduce triglyceride levels and increase HDL (high-density lipoprotein) levels. Additionally, the prebiotic compound inulin that is found in the plant has been shown to increase production of beneficial bacteria (i.e., bifidobacteria), which, in turn, produces positive effects on blood lipid composition.A 2013 Cochrane review of randomized, controlled trials for ALE found a modest positive effect on total and LDL cholesterol levels, with the suggestion that patients with severely elevated cholesterol levels may benefit more from ALE treatment than those with moderately high levels. Reported adverse events were mild, transient, and infrequent. While the available clinical trial literature was insufficient for the authors to recommend ALE as a treatment for high cholesterol, they concluded that the lipid-lowering effects shown in animal and in vitro studies, along with the clinical trials reviewed, were promising enough that larger and better-controlled clinical trials were recommended to establish whether or not ALE is a safe and effective treatment for patients with high cholesterol.

Although less research has been devoted to the gastrointestinal benefits of artichoke, studies show that ALE improves dyspepsia (abdominal discomfort) symptoms. More specifically, supplementation with ALE has been shown to significantly reduce abdominal pain and discomfort; cramps; reflux; the feelings of fullness, pressure, and bloating; nausea; and vomiting. Similarly, several studies have indicated that artichoke leaf extract can be an effective treatment for the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Furthermore, the artichoke is also thought to be an antispasmodic agent, a property that may contribute to the relief of intestinal cramps, nausea, and vomiting.

Nutrient Profile

Macronutrient Profile:
(Per 1 medium artichoke [approx. 128 g])60 calories
4.2 g protein
13.5 g carbohydrate
0.2 g fat

Secondary Metabolites:
(Per 1 medium artichoke [approx. 128 g])

Excellent source of:

  • Dietary Fiber: 6.9 g (27.6% DV)
  • Vitamin C: 15 mg (25% DV)
  • Vitamin K: 18.9 mcg (24% DV)
  • Folate: 87 mcg (21.8% DV)

Very good source of:

  • Magnesium: 77 mg (19.3% DV)
  • Potassium: 474 mg (13.5% DV)
  • Phosphorus: 115 mg (11.5% DV)

Good source of:

  • Iron: 1.64 mg (9% DV)
  • Niacin: 1.34 mg (6.7% DV)
  • Calcium: 56 mg (5.6% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Recipe: Steamed Artichokes with Lemon Dill Dipping Sauce


  • 4 medium artichokes
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • Juice of 1 large lemon, divided
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • ¾ cup Greek yogurt
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup fresh dill, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste


1.    Fill a large stock pot with an inch of water. Add the salt, bay leaf, and half of the lemon juice, then place a steamer basket inside. Bring the water to a simmer.

2.    Prepare the artichokes by pulling off any brown or discolored outer leaves. Using a sharp knife, trim the artichoke stems down to half an inch and chop about one inch off of the top of the vegetable.

3.    Place the artichokes in the steamer basket stem side up. Cover and steam for 20 minutes, or until the stem easily is pierced with a knife and the leaves peel away without resistance. The artichokes can be served hot or chilled with the dipping sauce.

4.    To make the dipping sauce, combine all of the remaining ingredients in a small bowl and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly.