Q: I heard okra helps reduce cholesterol, but its sliminess turns me off. How healthful is it?
A: It's quite healthful. Okra would be a good addition to a cholesterol-lowering diet because it’s especially rich in soluble fiber—and there are ways to make it more appetizing (see below).
The small, fuzzy, green pods (also called lady's fingers) come from a tropical plant in the mallow family that originated in Ethiopia and made its way to Louisiana in the 1700s (via the slave trade). Technically a fruit because it contains seeds, okra may be best known as a key ingredient in the thick Louisiana stew called gumbo.
People tend to either love or hate okra. When sliced and cooked, it exudes a mucilaginous liquid consisting of polysaccharides and galacturonic acid (the main component of the fiber pectin). That’s what makes it so slimy, but also so good for thickening stews.
Okra features prominently in the Portfolio diet, which was developed by researchers at the University of Toronto more than a decade ago. This vegetarian diet also includes other sources of soluble fiber, such as oats, barley, psyllium, and eggplant—plus plant sterols, soy protein, and nuts. Though it has been off the radar lately, the diet has been shown to reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 10 to 30 percent.
Besides its fiber (4 grams per cup, sliced and cooked), okra is a good source of vitamins C and K, folate (and other B vitamins), magnesium, potassium, and carotenoids; it also provides some calcium, iron, and protein—all for just 35 calories per cup.
Okra comes in varying shades of green and in chunky or slender shapes, with either ribbed or smooth skin. Fresh okra can be hard to find outside the South, but it's widely available frozen.
Websites describe all kinds of ways to “de-slime” okra, though nothing will get rid of all the goo. For the least slimy result, cook it whole (trim just a thin slice off the stem end, without piercing the seedy pod) and use a quick high-heat method (such as stir-frying, roasting, or broiling). If you slice okra, cut it into bigger chunks. Some people advise soaking whole okra in vinegar (1 cup) and water (1 quart) for 30 to 60 minutes, then draining and drying it before using in recipes—or simmering it in water with a little vinegar, stirring occasionally until the spoon doesn’t come out slimy. Another suggestion is to cover whole okra in coarse salt and let it dry in a colander before cooking.