Jerusalem Artichokes

artichokes“But in my judgement, which way soever they be drest and eaten they stir up and cause a filthie loathsome stinking winde with the bodie, thereby causing the belly to be much pained and tormented, and are more fit for swine than for men.” So spoke John Goodyear, a British farmer back in the early 1600s. He was describing the Jerusalem artichoke which had been introduced into Europe by Samuel de Champlain who in turn learned about the vegetable from the Indians. This fascinating tuber is not an artichoke and has nothing to do with Jerusalem. The plant is actually a member of the sunflower family and is sometimes called sunchoke. But it seems that to Champlain it tasted like an artichoke and the term stuck. Why Jerusalem? When the plants were first brought back to Italy from America they were called “girasole” for “turning to the sun.” Somehow this got corrupted to Jerusalem.

Goodyear was right about the fact that Jerusalem artichoke can produce a lot of wind. But he was certainly wrong to suggest that it was more fit for swine than for men. We are actually learning more and more about how healthy this unusual vegetable may be. And its health properties are connected to its wind producing potential. Jerusalem artichokes are very rich in a type of fiber called inulin. By definition, fiber is the indigestible part of a plant food, it cannot be broken down in the small intestine in the way starches, proteins and fat are broken down. So it marches on to the colon where there are plenty of bacteria that can use fiber as food.

Our colon is inhabited by about 500 species of bacteria! Some bacteria are particularly adept at digesting inulin. These are the bifidobacteria, which are generally classified as “good bacteria” because they keep disease causing bacteria in check. They thrive on inulin, which is good. But when they digest this form of fiber, they produce a lot of gas, which may not be so good. But along with the gas they also produce short chain fatty acids which have anti-cancer potential. That’s good. Furthermore a healthy bifido population is conducive to controlling both constipation and diarrhea. These bacteria even increase calcium absorption and there is preliminary evidence that inulin lowers triglycerides in the blood. In Europe and Japan, Jerusalem artichoke flour is commonly added to foods to improve their health potential. So why not give it a try? You can slice the tubers into a salad, stir fry them or shred them and put them in a salad. And you don’t have to go to Jerusalem to get them.

Joe Schwarcz

One response to “Jerusalem Artichokes”

  1. Lindsay says:

    Thank you for this! I believe the quote from Goodyear was once up on the Wikipedia entry for Jerusalem Artichokes but it’s been taken down. My guess is the sunchoke “lobby” doesn’t want people to know its so gas inducing!

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