A so-called New World root vegetable, the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is the newest attraction in the culinary world. Sweet and earthy in taste, it is commonly served as a more refined substitute for potatoes. The Jerusalem artichoke is quite a generous source of potassium, phosphorus and iron as well as B vitamins, nutrients with a particularly beneficial action on the cardiovascular and nervous systems, muscle and bone health.
In addition to regulating blood pressure, regular consumption of the vegetable supports digestive health, helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as blood glucose levels. However, not everyone is a fan. While to some it is absolutely harmless and a source of nutrition, others may feel their stomach rumbling after only a small serving of the tubers. The gastrointestinal side effects of eating Jerusalem artichoke are often either a result of the high inulin content of the root vegetable which triggers stomach upset in more sensitive individuals or a potential symptom of an allergic reaction.
What is the Jerusalem artichoke? The Jerusalem artichoke is a flowering plant in the daisy family, related to sunflowers. The plant was originally called girasole, the Italian word for sunflower as a result of its resemblance to sunflowers (beautiful, tall, bright yellow-petaled flowers, although significantly smaller). In time, the name was distorted by English-speaking locals and came to be Jerusalem instead of girasole, to which artichoke was added, probably due to confusion because it does not bear any resemblance whatsoever to artichokes.
The plant has come to be known under many names such as sunchoke (sunflower plus artichoke), earth apple (as in the case of the French denomination for potato: pomme de terre), sunroot (sunflower plus its edible part, its tuberous root), topinambour or Canada potato. Nowadays, the name Jerusalem artichoke prevails.
What do Jerusalem artichoke tubers look like? Unlike its relative, the sunflower, which boasts deliciously nutty seeds, the Jerusalem artichoke has edible roots called tubers. They range in size from 8-10 cm and are quite thick, similar in appearance to ginger roots. Jerusalem artichokes, as I will refer to the tubers of the plant, range in color from pale brown to purplish, red and whitish.
What does Jerusalem artichoke taste like? Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten both raw and cooked. While cooked tubers are similar in texture to potatoes (soft when boiled, crunchy when fried and so on), raw tubers are quite crisp. Jerusalem artichokes taste neither like artichokes nor starchy potatoes. They have a slightly nutty or earthy flavor with a delicate sweet aftertaste that comes as a result of storage which makes the inulin in the roots turn into fructose, a natural sugar form.
But what are Jerusalem artichokes good for? As mentioned above, Jerusalem artichokes boast a decent vitamin and mineral content to which they owe part of their health benefits. However, what makes the vegetable laudably healthy is its generous inulin content (3/4 of its fiber content), inulin being a type of dietary fiber and a carbohydrate with multiple beneficial effects on human health. But no more talk: here is a list of the most impressive 5 nutrition facts health benefits of Jerusalem artichokes:
1) Promote healthy blood pressure levels. Jerusalem artichokes are a good source of potassium. Eating 200-300 g of tubers should provide almost a third of your daily requirements of the mineral. Potassium helps regulate body fluids and blood pressure and having enough in your diet not only helps lower high blood pressure (hypertension), but also raise blood pressure that is too low, making it good for hypotension as well. If Jerusalem artichoke tubers do not agree with you, try substituting them with other foods rich in potassium such as bananas and potatoes.
2) Help restore healthy gut flora. Jerusalem artichokes contain a form of dietary fiber (and carbohydrate) known as inulin. According to research, inulin cannot be digested by the stomach, but merely passes unmodified until the bacteria in the colon break it down. Basically, the inulin in foods such as Jerusalem artichokes constitutes food for the gut microbiota or the bacteria in our digestive tract, hence the prebiotic effects of certain foods such as bananas, oatmeal, asparagus, legumes and sunchokes (see properties and benefits of inulin).
3) Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. As a dietary fiber, inulin contributes immensely to cardiovascular health by indirectly lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Dietary fiber from the foods we eat goes undigested, absorbing water and binding to fats, preventing their absorption along with other nutrients at the intestinal level.
However, for a more pronounced effect, one should turn to foods with a significantly higher fiber content than Jerusalem artichokes (1.6 g of fiber/100 g of roots). Including fiber rich foods such as oats and almonds in one’s diet should also help with weight loss. Also, it would appear that climate plays a crucial part in tuber quality: harsher, colder weather conditions may contribute to a decrease in inulin content.
4) Improve blood glucose levels and help manage diabetes. Reports suggest that Jerusalem artichokes are well tolerated by diabetics and people suffering from pancreatic disorders. It would appear that Jerusalem artichokes help stabilize blood sugar levels and minimize the need for insulin.
5) Promote elevated energy levels. Being a moderate source of B vitamins and carbohydrates (17.44 g), Jerusalem artichokes ensure overall good energy levels. They also contain good amounts of iron (3.4 mg) and thus contribute to a better oxygenation and increased energy levels.
Eating Jerusalem artichokes is also said to improve calcium absorption and help relieve constipation due to the vegetable’s good inulin content. However, Jerusalem artichokes are not for everyone. While they are healthy and moderately nutritious, they may cause flatulence and even bloating, abdominal pain and cramps. Some people report merely having felt their stomach rumble soon after having eaten the vegetable.
These symptoms are a result of inulin intake and may require either eating the roots without the skin (which contains the most fiber) or substituting them with other far less problematic root vegetables with a similar nutritional value. If you know you are sensitive to the tubers, it might be best to avoid consuming Jerusalem artichokes, especially in large amounts prior to an important event or simply go for other nutritious vegetables.