Okra, known in many English-speaking countries as ‘ladies’ fingers’ or ‘ochro’, is a flowering plant in the mallow family, and is also sometimes mistaken for a pepper plant. However, this is a flowering plant known for its edible seed pods. It contains a sticky juice that people use to thicken sauces.
In Rwanda, okra is grown by a few farmers. For instance, in Musanze District, Jean Damascene Uwamahoro uses part of his land to grow the plant, which he says he distributes to parts of the country including Nyarugenge Market in Kigali.
Although many know little about this plant, nutritionists say it has many nutrients needed for the body.
Rich in nutrients
Nutritionists say okra is rich in vitamins C and K, and that it provides protein, a nutrient that many fruits and vegetables lack.
Erick Musengimana, a nutritionist at Rwanda Diabetes Association, Kigali, says that okra is an excellent source of vitamins C and K1.
“Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient that contributes to the overall immune function,” he says.
Vitamin K1 is a fat-soluble vitamin that’s known for its role in blood clotting.
Musengimana says okra is low in calories and carbs and contains some protein and fibre. Many fruits and vegetables lack protein, which makes okra somewhat unique.
“Eating enough protein is associated with benefits for weight management, blood sugar control, bone structure, and muscle mass,” he says.
Marie Ann Munezero, a Kigali-based nutritionist, says okra is also packed with antioxidants that are useful to one’s overall health.
The main antioxidants in okra, she says, are polyphenols, including flavonoids and isoquercetin, as well as vitamins A and C.
Meanwhile, research shows that eating a diet high in polyphenols may improve heart health by lowering one’s risk of blood clots and oxidative damage.
Studies have also shown that polyphenols may also benefit brain health due to their unique ability to enter the brain and protect against inflammation.
“These defence mechanisms may help protect your brain from symptoms of ageing and improve cognition, learning, and memory,” says Munezero.
In general, she points out that okra is rich in antioxidants that may help reduce one’s risk of serious diseases, and contribute to overall good health.
Musengimana says high cholesterol levels are associated with a greater risk of heart disease.
Okra contains a thick gel-like substance called mucilage, which can bind to cholesterol during digestion, causing it to be excreted with stools rather than absorbed into the body.
He goes on to add that it also contains some types of protein known to inhibit the growth of human cancer cells.
“Maintaining a healthy blood sugar level is very important for one’s overall health. Consistently high blood sugar can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes,” Musengimana notes.
Folate (vitamin B9), he says, is also an important nutrient for pregnant women as it helps lower the risk of a neural tube defect, which affects the brain and spine of a developing foetus.Follow Lydia_AtienoM