Summer is a great time for eating!   Many of the season’s plant-based foods provide countless health benefits, thanks to their stellar vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, and macronutrient content.

Unfortunately, many of us forget that these summer foods are not only bursting with flavor but also with health benefits. Several of my favorites are avocados, okra, papaya, and cilantro. Let me tell you why. 

Avocado

Avocados, also known in some places as alligator pears, are members of the laurel (Lauraceae) family. As the name alligator pear implies, the avocado is a fruit – a berry to be specific.

Avocados are rich sources of monounsaturated fats, deriving 71-88% of their calories from fat. More than half of that fat comes from the omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid.

These nutrient powerhouses also contain a wealth of other nutrients like alpha-linolenic acid, fiber, glutathione, vitamins E, K, C, and B6, pantethine, folate, copper, and potassium.

In fact, avocados contain more potassium than a banana. Thanks to their high fat and fiber content, avocados promote satiety, thus helping to regulate appetite, which is great for individuals trying to manage weight.

Yet what also makes avocados a superfood is their phytochemical content. The pulp of the avocado contains a wealth of bioactive compounds, including phytosterols, carotenoids (beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, chrysanthemaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin), and flavonoids (epigallocatechin 3-0-gallate) typically found in high concentrations in green tea.

Phytosterols are structurally similar to cholesterol and are thought to compete with cholesterol for absorption. Lutein and zeaxanthin collect in and protect the macula of the eye. These two pigments have also been clinically researched for healthy brain function and support of cognitive skills

When shopping, pick an avocado that is slightly soft and yields to gentle pressure, but is not mushy. And here’s a tip:  avocados that have a slight neck often have a fuller flavor than ones that are shorter and rounder.

Once cut, sprinkle with a little lemon or lime juice to prevent discoloring and place in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Because avocados contain proteins similar to those in latex, it can cause a cross reaction in individuals with a latex allergy and should be avoided by these individuals. 

Okra

Also known as lady finger, okra is often overlooked and undervalued. Okra is a member of the mallow (Malvaceae) family (of which hibiscus is also a member) and is known for the mucilaginous (sticky) juice that exudes from the fuzzy pod when it’s cooked.

Although some consider this long-chain polysaccharide mucilage slimy and unpleasant, ancient cultures valued okra’s mucilaginous nature and used it for soothing the gastrointestinal tract, lubricating the intestines, modulating blood sugar, and supporting the liver.

Recent studies suggest these long-chain polysaccharides contribute to okra’s effectiveness in the treatment of gastrointestinal complaints. The mucilage and fiber also influence glucose absorption and consequently post-meal blood sugar.

Okra has very little fat content and is a good source of soluble fiber, thanks to the long-chain polysaccharides.

Okra is also an excellent source of vitamins C and K and contains the B vitamins thiamin (B1), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and folate, beta carotene, and the minerals magnesium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and iron.

Okra also contains other bioactive compounds, including antioxidant-rich flavonoids, tannins, sterols, and triterpenes. Quercetin, a key player in modulating the body’s normal inflammatory response, is the major antioxidant in okra gum. 

When shopping for okra, look for shorter, brightly colored pods. Okra requires a warm climate and is a common staple at farmer’s markets throughout the South during the summertime.

When okra can’t be found in a local farmer’s market or the produce section at the grocery store, it can sometimes be found frozen or pickled in the condiment section (pickled okra makes a great addition to a bloody Mary, by the way). Because okra is a popular food in Indian cuisine, it can also be found in international markets. When all else fails, it can be ordered online.

To reduce the slimy mouthfeel, cook okra pods whole and quickly. Eating okra pickled, raw, roasted, and/or grilled reduces the “slimy effect” as well.

Papaya

The soft, butter-like consistency and delicious sweet musky taste of papaya earned it the name “fruit of the angels” from Christopher Columbus.

Papaya is valued for its proteolytic enzyme papain, which is frequently incorporated in enzyme formulations aimed at supporting healing and the inflammatory and digestive processes.

Proteolytic enzymes help digest proteins, so enzymes like papain can also be added to protein powders to aid digestion and absorption.

The soft and sweet pulp of papaya contains a wide range of antioxidant-rich bio-actives such as lycopene – the carotenoid responsible for the red color of papaya and tomatoes – which has been studied for its benefits in heart, prostate, eye, and brain health.

Although similar in structure to beta carotene, lycopene is thought to have greater antioxidant activity. Papaya is an excellent source of vitamin C and also contains folate, fiber, magnesium, potassium, copper, and vitamin K. 

When shopping, choose a papaya that has reddish-orange skin and is slightly soft to the touch. Papayas that are partially yellow can be left for a few days at room temperature to ripen and then stored in the refrigerator when ripe.

Papaya seeds are edible, although somewhat bitter, and will grow easily in tropical and subtropical climates. Simply walk outside and sprinkle them in the back yard and wait for a papaya grove to grow. Like avocados, papaya can cause a cross reaction in an individual who has a latex allergy.

Cilantro

Cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, is one of the world’s oldest spices. The seeds of cilantro comprise the spice coriander. Historically it was used to prevent food spoilage, alleviate gastrointestinal complaints, and stimulate appetite.

The tender leaves are rich in several carotenoids – beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin.

Like beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin is a precursor of vitamin A, but with arguably more bioavailability than beta-carotene. Cilantro leaves contain several other beneficial flavonoids, polyphenols, and phenolic acids, like kaempferol, quercetin, caffeic acid, geraniol, and limonene.

Cilantro leaves have high vitamin C and K content, as well as folate, choline, calcium, potassium, and manganese. Because the leaves are so tender, it’s best to not cook cilantro. Instead, use it to add flavor and depth to foods or to make simple sauces like chutney.  Over-chopping or cutting with a dull knife can bruise the herb, causing much of its flavor to be lost to the cutting board’s surface.

With all that the summer has to offer, eating should be fun. Try a piece of freshly caught fish topped with an avocado-papaya-cilantro salsa and served with a side of grilled okra. If that’s not appealing, then opt for okra in place of chips with guacamole.

Swap a bowl of cold, cubed papaya and blueberries sprinkled with a little lime juice and fresh basil for a dish of ice cream. The options are endless!