Late last summer, during a whirlwind west-coast visit, I found myself on an unlikely hike through prickly pear cacti up a Malibu mountainside in a private ranch of rented houses to a pool that was clothing-optional on Wednesdays. (Spending time with my friend Reina is always an adventure.)
En route to the pool I tried to pick a prickly pear from atop a cactus in ill-advised bare-handed fashion, only to find that the spines, unlike those of thistle, for example, are quick to release from their fruity bearings and inject themselves into the unlucky plucker’s skin in great numbers. We’re talking 50 spines, give or take. Then, I made the situation even worse by attempting to remove them from my fingers with my teeth, thereupon transferring dozens of sharp hair-like spines from fingers to lips and tongue.
This is not an entry about prickly pear (although I’ve had a request and one will follow!). It is simply to set the stage for a latent realization…
Despite some uncertainty about the route and the aforementioned prickly pear incident, then, Reina and I eventually made our way to the pool, which was set high on the mountainside in the shade of scrub trees. There we took a wonderfully refreshing, albeit bathing-suit clad dip, all the while chatting it up with the would-be sunbathers, including the landlord, who while sans clothing was stunningly bedecked with jewels. And now the point of my story: After bemoaning my prickly pear drama, I started preaching about wild edible plants and the conversation made its way to yucca, whereupon this woman shared that her friend’s wife, who is from South America, says that eating yucca flowers is good for lowering a person’s cholesterol!
Could it be so?
This memory occurred to me again yesterday, for the first time in a long time, while I was pondering the whole saponins-in-my-wild-edible plants question (see Aurora Yucca and the Recipes I’ve Tried With It). Saponins—contained by both yucca and soapberries, which I have consumed in small quantities on several occasions—are used as commercial foaming agents. They are soap’s foam, in essence. And I wondered: Could the soap from the yucca somehow be cleansing the LDL cholesterol from a person’s system?
I typed “saponins” and “cholesterol” into my Google search box. Lo and behold, up came a bunch of entries about using saponins to lower cholesterol!
“The blood cholesterol-lowering properties of dietary saponins are of particular interest in human nutrition,” writes Peter R. Cheeke, Ph D, Professor of Comparative Nutrition at Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University (1998), citing research by Dr. Rene Malinow (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1997) that demonstrated saponins’ cholesterol-lowering properties. “This desirable effect is achieved by the binding of bile acids and cholesterol by saponins,” Cheeke explains. “Bile acids form mixed micelles (molecular aggregates) with cholesterol, facilitating its absorption. Cholesterol is continually secreted into the intestine via the bile, with much of it subsequently reabsorbed. Saponins cause a depletion of body cholesterol by preventing its reabsorption, thus increasing its excretion, in much the same way as other cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as cholestyramine.”
On the other hand, a Wikipedia entry on saponins (Wikipedia being a wiki, of course, authored by a handful of disembodied humans and subject to change), explains that while “there is tremendous, commercially driven promotion of saponins as dietary supplements and nutriceuticals,” the claims are often based on preliminary studies. Furthermore, “mention is generally omitted of the possibilities of individual chemical sensitivity, or to the general toxicity of specific agents, and high toxicity of selected cases.”
Okay so that last bit means there’s at least a chance of some people having strong averse reactions, so please, as with all consumption of wild edible plants, do lip tests; eat small amounts first; and always do so at your own risk!
That being said, I do sometimes test on Gregg.
“I like my yucca medicine,” Gregg says, interrupting my reverie as he shoves the last forkful of Southwestern Fried Yucca Flowers into his mouth.
Who knows—maybe they are helping to lower his cholesterol. After all, Gregg’s “bad” LDL cholesterol was 179 last spring out of a total cholesterol (good and bad combined) of 263—in other words, unhealthily high for a exercising man at the ripe young age of 39. So he went on an Isagenix cleanse (followed by a few stints of yucca flower consumption) and continued “exercise” including snowboarding, skateboarding, and hiking. After a full lipids test on April 28, 2011, the doctor called to say Gregg had dropped his total cholesterol to 228 and the “bad” LDL cholesterol to 119. Not great—but not bad, either!
Let me be clear: I’m not saying it was necessarily the yucca flowers. It could have been the Isagenix cleanse. (In fact, if you want, Gregg would love to get you on his Isagenix program as an associate; email me if interested and I’ll pass your address along.) But what I am saying is that it could have been the yucca flowers. Okay?
Southwestern Fried Yucca Flowers
To make Southwestern Fried Yucca Flowers, separate the pistils and stamens from the petals. (Warning: Some sources warn against eating the pistils and stamens of flowers. If you’re worried, just eat the petals). Finely chop the pistils and stamens and fry in olive oil for 10 minutes, sprinkling on southwestern seasoning while frying. (I used Penzey’s “Southwest seasoning” which contains chipotle, ancho, salt, pepper, onion, garlic, cayenne red pepper, Mexican oregano, and cilantro). Then add the petals and sauté until bright green, adding more seasoning to taste. Serve as a side dish, not a main course.
Why as a side dish and not a main course, you ask? Because this author will not be held accountable if you eat gargantuan quantities of yucca and the saponins bind with your innards and wash ’em right out of you!