Here's what you can substitute for milk thistle

Milk thistle doesn't really sound too appealing — in fact, it sounds like something cows would eat. And not pampered Kobe beef cows, either, more like cows confined to some particularly poor pasturage in a remote mountain hollow. Despite its unappetizing name, though, milk thistle is actually quite popular with both home cooks and people who are into natural remedies. As a foodstuff, milk thistle has leaves that bear a certain similarity to spinach. As a health supplement, it is used to promote healthy liver functioning, since the liver, an unglamorous organ if there ever was one, is one of the most crucial organs to sustaining human existence.

What if you can't get hold of milk thistle, however? It's not the kind of thing you find on any old supermarket shelf, after all, and city dwellers can't exactly go out to a pasture to pluck a fresh supply. In that case, the best substitute for it would be another plant that also has spinach-y kind of leaves and is also good for the liver. Luckily there just happens to be such a plant, and it's one that's in no short supply, as any gardener can tell you — the humble dandelion.

​Dandelion versus milk thistle

Dandelions, like milk thistles, are often considered a nuisance weed, but to those in the know, they're a natural (and often free) food source that also offers medicinal benefits. Dandelions and milk thistles both have leaves that can be eaten either raw or cooked, although dandelion leaves are a little easier to prepare as they don't have any of the prickly parts of a thistle that need to be removed if you'd prefer to avoid the painful sensation of having spines lodged in your tongue. Dandelions also tend to be milder tasting than milk thistles, since the latter sometimes need to be soaked prior to eating in order to lessen their bitter taste.

While dandelions' primary health properties, like those of milk thistle, involve strengthening liver functions, these plants each work in different ways. Milk thistle's active ingredient is silymarin, an antioxidant with detoxifying properties that have been linked to a reduction in liver damage from harmful agents such as acetaminophen, alcohol, and even radiation. Dandelion benefits the liver by increasing the bile flow, which helps that organ function more efficiently.  

Dandelions are a readily-available milk thistle substitute

While dandelions may not be an exact substitute for milk thistle, they are certainly worth checking out if you're looking for a plant with a similar nutritional and wellness profile. After all, it's not like they're either expensive or hard to find, since they grow just about everywhere. In fact, during the growing season, they're no further than your nearest suburban lawn. If you offer to pick them — and this doesn't freak out the homeowner — you'll be practically guaranteed a free supply until winter. Be sure to check for a lawn that's pesticide-free, which will probably be one with a lot of dandelions and other weeds growing. If plant picking isn't your thing, though, never fear, since dandelion greens can also be found at your local Whole Foods.