Can Eating Certain Vegetables Protect Against the Health Effects of Pollution?

Apiaceous Vegetables

Air pollution is becoming more of a threat with each passing year. It’s a problem for air quality now and poses a risk for future generations too.  The World Health Organization says more than 90 percent of the world’s population experiences air pollution above its recommended safe level. And two million people die prematurely each year because of outdoor air pollution, according to the WHO’s 2014 report on indoor air quality in households.

Air Pollution is a Problem for All Ages

Pollution is a problem for everyone, but it’s especially risky for children, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses. It contributes to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, heart disease, and cancer.

If you aren’t breathing polluted air now, you could be in the future. What can you do to protect yourself? A new study shows what you eat can make a difference. Researchers at the University of Delaware discovered that eating more or a particular type of vegetable, called apiaceous vegetables, could reduce some of the negative effects of pollution on health.

The Power of Apiaceous Vegetables

Researchers at the University of Delaware found that apiaceous vegetables help protect against the effects of air pollution. What are apiaceous vegetables? Apiaceous vegetables are popular in the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia. They are a group of vegetables that that people eat and use as spices and garnishes including parsley, celery, carrots, parsnips, and fennel.

How do these veggies protect against air pollution? When you breathe in polluted air, car exhaust, or cigarette smoke, your lungs and other tissues accumulate acrolein, a toxic chemical that causes oxidative stress and damage to cells. Apiaceous vegetables contain phytonutrients that help your body break down and excrete acrolein, so it leaves your body rather than hangs around and triggers oxidative stress. The phytonutrients turn on enzymes in the liver that convert acrolein to a water-soluble form that your body can more easily eliminate.

How Much of These Vegetables Do You Need?

Although researchers don’t know the exact amount to optimize protection against air pollution, they believe that the amount is reasonable, less than 2 cups per day of apiaceous vegetables. They estimate around 1 and 1/3 cups daily would be sufficient, a reasonable amount.

It’s not hard to add 1 and 1/3 cup of carrots to your diet and it could be a combination of celery and carrots. You can do that by eating a daily salad with carrots and celery or by dipping carrots and celery into a hummus dip as a snack.

Do Other Vegetables Protect Against the Health Effects of Air Pollution?

Another group of vegetables that may protect against some of the effects of pollution on the human body is cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are a group of vegetables that provide a wide range of health benefits. They belong to the cabbage family and include broccoli, cauliflower, watercress, Bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens, among others.

Cruciferous vegetables contain phytonutrients (glucosinolates) that help detoxify our bodies by stimulating enzymes that break down harmful substances in the body, such as pesticides and heavy metals. Glucosinolates also have anti-cancer properties.

Cruciferous vegetables contain considerable quantities of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, carotenoids (beta-carotene), and flavonoids (quercetin). Antioxidants help prevent damage to the body’s cells caused by free radicals (unstable molecules). This damage contributes to the development of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Cruciferous vegetables are low in calories. They are also a reliable source of vitamins B1 (thiamin) and B2 (riboflavin), folate, and potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure. The key is to eat them raw or lightly steamed so they retain their nutrients. Cooked cruciferous vegetables lose some of their vitamin C content.

Cruciferous Vegetables and Air Pollution

How might cruciferous vegetables mitigate the effects of air pollution? Air pollution damages your lungs and blood vessels partly by causing oxidative stress. By consuming antioxidant-rich foods, like cruciferous vegetables, you benefit from their antioxidant activity. Plus, cruciferous vegetables contain sulforaphane, a compound that activates pathways that help detoxify and excrete cancer-causing chemicals, including pollutants.

If mature broccoli isn’t to your liking, try broccoli sprouts. These immature forms of broccoli are unusually rich in compounds with anti-cancer and detoxifying capabilities. One study found that people who drink a tea made from broccoli sprouts excreted more of two harmful compounds in air pollution, acrolein and benzene, compared to those who consumed a placebo drink. You could get similar benefits by eating raw broccoli sprouts every day. You can add these sprouts that are easy to grow at home to salads, wraps, sandwiches, and even soups and stews.

When you chew on broccoli sprouts, it converts glucoraphanin in broccoli to sulforaphane, a key compound for helping your body protect against the effects of air pollution. Sulforaphane turns on a signaling molecule called NRF2 that activates detoxification enzymes, which break down harmful compounds into more innocuous byproducts.

The Bottom Line

Now there’s more reason to visit the produce department. Certain vegetables, particularly apiaceous vegetables and cruciferous vegetables may help your body better protect against the damaging effects of air pollution. It’s not going anywhere, and pollution is likely to worsen, so the more steps you can take to protect yourself, the better. One way is to fill your plate with vegetables. Plus, you’ll get the other health benefits that veggies offer too.


  • Anderer J. Eating carrots, celery protects you from toxins in cigarette smoke, air pollution. Study Finds. Published May 13, 2022. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.studyfinds.org/carrots-celery-air-pollution/
  • Redding MC, Pan JH, Kim YJ, et al. Apiaceous vegetables protect against acrolein-induced pulmonary injuries through modulating hepatic detoxification and inflammation in C57BL/6 male mice. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. 2022;101:108939. doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2022.108939
  • ‌Ağagündüz D, Şahin TÖ, Yılmaz B, Ekenci KD, Duyar Özer Ş, Capasso R. Cruciferous Vegetables and Their Bioactive Metabolites: from Prevention to Novel Therapies of Colorectal Cancer. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2022 Apr 11;2022:1534083. doi: 10.1155/2022/1534083. PMID: 35449807; PMCID: PMC9017484.
  • “Cruciferous Vegetables | Linus Pauling Institute | Oregon State University.” https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/food-beverages/cruciferous-vegetables.
  • “Broccoli Brew Eases Air Pollution Effect, But Is This Detox?.” 27 Jun. 2014, https://www.livescience.com/46573-broccoli-sprouts-air-pollution-effect.html.
  • “The Power Of The Nrf2 Pathway | FX Medicine.” https://www.fxmedicine.com.au/blog-post/power-nrf2-pathway.
  • “Eat These Vegetables To Reduce Air Pollution Toxins in Your Body.” 08 Jun. 2022, https://scitechdaily.com/eat-these-vegetables-to-reduce-air-pollution-toxins-in-your-body/.
  • “Air Quality – National Summary | US EPA.” 01 Jun. 2022, https://www.epa.gov/air-trends/air-quality-national-summary.

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