Broccoli – it’s the ultimate anti-cancer vegetable. It might surprise you, but broccoli is actually a form of cabbage. Originally developed by breeding wild cabbage plants back in the 6th century BC, broccoli has withstood the test of time. Yet, it’s somewhat polarizing in terms of taste. Not everyone loves it! Even if you don’t love broccoli, there are ways to enjoy its health benefits.
Broccoli is a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, a distinction it shares with other nutrient-dense vegetables, including cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, arugula, collard greens, mustard greens, horseradish, arugula, Bok choy and more. Yet it’s not just the nutrients in broccoli that make it such an exceptional food source, it’s the anti-cancer compounds.
Anti-Cancer Benefits of Broccoli and Other Cruciferous Vegetables
Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are a rich source of natural chemicals called glucosinolates. These are compounds with powerful anti-cancer properties, but only if you convert them to another group of compounds called sulforaphane. To make this conversion, you need an enzyme called myrosinase. Without myrosinase, the anti-cancer compounds never make it into the more powerful form called sulforaphane. Plants use sulforaphane as protection against insect predators – but in the laboratory, these compounds block another destructive killer – cancer.
Unfortunately, when you cook mature broccoli, it destroys most of the myrosinase you need to transform broccoli into a powerful cancer fighter. When you overcook broccoli, you only get a fraction of the cell-protective sulforaphane. Bacteria in your intestinal tract make this conversion but only to a small degree.
From an anti-cancer standpoint, the best way to eat broccoli is raw, so you get glucosinolates as well as the enzyme myrosinase you need to make sulforaphane. What if you prefer your broccoli cooked? Research shows you can reduce the destruction of myrosinase by lightly steaming broccoli for five minutes or less rather than cooking it under high heat or for a long period of time. Boiling or microwaving broccoli for as little as a minute is enough to destroy most of the myrosinase and reduce the anti-cancer benefits of the veggie. Cooking also destroys its beautiful color and crisp texture.
To get the full, anti-cancer benefits of broccoli, try these “tricks.” Eat a combination of cooked and raw broccoli, for example, raw broccoli on a salad and cooked broccoli as a side dish. Another option – add other raw, cruciferous vegetables to a salad, like cabbage and kale. An even better way to get myrosinase is by eating broccoli sprouts. Why sprouts? Research shows immature broccoli sprouts are an exceptionally rich source of this enzyme. Fortunately, you can find broccoli sprouts at a number of grocery stores, especially natural ones, and it’s not difficult to grow your own indoors without soil.
Here’s another tip. Avoid cruciferous vegetable supplements and extracts that claim to have anti-cancer properties. These supplements contain glucosinolates but lack myrosinase, so you don’t get conversion into the active, cancer-fighting sulforaphane. Also available is freeze-dried broccoli sprout powder that DOES retain myrosinase.
What about Frozen Broccoli?
For the most part, frozen vegetables have similar, or even superior, nutritional value to fresh produce, especially if fresh produce traveled a long distance and sat on a store shelf for too long. However, broccoli is an exception. When manufacturers make broccoli, they take the broccoli to a high temperature and then dunk it in cold water to retain its bright green color. Unfortunately, this process destroys myrosinase. So, if you eat frozen broccoli, add some broccoli sprouts to your plate.
Other Health Benefits of Broccoli
Broccoli is more than an anti-cancer vegetable. This green, crunchy veggie is low in calories and a good source of fiber to help fill you up. Other health benefits of broccoli:
. Good source of vitamin K and non-dairy calcium for bone health
. Excellent source of lutein and beta-carotene for visual health.
. A surprisingly good source of vitamin C for a healthy immune system
. Good source of minerals, like potassium and magnesium, for heart health and blood pressure control.
. Helps eradicate a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori that’s linked with stomach ulcers and gastric cancer.
. Reduces inflammation. Research shows sulforaphane is an inflammation fighter.
. Lower risk of breast cancer. Compounds in broccoli convert estrogens to a less carcinogenic form.
How to Enjoy the Benefits of Broccoli
. Make broccoli coleslaw as a summer side dish.
. Sprinkle broccoli sprouts on salad, sandwiches, soups, and pizza.
. Roast broccoli to bring out its sweetness, but eat broccoli sprouts too to supply myrosinase.
. Puree broccoli to make healthy and tasty broccoli soup.
. Make broccoli a side dish in place of potatoes.
. Add broccoli to your next omelet. Broccoli for breakfast is a-okay!
The Bottom Line
You won’t get the full anti-cancer benefits of broccoli if you overcook it. Even a minute of microwaving is enough to destroy the enzyme you need to convert the anti-cancer chemicals in broccoli to their active form. No mushy broccoli! Steam it instead. Eat more raw broccoli and broccoli sprouts for a reliable source of myrosinase. Also, diversify your diet by eating more vegetables in the uber-healthy cruciferous vegetable family.
Better yet, make a salad out of cruciferous vegetables – kale, radishes, cabbage, broccoli. Yum! Add an olive-oiled based dressing and you’ll absorb even more of the fat-soluble nutrients, such as beta-carotene, in broccoli.
Broccoli is versatile, especially when you consider all the uses for broccoli sprouts. Enjoy this exceptional, anti-cancer vegetable.
PonderWeasel. “Did You Know That Broccoli is a Man-made Food?”
PNAS. November 19, 2013. vol. 110 no. 47
News.Health.com. “Best Way to Cook Broccoli? Steaming Preserves Cancer-Fighting Potential”
Dig Dis Sci. 2004 Aug;49(7-8):1088-90.
Science Daily. “Broccoli Sprouts May Prevent Stomach Cancer By Defeating Helicobacter Pylori”
Nutraingredients.com. “Frozen Broccoli Lacks Ability to Form Health Compound”
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