Broccoli has a greater concentration of nutrients—including ten vitamins and minerals—than any other plant used for food in the United States
Eat Your Broccoli
The list of health benefits from broccoli is almost too good to be true: halt the growth of breast cancer cells, reduce stomach tumors, reduce cancer in the upper colon, protect against the deleterious effects of UV radiation, control the germ that causes most peptic ulcers, and clean harmful bacteria from lungs.
Broccoli has a greater concentration of nutrients—including ten vitamins and minerals—than any other plant used for food in the United States, but ranks twenty-first in the amount consumed. On the other hand, the tomato, the most commonly eaten vegetable or fruit, comes in sixteenth as a source of vitamins and minerals. (1)
The best sources of calcium in the diet are dairy products; in fact, it is difficult to meet one’s daily calcium needs without them. A glass of milk has about three hundred milligrams, and a cup of yogurt has four hundred. By comparison, the best vegetable source is broccoli, with approximately one hundred milligrams per cup. (2)
Some of the other components of broccoli include sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol, and phenythiocarbamide, all important from a health aspect.
Sulforaphane is claimed to provide many health benefits although neither broccoli nor its sprouts actually contain sulforaphane. What each has is glucoraphanin, a compound that yields sulforaphane when it reacts with the enzyme myrosinase. This enzyme is liberated when the plant’s tissues are disturbed by chopping or chewing. (3)
Researchers have added sulforaphane to cultures of human breast cancer cells and noted that within hours, the cells stopped dividing. Sulforaphane seems to work by interrupting the tiny microtubules that normally pull pairs of chromosomes apart when cells divide. With the tubules, malignant cells can’t multiply, and sulforaphane seems to leave normal cells untouched. (4) Because it protects against breast cancer, Joe Schwarcz asks, “Could this be the reason why , prior to unification, the breast cancer rate in East Germany, where inexpensive cabbage was a dietary fixture, was much lower than in more affluent West Germany.” (5)
Studies have shown that sulforaphane can reduce stomach tumors in mice, and at a dose that does not translate to a human having to eat a mountain of broccoli sprouts. A daily snack is all that is involved. (3)
Although the research is preliminary, scientists have discovered that sulforaphane present in extract of broccoli sprouts can help prevent skin cancer since it protects against the deleterious effects of UV radiation. The investigators believe that the extract, which is applied topically, may have utility above and beyond sunscreen. (6)
Sulforaphane may also help the immune system to clean harmful bacteria from the lungs. To ensure that the lungs function correctly, white blood cells called macrophages remove debris and bacteria that can build up and cause infection. This cleaning system is defective in smokers and people with chronic obstructive disease (COPD). Now, researchers have found that a chemical pathway in the lungs called NRF2, involved in macrophage activation, is wiped out by smoking.
Sulforaphane and other cruciferous vegetables can restore this pathway. (7)
Broccoli may also be an effective way to control the germ that causes most peptic ulcers, researchers at Johns Hopkins report. As will all these results about broccoli, Jed Fahey, a co-author of the study notes that drugs are not always effective and can have unpleasant side effects. “We’re enthusiastic about the results, but have have to be careful not to overinterpret it,” Dr. Fahey said. (8)
Indole-3-carbinol is another chemical of interest in broccoli. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have shown that this also halts breast cancer tumors. (9)
A team of Penn researchers has helped uncover the evolutionary history of one of the genes responsible for the trait of some people who can easily taste a bitter compound in broccoli that others have difficulty detecting. Individuals with a certain version of the gene known as TAS2R38 can taste a compound, phenylthiocarbamide ((PTC), which is chemically similar to naturally occurring bitter compounds present in many foods, and broccoli is one of them. (10)
Former President George Bush got a lot of flack for his dislike of broccoli. It’s possible that he, as well as many others, has an inherited aversion to this bitter-tasting cruciferous vegetable. At least that’s the conclusion of some scientists who say that some folks are super tasters, people with a genetically determined dislike of bitter compounds in many vegetables and fruits. Some research suggests that supertasters shun certain foods containing better-tasting compounds that scientists think may ward off cancer. Studies have shown that about 25 percent of the US population are supertasters, 50 percent are regular tasters, and 25 percent are non-tasters. (11) Some grocery stores sell a clever hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower called broccoflower. The florets tend to be lime-green or yellow-green and the taste is sweeter and less intense than broccoli’s alone.
Regardless, broccoli is quite good for you, whether you like it or not.
- Peter Farb, Consuming Passions, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 163
- Joe Schwarcz, Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs, (Toronto, ECW Press, 1999), 180
- Joe Schwarcz, The Fly in the Ointment, (Toronto, ECW Press, 2004), 109
- Elizabeth Svoboda, “Broccoli Kicks Cancer,” Discover, January 2005, Page 77
- Joe Schwarcz, Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs, 125
- P. Talalay et al., “Broccoli extract may help reduce UV skin Damage,” JAMA, 298, 2731, 2007
- “Eat your broccoli, smokers it helps clean up your lings,” New Scientist, 210, 17, April 23, 2011
- Nicholas Bakalar, “Regimens: broccoli sprouts may be germ fighters,” The New York Times, April 13, 2009
- “Chalk up another one for broccoli chemical in vegetable shown to halt growth of breast cancer cells,” sciencedaily.com, February 16, 1998
- Evan Lerner, “Penn researchers uncover evolution of bitter gene,” Penn Current, December 8, 2011
- Kathleen Fackelmann, “The bitter truth: do some people inherit a distaste for broccoli?” Science News, 152, 24, July 12, 1997