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The Wonderful World of Brassica Vegetables

By Jennette Turner

Imagine a pill that cost less than a dollar, was available without a prescription, and could cut your risk of cancer in half with no side effects, even in long term studies. Everyone would be rushing to take it!

Well, they’re not available in pill form (yet…), but the brassica family of vegetables (also called the cabbage family, or cruciferous vegetables) exactly fits this bill. These plants are among the most beneficial foods you can eat. They’re nutritious, high in dietary fiber, low in calories, tasty, and contain potent anti-cancer compounds – all available without a prescription!

The cabbage family vegetables all contain the phytonutrients sulfuraphane and the indoles, which give them tremendous cancer preventing properties. Indoles suppress the growth of tumors and inhibit cancer cell metastasis (the movement of cancerous cells from one part of the body to another). Sulfuraphane can increase the body’s ability to detoxify carcinogenic substances. At Johns Hopkins, researchers found that animals given sulfuraphane had fewer tumors, and the tumors they did have were smaller and grew more slowly than the control group.

Studies all over the world have shown that brassica family vegetables help prevent a variety of cancers:

  • The Netherlands Cohort Study on Diet and Cancer – a large-scale study with data collected from 100,000 people over six years – found that people who eat at least 3 servings of cabbage family vegetables per week (1 serving = 1 c. cooked) lower their risk of colorectal cancers by a whopping 49%. Yes, you can cut your risk of colon cancer (the second most common form of cancer in the U.S.) in half just by eating more broccoli and kale.
  • A study done in Singapore found that regular consumption of brassica vegetables lowered lung cancer (the most common form of cancer in the U.S.) risk in non-smokers by 30%, and in smokers by 69%!
  • In Seattle, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that men eating three or more servings of brassica family vegetables per week lowered their risk of prostate cancer by 44%.
  • And studies at the University of California at Berkeley found that indole-3-carbinol, one of the indoles present in cruciferous vegetables, can actually halt the growth of breast cancer cells.

As great as these vegetables are, there is one important rule to remember: they need to be cooked. They contain irritants to the large intestine that, when eaten raw, can cause bloating, gas, and abdominal cramping. These irritants are neutralized by cooking or fermentation (as in the case of sauerkraut or kim-chee). Having raw broccoli or cauliflower with dip at a party once in a while is not a problem (though it might make you feel uncomfortable). However, regular consumption of raw brassica vegetables is not a good idea.

Brassica vegetables also contain goitrogenic compounds that interfere with the body’s ability to use iodine, and can thus depress the thyroid gland, the body’s “master gland” that regulates energy levels, metabolism and endocrine functions. Again, these anti-nutrients are neutralized by cooking or fermentation.

A few of brassica’s biggest stars:

Broccoli is perhaps the best publicized member of the brassica family. Loaded with vitamin C, carotenoids, flavanoids, and other anti-oxidants, it can help lower risk for heart disease. In a meta-analysis done of several studies looking at coronary heart disease and diet, people that regularly ate broccoli, apples and onions (all among the richest food sources of flavanoids) had a 20% lower risk of heart disease.

In addition, broccoli is a great source of folate, which prevents birth defects, and other B vitamins which support nervous system health and healthy moods. It’s not hard to be low in B vitamins these days, as they are destroyed by diets high in refined flours, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine; and they are rapidly used up in times of stress. So beat the blues with broccoli! The most nutritious method of cooking broccoli is steaming. Steamed broccoli is delicious with butter (which also helps your body absorb its nutrients-bonus!) or with different sauces. You can also sauté broccoli, roast it, or boil it in soup. Cauliflower may be prepared the same way.

Kale and collard greens: now here’s where we really get in to the über-nutrients. These dark leafy greens contain between 800-1400% of the U.S. RDA for vitamin K, which is needed for your blood and bones (Think: vitamin Kale), and over 100% of the U.S. R.D.A. of beta carotene and vitamin C (both powerful anti-oxidants that prevent aging and disease). These hardy greens are also fantastic sources of bone-building minerals such as calcium, energy-producing manganese, stress-fighting magnesium, and blood-enhancing iron. They also contain plenty of the B complex vitamins, including folic acid and vitamin B 6. Truly a nutritional gold-mine. And yummy, too!

Kale and collards are usually best boiled – their tough fiber gets thoroughly broken down this way, and so the nutrients are more easily absorbed. Just boil the greens for a few minutes, until they are bright dark green and tender. It’s easy to add boiled greens to a stir-fry, or chill them and add to a salad.

Red cabbage. While all cabbages (white, green, Savoy, Napa, Brussels sprouts, bok choy) are beneficial, providing protection from disease and a wealth of vitamins and minerals, red cabbage is also an abundant source of anti-oxidant polyphenols called anthocyanins that can help protect brain cells against Alzheimer’s disease. Red cabbage can be steamed, sautéed, or roasted.

Cauliflower and the brassica root vegetables (which aren’t as showy as their above-ground counterparts) don’t have the same stellar nutritional profiles as the brightly colored crucifers. However, their disease-preventing abilities should not be discounted. Including rutabagas, turnips, and kohlrabi in your diet is easy – add them to mixed vegetables for roasting, mash them with potatoes or winter squash, add them to soups… You’ll be fighting disease in delicious new ways.

It’s a new year – why not resolve to have three to five servings of brassica vegetables per week? The health benefits can be enormous, and it’s a great way to increase variety, flavor, and satisfaction in your meals.

Mashed Rutabaga and Potatoes

1 large rutabaga, scrubbed, trimmed, and chopped into small chunks
3 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into larger chunks
2 c. chicken stock OR “unchicken” broth
3 T. butter
salt and pepper to taste
OPTION: 6-8 cloves garlic, minced OR 1-2 tsp. dried dill

1. Bring rutabagas and potatoes to boil in stock.
2. Cook until tender.
3. Add butter and mash with an electric mixer, hand blender or potato masher.

Serve with your favorite toppings: butter, sour cream, grated cheese, chives… Hint: leftover mashed rutabagas and potatoes go nicely with eggs for breakfast!

Makes 6 servings

Kale with Honey-Mustard Sauce

1 bunch kale, de-stemmed and chopped
4 T. honey
3 T. prepared mustard (any kind: yellow, Dijon, or stone-ground)
2 T. water – more if needed, thin to desired consistency

1. Bring kale to boil in a large pot of salted water.
2. Cook until tender – about 3-5 minutes. Drain.
3. Mix sauce ingredients together until smooth. Adjust to taste and consistency. Serve over kale.

Makes 4 servings

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage
4 c. red cabbage, coarsely shredded
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 T. sucanat
2 T. butter
¼ tsp. salt
OPTION: ¼ lb. bacon

1. OPTIONAL first step: fry bacon. Set aside.
2. Sauté cabbage in butter OR bacon grease in pan, with salt until tender, about 10 minutes.
3. Mix vinegar and sucanat together (it will stay grainy – that’s fine) and pour over cooking cabbage.
4. Continue cooking a few more minutes, stirring well, until excess liquid has evaporated. OPTION: chop cooked bacon and stir into cabbage.

Makes 4 servings

Side box with list of vegetables in the Brassica family:

Bok choy
Broccoli
Brussels sprouts
Cabbages – red, green, Savoy, Napa
Cauliflower
Collards
Kale
Kohlrabi
Mizuna
Mustard greens
Rutabaga
Turnip
Watercress

Jennette turner is a Natural Foods Educator in Minneapolis. She Teaches public and private classes, and offers individual nutrition consultations. Jennette launced Dinner with Jennette (www.jennette-turner.com/dinner), to make it easier for people to incorporate natural foods into their diets. she can be reached at jennette-turner.com / 612-374-6039

References

Beecher, C. “Cancer Preventative Properties of Varieties of Brassica Oleracea: a Review”, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1994; 59 (suppl.)

Cohen, J.H., et al. “Fruit and Vegetable Intakes and Prostate Cancer Risk” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2000; 92 (1)

Ensminger, Audrey, et al. Foods and Nutrition Encyclopedia, Vols. 1 & 2, ©1986, Pegasus Press

Heo, H.J. and Chang, Y.L., “Phenolic Phytochemicals in Cabbage Inhibit Amyloid Beta Protein-Induced Neurotoxicity”, Food Science and Technology, 2006; 39 (4)

Huxley, R.R., Neil, H.A.W. “The Relation Between Dietary Flavanol Intake and Coronary Heart Disease Mortality; a Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003; 57

Lyle, B.J., et al. “Anti-Oxidant Intake and Risk of Incident of Age-Related Nuclear Cataracts in the Beaver Dam Eye Study”, American Journal of Epidemiology, 1999; 149(9)

Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods, ©1993, North Atlantic Books

Podsedek, A., “Natural Anti-Oxidants and Anti-Oxidant Capacity of Brassica Vegetables: a Review”, Food Science and Technology, 2006; 40 (1)

Voorrips, L.E., et al. “Vegetable and Fruit Consumption and Risks of Colon and Rectal Cancer in a Prospective Cohort Study: the Netherlands Cohort Study on Diet and Cancer” American Journal of Epidemiology, 2000; 152 (11)

Wills, Judith. The Food Bible, ©1998, Fireside Books

Zhao, B. et al. “Dietary Isothiocyanates, Glutathione S-Transferase – M1-T1 Polymorphisms and Lung Cancer Risk among Chinese Women in Singapore” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, 2001; 10 (10)

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