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Why Mother was right: Broccoli and other cruciferous veggies really are good for you

“I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”
– George H.W. Bush, 41st U.S. President

broccoli

The first President Bush may not have been fond of his broccoli, but there are many reasons why you should be. High in Vitamins C, K and A, folate, soluble fiber and the omega-3 ALA, broccoli has proven cardiovascular benefits and is a great choice for healthy eating. Yet what sets broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables above and beyond are the glucosinolate compounds they contain, which have potent anti-cancer effects.

Cruciferous vegetables belong to the mustard family, and include cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, and bok choi, among others. When overcooked, they all produce an unappetizing odor due to their glucosinolate content. These glucosinolates give cruciferous plants their bitter/sharp taste, and in high doses are toxic to humans and animals, therefore providing protection for the plants.

Many animal studies have shown that glucosinolates, when consumed in less-than-toxic amounts, produce substances in the body that inhibit cancer. These isothiocyanates, which include sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol, and crambene, both stop enzymes from activating cancer-causing agents in the body, and increase the activity of enzymes that disable and eliminate carcinogens. In other words, these substances derived from eating cruciferous vegetables both inhibit the growth of, and slow the spread of, cancers.

Studies show a strong correlation between human and animal diets high in cruciferous vegetables and lower cancer rates. People who eat the most cruciferous vegetables have lower risks of prostate, colon, breast, ovarian, bladder, and lung cancer, even when compared to those who regularly eat other vegetables. In the case of prostate cancer, it appears that eating broccoli together with tomatoes is even more effective against tumors.

It is important to pay attention to how you select and cook your cruciferous vegetables in order to maximize their nutritional value, including anti-cancer benefits. Look for dark green heads on broccoli — yellowing indicates it is past mature. Cauliflower should be firm, compact, and creamy white, without any spotting. Brussels sprouts as well as cabbage needs to be firm and without yellow or brown discoloration on the leaves. Leafy greens such as kale should be firm and dark green.

When it comes to cooking, both old-fashioned boiling and new-fangled microwaving are definitely out. Both sharply reduce the nutrient content. Steaming is the best bet and shows little nutrient loss when kept to 5 minutes. Quickly sautéing with extra virgin olive oil is another good choice. Remember that overcooking causes those wonderful glucosinolates to be released and bother your nose rather than protect you from cancer. Season with lemon juice and sea salt, or add to pasta, salad, or pizza.

So, has President Bush changed his mind yet? Maybe his mom simply overcooked his broccoli…

- Rebecca Taggart

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