Credit: Rachel Ham

What exactly are cruciferous vegetables?

What's in a name?

Cruciferous, brassica, cole - all are terms that refer to the same family of vegetables, the cabbages. Cruciferous comes from the Latin for cross, crux, since many of these vegetables have a cross-shaped flower with four equal petals. Brassica also comes from Latin; it's the word for cabbage. Cole also harkens back to Latin, caulis, or plant stalk.

Here's a list of crucifers. You can see the etymology in many of the names.

  • arugula
  • bok choi
  • broccoli
  • brussel sprouts
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • Chinese cabbage
  • collard greens
  • daikon radish
  • horseradish
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • mustard greens
  • radish
  • rutabaga
  • turnip
  • watercress
Kale chips(118917)
Credit: Rachel Ham

What makes them so nutritious?

Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals

As a group, crucifers are extremely high in vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, fiber, folate, and manganese. In fact, there are no other vegetable groups that have as much nutritional punch. They also, surprisingly, contain protein and omega-3 fatty acids. For example, there are 10 g of protein and 200 mg of Ω-3s in a cup of steamed broccoli[5648].

All of this looks impressive, right? Well, these nutrients aren't even the superstars found in cruciferous vegetables. Those stars are the phytochemicals. Glycosinolates, sulfur-containing compounds, are prominent in crucifers.[5648] They give crucifers their distinct bitter (cabbage and kale), sharp (arugula), even hot taste (i.e., mustard greens and horseradish). They also provide protection against cancer. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on glycosinolates and their role in reducing cancer risk. Higher intake of crucifers lower the risk of lung, colorectal,[5647] liver, cervix, and prostate cancer.[5645] 

The protective effect is not seen only in cancer; the more crucfierous vegetables people eat, the lower the overall death rate for all diseases.[5646] This may be due to the anitoxidants found in crucifers. In normal metabolism, oxygen helps to form free radicals, that can harm the body's DNA, RNA, proteins, and lipids. Oxidative stress can lead to cancerous growth, damage to arteries, and even contributes to symptoms of aging and neurological disease. Antioxidants, like the vitamin A and C found in crucifers, scavenge these free radicals and help prevent damage. In one study, after just three weeks people who ate lots of cruciferous vegetables had 22% less oxidative stress in their bodies.[5645]


Credit: Rachel Ham

Tips to add delicious crucifers to your diet

Enjoying more "cancer scrubbers"

  • Eat them raw or lightly cooked, i.e., steaming, stirfrying, or sautéeing. You want to retain all the good-for-you phytochemicals, so don't overcook them. Too much heat will break down the anitoxidants and the phytochemicals. That's how you get that strong sulfur odor and extra bitter taste.
  • Broccoli and cauliflower florets are a perfect addition to a raw vegetable tray. Try adding some sliced raw kohlrabi or turnips, too.
  • Don't forget the condiments - horseradish and mustard are crucifers and will add some nutrition as well as sharpness to your food.
  • Salads love crucifers. Arugula, watercress, and mustard greens add an extra bite to mixed greens. Raw chopped broccoli and cauliflower and sliced radishes give more crunch.
  • Speaking of salads, mix equal amounts of soy sauce, lemon juice, and honey into a dressing. Toss in grated daikon radish and shredded carrots. 
  • Try kale chips as an alternative to potato or corn chips - thin, salty, crunchy, and flavorful.
  • Add some arugula or cress to your sandwch instead of lettuce for an extra zing.
  • All of the cabbages - cabbage, Chinese cabbage, and bok choi are amazing in stirfries.
  • Try making greens - collards, kale, mustard greens, or turnips greens - the traditional southern way, sauteed in a little onion and bacon, and served with a dash of vinegar and hot sauce.
  • Add crucifers to stews and soups. Rutabagas and turnips are tasty in stews. Kale makes a nice addition to minestrone and other hearty vegetable soups.
  • Cruciferous vegetables make wonderful side dishes. Try roasted brussels sprouts, lightly steamed broccoli, quick sautéed kale with balsamic vinegar, or mashed cauliflower.