What is your favorite vegetable? Most of you will probably say “broccoli” “Brussel sprouts” or “kale.” All these veggies belong under the cabbage family. Yes, cruciferous vegetables are probably the most popular veggies in terms of nutrient contents and health benefits. What’s so special about these veggies?
For years, tons of researches are done where these vegetables are the center of interest. Most scientists believe that these crops have healthful compounds that can combat various ailments. Like other food products, there are also some health risks involved when these products are consumed in large amounts.
With that said, this article will explore the health benefits of consuming cruciferous vegetables. Along with that, you’ll also read about some of the problems involved if you consume large amounts of foods under this category.
A Brief Description of Vegetables Under the Cabbage Family
Considered as the superstars of vegetables, products under the cabbage family have garnered a lot of praises throughout the years. What makes these veggies noteworthy?
Cruciferous vegetables are a powerhouse of essential nutrients. This is one remarkable feature for these crops. According to studies; these vegetables have the highest amounts of fiber, folic acid, vitamin A and C compared to other plant products. Vitamin K is another essential nutrient found in cruciferous vegetables like collard greens and kale. But, wait there’s more.
Another remarkable feature of veggies under the cabbage family is their phytonutrients. Basically, phytonutrients are not like vitamins and minerals which are essential for our survival. However, most of these compounds are the reason cruciferous vegetables are hailed as the superstars of vegetables. Mainly because, phytonutrients are compounds present in plants that can help us fight certain diseases. You’ll learn more about these healthful substances as you read further.
The Health Benefits of Consuming Cruciferous Vegetables
A. Cruciferous Vegetables as Sulfur-rich Foods
In terms of minerals, sulfur is probably the least advertised. Most of us have heard the importance or iron, iodine, magnesium and other minerals. What about sulfur?
Known for its “rotten egg” odor, some of us may have disregarded sulfur's importance in our existence. But, like other minerals, sulfur is imperative for the various processes occurring inside our body.
An example for this is proteins. In every protein, sulfur bonds are present. This allows proteins to maintain its shape. Along with that, it also determines its biological activity. Take collagen as an example. It is the main protein in our connective tissues. In order to form collagen, flexible sulfur bonds are imperative. This is mainly because sulfur gives its elasticity. Keratin is another protein that is highly composed of sulfur bonds. It gives keratin its shape and tough structure.
There are other processes where sulfur is essential. Glutathione synthesis and detoxification are some of the biological processes where sulfur plays an important role.
With that, being a sulfur-rich food is one of the health benefits of consuming cruciferous vegetables. This is especially true for vegans. Remember, these veggies are among the few plant sources of sulfur. Most sulfur-rich foods are animal products such as eggs and meat.
B. Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention
Among the long list of vegetables, members of the cabbage family are the ones linked most to cancer. Yes, another health benefit of consuming cruciferous vegetables is its ability to help prevent cancer. So, how does cruciferous vegetables aid in cancer prevention?
Cruciferous vegetables help prevent cancer in various ways. First is by reducing oxidative stress.
We asked ourselves, why do we need antioxidants? Today, pollution is a prevalent problem. A lot of today’s pollutants are free radicals that may harm us by causing oxidative stress or an overload of these harmful substances. The main role of antioxidants is to neutralize these harmful compounds before they cause havoc inside your body. Fortunately for us, there are natural sources of antioxidants. Cruciferous vegetables are among the best sources of antioxidants. This is due to its vitamin C and beta-carotene.
The second way cruciferous vegetables prevent cancer is through the phytonutrients known as isothiocyanates. Studies have shown that these healthful compounds can prevent cancer in several ways. It can stimulate antioxidant activity. Some studies also show that sulforaphane, an isothiocyanate, can switch “off” genes that help cancer cells grow and multiply. One example for this is the gene that affects telomere production.
In my article about premature aging, I’ve mentioned about short telomeres and its connection to aging. But, did you know that a short telomere is also linked to cancer? As it turns out, most cancerous cells need the specific protein that is responsible for telomere production to reproduce. By switching this “off,” cancer cells won’t be able to multiply and grow. This may even lead to cell death.
C. Cruciferous Vegetables Help Eliminate Toxic Compounds
Today, we’ve heard a lot about smoothies and juices for detox. The most common ingredients used in these veggie juices or smoothies are members of the cruciferous vegetables like kale and cabbage. Why?
One remarkable health benefit of consuming cruciferous vegetables is that these crops help our liver in eliminating toxins inside our body.
To explain further, there are two phases of detoxification process namely phase 1 (oxidation) and phase 2 (conjugation). In some cases, phase 1 may convert a toxic chemical into a more harmful substance. Thus, phase 2 is necessary to complete the process. The good news about cruciferous vegetables is it has compounds that can positively affect the two phases of detoxification. Studies have shown that compounds like indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane can stimulate both phases of the detoxification process.
This mechanism of action of indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane is also linked to cancer prevention.
D. Other Health Benefits
- With loads of nutrients, antioxidants and compounds that aid in the detoxification process; consuming cruciferous vegetables can give you a healthy and younger looking skin.
- Cruciferous vegetables are rich in fiber. As you know, fiber is important for our digestive health. While fiber does not provide essential nutrients, it helps in the proper functioning of our digestive tract.
- Cruciferous vegetables have anti-inflammatory properties. This is due to its omega-3, vitamin k and indole-3-carbinol contents.
Problems Encountered in Cruciferous Vegetables
As presented above, cruciferous vegetables are truly the superstars of vegetables. However, like other food products, these vegetables also have a dark side. With that said, here are some of the problems encountered in consuming cruciferous vegetables.
A. Cruciferous Vegetables, Iodine and Your Thyroid
Most of you have probably heard the antagonistic effects of isothiocyanates towards our body’s thyroid function. This happens when isothiocyanates blocks thyroid peroxidase (TPO) from doing its job. Basically, TPO is an enzyme that plays a crucial role in creating thyroid hormones. To be exact, its main job is to add iodine during thyroid hormone production. Should we be concerned about this matter?
Basically, this antagonistic effect of isothiocyantes is detrimental when we consume excessive amounts of raw cruciferous vegetables. Thus, moderate consumption of these veggies will not harm your thyroid’s health. Aside from that, cooking can lower goitrogens and other antinutrients present in these kinds of vegetables. Another remedy is to add iodine-rich foods like sea vegetables in your diet.
What about individuals who have hypothyroidism? While small amounts of cruciferous vegetables will not cause harm, it is still best to consult your physicians before consuming these kinds of vegetables. They’re the best person who can fully evaluate your current condition. They can also give you an idea on how many servings you can eat.
B. Other Antinutrients Found in Cruciferous Vegetables
Like other plant products, cruciferous vegetables also have antinutrients. These compounds are a plant’s defense against its predators. For us humans, these compounds typically block nutrient absorption. So, what are the antinutrients found in these veggies?
- Phytates - Iron, manganese, zinc and calcium are some of the most important minerals for our health. But, once we ingest high amounts of phytates, these minerals are at risk. Yes, phytates or phytic acid can block the absorption of these essential nutrients. But, don’t worry. Moderate consumption of foods rich in phytates and several food preparation techniques can help you win the battle against phytates.
- Oxalates – Like phytates, oxalates or oxalic acid can also block nutrient absorption. But, for this antinutrient, it is more centralized on calcium. Furthermore, ingesting large amounts of oxalates can also lead to formation of kidney stones. Nonetheless, like phytates, cooking can also lower the effects of this antinutrient.
Common Examples of Cruciferous Vegetables
2. Bok choy
4. Brussel Sprouts
7. Collard Greens
9. Mustard Greens
As you can see above, there are numerous health benefits of consuming cruciferous vegetables. With that, it is without doubt that cruciferous vegetables are universally hailed as the superstars of vegetables.
If you’re worried about goitrogens and other antinutrients, cooking is an alternative you can take. However, there are some important notes you have to remember when cooking these kinds of vegetables.
Keep in mind that compounds like isothiocyanates and indoles are not readily available in cruciferous vegetables. In order to produce these healthful phytonutrients, glucosinolates must first be converted. Don’t worry, this is not an intricate process. All you have to do is to chop these veggies and allow it sit for several minutes. The enzyme myrosinase will then convert glucosinolates into isothiocyantes and other healthful compounds. This is usually done before cooking since heat destroys myrosinase.
When cooking these vegetables, light steaming is a highly recommended method. Keep in mind that phytonutrients like isothiocyanates are easily diminished by heat. Thus, it is important that we don’t overcook these veggies.
You can also try making raw cultured vegetables like Kimchi. It provides various health benefits. With moderate consumption, you don’t have to worry about the antagonistic effects of goitrogens and other antinutrients.
Kale - An Infamous Cruciferous Vegetable
Cookbooks for Broccoli and Kale
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(price as of Oct 2, 2016)