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Broccoli: A Superfood Vegetable With Great Health Benefits

Updated on July 22, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

An imaginative broccoli tree
An imaginative broccoli tree | Source

Benefits of Broccoli

All green vegetables are nutritious and healthy, but broccoli is a true superfood. It's rich in nutrients and is thought to have many enticing health benefits. These include promoting eye health, improving the functioning of the immune system, and reducing inflammation and oxidative damage. They may also include improving the condition of arteries damaged by diabetes and reducing the risk of some forms of cancer.

Broccoli’s health benefits are even more attractive now that researchers have bred a new form of the vegetable that they call “super broccoli”. This new variety of broccoli contains a much higher level of glucoraphanin than regular broccoli. Glucoraphanin is converted into sulforaphane when we chew or chop broccoli. Sulforaphane is the chemical that is thought to be responsible for many of the vegetable's benefits.

The scientific name of broccoli is Brassica oleracea. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, and kohlrabi have the same scientific name, despite their different appearances. They are all cultivars of the same species.

All of the vegetables in this photo have the scientific name Brassica oleracea.
All of the vegetables in this photo have the scientific name Brassica oleracea. | Source

Nutrients in Broccoli

Broccoli of any kind is rich in nutrients. Raw broccoli is an excellent source of vitamins C and K. In fact, one cup of fresh broccoli contains more than 100% of our daily requirement for these nutrients. Broccoli is a good source of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, which our bodies change into the type of vitamin A that we need. In addition, the vegetable contains folate (vitamin B9) and other vitamins.

Broccoli is also a good source of manganese. It contains useful amounts of other minerals, including potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. It provides us with dietary fiber and some protein in addition to vitamins and minerals. Broccoli is low in fat, sugars, calories, and sodium. Like all plants, it doesn’t contain cholesterol.

Romanesco broccoli, or Romanesco cauliflower, has a natural fractal design. A fractal has a repeating pattern at all levels of magnification.
Romanesco broccoli, or Romanesco cauliflower, has a natural fractal design. A fractal has a repeating pattern at all levels of magnification. | Source

Broccoli belongs to the Brassicaceae family, which is also known as the cruciferous family. Some other nutritious vegetables in the family are Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, radishes, mustard and horseradish.

Eye Health

Our bodies convert the beta-carotene in broccoli into vitamin A, which is necessary to make the visual pigments. These pigments are located in light-sensitive cells in the retina, which is found at the back of the eyeball. The retina sends a signal to the brain when its light-sensitive cells and their pigment are stimulated. The brain then creates the image that we see.

Two additional nutrients in broccoli are lutein and zeaxanthin, yellow pigments in the carotenoid family which also collect in the retina. These pigments aren't involved in vision but instead absorb high-energy blue and ultraviolet light. This absorption stops the light from damaging the retina. Zeazanthin may help prevent age-related macula degeneration (AMD). The macula is a spot on the retina which provides the most detailed vision and is the site where zeaxanthin collects.

A broccoli flower
A broccoli flower | Source

Cancer Risk

Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables have sulfur-containing chemicals called glucosinolates in their cells. When the vegetables are chewed or chopped, an enzyme named myrosinase is released from the plant cells. This enzyme converts the glucosinolates into isothiocyanates, which have been shown to fight cancer in laboratory cell cultures and lab animals. Isothiocyanates may or may not work the same way inside the human body.

It’s hard to prove that cruciferous vegetables like broccoli help to prevent cancer in humans, but there's circumstantial evidence that they are effective. In some population surveys, a diet rich in broccoli or its relatives has been linked to a significantly lower incidence of several types of cancer. Not all surveys show this benefit, however. Some show no link between cruciferous vegetable consumption and cancer risk.

The evidence for broccoli's benefit with respect to cancer is best described as "mixed". It's definitely intriguing, though. There's enough supportive evidence to make further research worthwhile.

Broccoli and other healthy vegetables are great additions to the diet.
Broccoli and other healthy vegetables are great additions to the diet. | Source

Why Do the Results of Nutrition Surveys Vary?

There are many possible reasons why some surveys show that cruciferous vegetables reduce the risk of cancer while others don't. Some examples are given below.

  • People may not describe their diet accurately to researchers.
  • People who eat lots of cruciferous vegetables may be keen to follow other healthy habits as well. Avoiding unhealthy activities may have been responsible for at least some of the cancer reduction noted in surveys.
  • Another possibility is that the benefit applies only to people with a particular gene or genes in their body.
  • The benefit may depend on whether the vegetables are raw or cooked.
  • The benefit may be received only if another food is eaten at the same time as the cruciferous vegetable.
  • The vegetables may need to be eaten in a specific amount or frequency in order to be effective.
  • Some cruciferous vegetables may be more effective than others.

Nutritional research in humans is complex. It's very important, though. Our diet can have powerful effects on our body.

Eating cruciferous vegetables may not be helpful for preventing disease if the rest of the diet is unhealthy. This may also be true if a person smokes, drinks an excessive amount of alcohol, or doesn't exercise.

This prairie dog seems to like broccoli. Guinea pigs love the vegetable too, as I know from personal experience.
This prairie dog seems to like broccoli. Guinea pigs love the vegetable too, as I know from personal experience. | Source

Glucoraphanin and Sulforaphane

Glucoraphanin is a glucosinolate in broccoli. When broccoli is chewed or cut, the glucoraphanin is changed into an isothiocyanate called sulforaphane. In laboratory experiments with cell cultures, sulforaphane prevents the division of cancer cells and triggers their death.

Chemicals often have different effects inside a living body than they do on isolated cells, but sulforaphane has been found to slow the growth of tumors in mice. Sulforaphane may turn on tumor suppressor genes and may also make some carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer) harmless. It seems to be the chief chemical being explored by researchers who are interested in broccoli's effect on health problems. Particular attention is being paid to broccoli sprouts, which contain a higher percentage of sulforaphane than mature broccoli.

Cooked broccoli
Cooked broccoli | Source

Other Health Benefits of Broccoli

Scientists are investigating sulforaphane in relation to other diseases in addition to cancer. It seems to be an anti-inflammatory substance and also seems to enhance the activity of antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants prevent the oxidation of molecules. Excessive oxidation is believed to damage cells.

Some research shows that broccoli is helpful in treating blood vessel damage caused by diabetes. There is growing evidence that broccoli helps the immune system to function better as well. A diet high in sulforaphane has been found to help mice with osteoarthritis by slowing cartilage damage in joints.

In one project, a group of researchers at John Hopkins University School of Medicine discovered an interesting effect of broccoli sprouts. In mice and a small group of humans, the consumption of broccoli sprouts significantly reduced—but didn't eliminate—a stomach infection caused by a bacterium named Helicobacter pylori. This is the bacterium that causes stomach and duodenal ulcers.

How to Plant Broccoli and Its Relatives

Super Broccoli

The new “super broccoli” contains two to three times more glucoraphanin than regular broccoli. It was created over many years by selectively breeding broccoli plants that had an increased glucoraphanin level. No genetic engineering was involved.

The super broccoli was bred by British scientists and is being sold to the public in the UK at the moment. It's available at selected supermarkets. The vegetable was created by the Institute for Food Research, which is also researching its health benefits.

How to Steam and Roast Broccoli

Whole Foods or Supplements?

Some of the protective substances present in broccoli can be bought as supplements. Researchers are finding that whole foods are often more beneficial than supplements, for several reasons.

  • Sometimes supplements lack other necessary "helper" nutrients that are found in the whole food.
  • Many chemicals have been identified in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. It's not always clear which chemical is actually producing a particular effect in the body or which chemical to put in a supplement.
  • Some substances in food may be helpful in small doses but harmful in the large doses found in certain supplements.
  • The dose of a nutrient in a supplement may not be directly harmful but may cause an imbalance in essential body chemicals. This in itself may cause problems.

Supplements certainly have their place and are essential in some diseases or in some situations. For most of us, though, it's probably better to get our nutrients from whole foods instead of supplements.

Broccoli with Chili-Almond Dressing Recipe

Cooking Methods and Nutrient Loss

Broccoli is healthiest when it’s raw or lightly steamed. Broccoli should be slightly crunchy when it's removed from a steamer. The vegetable is also healthy when stir-fried or microwaved for a short time, but boiling has been shown to reduce its nutrient content dramatically. Water soluble vitamins such as Vitamin C and folate enter the boiling water. In addition, boiling and prolonged cooking destroy the myrosinase enzyme that is needed to produce sulforaphane.

Gordon Ramsey's Broccoli Soup Recipe

Broccoli in the Diet

I enjoy the taste of broccoli on its own, but some people may prefer to add a healthy sauce or dressing to the vegetable. Broccoli can be incorporated into many recipes, including casseroles, soups, salads, and stir fry recipes. Some people even add it to bread recipes. There are many ways to sneak green vegetables into the diet of people who don't like them on their own. The effort is certainly worthwhile, since vegetables are very nutritious.

Many researchers are exploring the effects of broccoli and sulforaphane on the human body. Even if broccoli doesn't reduce cancer risk, it has other other benefits that make it a very worthy addition to the diet. Broccoli is an excellent food for everyone to eat regularly as part of a balanced diet.

Purple broccoli contains pigments called anthocyanins, which are thought to have a variety of health benefits.
Purple broccoli contains pigments called anthocyanins, which are thought to have a variety of health benefits. | Source

References

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      I know broccoli is good for me, Alicia. I just don't like the taste. Is there perchance a broccoli pill?

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. Thanks for the visit. I enjoy eating broccoli, but I know that some people don't like the taste! Perhaps you could disguise the taste of the broccoli by adding a stronger-tasting sauce.

    • Frannie Dee profile image

      Frannie Dee 5 years ago from Chicago Northwest Suburb

      This is great information. I usually boil it so now I'll try steaming instead. Thanks! Up and useful.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and the votes, Frannie Dee. I used to boil all my vegetables until I learned how many nutrients were lost in the boiling process!

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      VU. I was relieved to read that the super broccoli is not the result of genetic engineering. We've had enough of that business. Now we just need this super food to make its way to North America.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Maren Morgan M-T. I was glad to discover that super broccoli was created by selective breeding instead of genetic engineering, too! I'm interested to see how much more expensive it will be compared to regular broccoli when (and if) it's sold in my local stores.

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 5 years ago

      I am one of those people who actually LIKES Broccoli and in summer use in Fresh in Salads. I also add it when making Dinner to the Dish of the Evening. I prefer to buy it with only the tops, "Florets" I believe it's called...less to throw away. Enjoyed this Hub Alicia.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, b. Malin. I prefer buying the broccoli florets too - they're more tender than the stalks. I eat broccoli raw sometimes but I prefer to eat it when it's been steamed. Thanks for the visit.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      oh, i do love broccoli. I make a pretty good potato/broccoli and cheese soup.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 5 years ago

      I love broccoli and now I love it even more!

    • gryphin423 profile image

      gryphin423 5 years ago from Florida

      Great hub, good info and loved the video recipe! Thanks :-)

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Broccoli and cheese is a delicious combination, PDXKaraokeGuy! Thanks for the comment.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, breakfastpop. I like broccoli too, and I also like knowing that it has health benefits! Thanks for commenting.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, gryphin423. I'm keen to try the recipe in the video too!

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hello Alicia, it's good to read that one of my favourite vegetables is so good for me!

      Interesting information, thank you for sharing, best wishes MM

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Movie Master. Thank you for the visit. Broccoli is one of my favorite vegetables too! I eat it several times a week.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 5 years ago from South Africa

      I love broccoli. Will eat it every day. The first time I served it just as it is to my granddaughter - not smashed - she looked at me and said: "Granny, I don't eat little trees."

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That's funny, Martie! Your granddaughter is right, though - broccoli does look like a little tree before it's chopped into smaller pieces. Children are often so observant!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Great info here. I love broccoli smothered in ranch dressing or a good cheese sauce. My little nephew called it trees when he was small too! "More trees." He'd yell then slam his little fist down on the table.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, PegCole17. Thanks for the visit. I love broccoli with cheese too. It's great that your nephew was so enthusiastic about broccoli at such a young age!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I love broccoli and need to eat more of it after reading this article. Thanks for all the information! Up and useful ratings!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the votes, Peggy! Broccoli is a great food to include in the diet.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Just liked this on facebook. Have u done any hubs on Brussels sprouts? I love those!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the like, PDXKaraokeGuy. No, I haven't written about Brussels sprouts. I used to hate them as a child, but I love them now!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Hi, Alicia thanks for writing about broccoli. I agree with you about broccoli as superfood vegetables. My mother often make "fried broccoli" with spicy flour. My friend, I learn many things from this hub. I hope we can get all the benefits by consume broccoli. Thanks for writing and share with us. Rated up!

      Prasetio

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Prasetio. Fried broccoli with spices sounds delicious! Thank you very much for the comment and the vote.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      i like to steam Brussels sprouts and then top them with melted butter and cheese

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Yes, PDXKaraokeGuy, I agree with you - melted butter and cheese are delicious on vegetables! Nutritionists actually say that we should eat a small amount of a healthy fat with vegetables to promote the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients. It could be argued that melted butter and cheese don't provide the healthiest of fats, but they are certainly tasty!

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      yes. Cheese and butter. hard to enjoy many things without them! I also like to put a slice of jalapeno and/or garlic in the water when I'm steaming them. Gives them a little bite

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That's a good idea, PDXKaraokeGuy. I've never thought of putting something spicy in the steaming water when I'm cooking vegetables. Thanks for the tip.

    • andrewwilliams63 profile image

      andrewwilliams63 5 years ago

      Try it raw in smoothies! im serious, you can hardly taste it and you get to keep all those nutrients.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, andrewwilliams63. I always add salad greens to my smoothies, as well as a protein and a healthy fat, to try to make the smoothie a balanced meal. I've never tried adding broccoli to the mix, though. Thanks for the suggestion - I'll try it next time I make a smoothie!

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      andrew, that sounds amazing. I'll try that!

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