Bragging about the Brassicas

by Frank Phelan

There is a group of edible plants that can provide a nutritional arsenal against many of the serious degenerative diseases that ravage the U.S. population and its health care system. This family of some commonly available vegetables, Brassicaceae (formerly Cruciferae), includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustards, radishes and wild mustards. These are also referred to as the cabbage mustard or crucifer families.

Where the brassicas are truly amazing, however, is in their vitamin, mineral, antioxidant and photochemical content (see table). There are over shiny studies showing that people who consume foods rich in beta-carotene (vegetarian form of vitamin A) have significantly lower risks for developing many forms of cancer. The brassicas are exceptional sources of beta-carotene. Betacarotene is considered to be one of the most potent antioxidants which can neutralize highly reactive free radicals that are continuously bombarding our cells. Betacarotene has also been found by Harvard researchers to reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad type) and slow down the process of atherosclerosis.

Quercetin is a flavone commonly found in broccoli. It possesses potent antioxidant and cancer-inhibiting properties. According to Dr. Terrence Leighton, professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, quercetin is "one of the strongest anti-cancer agents known". The third group of compounds found in the Brassica family are the aromatic isothiocyanates. These have been shown to inhibit breast, lung and stomach cancers in animal studies. One made the front page of the New York Times on March 15, 1992. This article reported the work of researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (see "Organic Broccoli vs. Cancer" on page 18 of this issue of The Natural Farmer) who isolated a substance from broccoli called sulforaphane. This compound stimulates critical protective enzymes known to guard against tumor proliferation.

The brassicas were among the earliest plants foraged and cultivated by man. Cabbage has been a staple in Europe for over 4,000 years. Turnips were depicted in ancient cave paintings in France. The Chinese have cultivated an astounding array of brassicas for thousands of years and the Romans revered them. Broccoli (from the Latin bracchium - strong arm or branch) was referred to by the Roman farmers as the''five green fingers of Jupiter". They called Brussels sprouts "bullata gemmifera" (diamond makers) because they were thought to enhance mental agility. Ancient Egyptians considered kale a preventative against wine-induced hangovers, while the Irish believed they had mystical powers - enough so that fairies could ride their stalks in the dark of the moon.

Although the Romans (including Hippocrates) and other ancient peoples utilized the brassicas for medicinal as well as culinary purposes, it is only recently that they have been shaken from their humble roots and catapulted into the media limelight as modern superfoods. Approximately 75% of all deaths in the U.S. involve the deadly degenerative duo, cancer or heart disease. Many recent studies have confirmed that the regular consumption of the brassicas can plan an integral role in a preventative maintenance diet to reduce the risks of these and other degenerative diseases.

Many health experts as well as agencies such as the American Cancer Society have recommended dietary changes to reduce the risks of degenerative diseases. These include: (1) decreasing the total intake of fat, especially saturated fat, (2) increasing the intake of dietary fiber, (3) increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, especially the brassicas, (4) increase the amounts of foods rich in antioxidants. If score cards were tallied up comparing foods to these recommended modifications, the brassicas would blow away the competition. They are virtually fat free when prepared without extra fats or oils and are a good source of dietary fiber. They contain a particular fiber called calcium pectate which can bind with bile acids resulting in a cholesterol-lowering effect.

The Brassica family is also very rich in vitamin C, another antioxidant substance found to reduce cancer and heart disease rates. Extensive studies have shown that high intake of vitamin C can significantly lower the incidence of stomach, colon, rectal and breast cancer. Nitrates and nitrites found in food can be converted in the stomach and intestinal tract to nitrosamines which are extremely potent carcinogens. Vitamin C has been found to be quite effective in blocking this conversion. Dr. Geoffrey Howe of Canada's National Cancer Institute estimated that if all women over age twenty were to eat fruit and vegetables containing 380 milligrams of vitamin C daily, the breast cancer rate could drop by 16 percent. Vitamin C is also renowned as a potent immune system enhancer. An immune system working at optimal capacity is the best defense against internal and external toxins and microbes.

Recent studies have identified at least five major classes of phytochemical compounds found in fruits and vegetables that are inhibiting agents to cancer. They are the phenols, indoles, flavones (bioflavanoids), coumarins and aromatic isothiocyanates. They act by preventing carcinogens from reaching critical target sites for cancer. The brassicas possess significant amounts of at least three of these compounds. Indoles have been shown to inhibit stomach and mammary cancer in animals. Indole-3-carbinol found in the brassicas may help prevent breast cancer by decreasing estradiol activity, the precursor to estrogen. Excess estrogen has been implicated in hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, uterine and endometrial cancer.

Cataracts are yet another degenerative disease that may benefit by increasing our intake of the brassicas. The foods are rich sources of carotenoids (carotene family) which can inhibit the oxidation of the eye's lens, keeping it from becoming opaque.

Osteoporosis is becoming more prevalent despite the large consumption of dairy products in this country. Other countries such as China have much lower rates even though dairy products are seldom used. The Chinese eat more calcium-rich vegetables in conjunction with a much lower protein intake than their American counterparts. A cup of cooked broccoli has about 180 milligrams of calcium; collards have a whopping 360 milligrams. These are significant sources when compared to the 300 milligrams of calcium in a cup of milk. Brassicas and seaweed are the richest sources of vegetable calcium.

The current recommendation for eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily is presently being ignored by most Americans. A survey reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that only 10 percent of those surveyed ate five servings of fruit and vegetables each day. Dr. Michael Colgan states that "the answer to all major cancers lies not in surgery, drugs or radiation therapy. The answer lies in prevention." Improving our overall dietary habits and increasing our consumption of fruits and vegetables, and the brassicas in particular, can be a delicious, inexpensive way to ward off the threat of degenerative disease.

Brassicas and nutrients

1 cup


Units/A Beta Carotene (mg) Vitamin C (mcg) Folic Acid (mg) Calcium (mg) Potassium (mg) Magnesium
Broccoli 2198 98 108 178 254 94
B. sprouts 112 96 94 56 594 32
Cabbage 128 36 30 50 308 22
Ch. Cabbage 2100 32 n/a 158 630 16
Cauliflower 18 68 64 34 400 14
Collards 10,168 46 130 358 296 14
Kale 9620 54 18 250 296 20
Mustards 4244 36 n/a 150 208 20
Turnip greens 7918 40 170 198 292 32



Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, Jean Pennington. Harper and Row, NY 1989

Cancer and Nutrition. Charles Simone, M.D.. Avery Publishing Group, NY 1992

Greene on Greens, Bert Greene. Workman Publishing, NY 1984

Food Pharmacy Guide to Good Eating, Jean Carper. Bantam Books, NY 1991

Prevent Cancer Now, Michael Colman, Ph.D.. C. 1. Publications, San Diego, CA 1992

The Vegetable Book: An Unnatural History, Yann Lovelock. St. Martin's Press, NY 1972

Vegetarian Journal Reports, Debra Wasserman and Charles Stahler, Editors. Vegetarian Resource Group, Baltimore, MD 1990

Why Should I Eat Better?, Lisa Messinger. Avery Publishing Group, NY 1993

Copyright 1997 Ecological Agriculture Project. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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