Quad Cities, IL/IA

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Cross Healthy Vegetables off your List


Submitted by Benjamin Goodin

St. Patrick’s day has passed, and your kitchen still smells like
slow-cooked cabbage. You know the aroma. The faintly detectable smell
that has no discernable source, yet it haunts you occasionally like an
annoying, flatulent ghost. It’s the same smell that causes shrugs and
accusing glances in the break room after you reheat some broccoli or
stir-fried vegetables. Cabbage and its close relatives are notorious for
their occasionally odoriferous emissions, a fact that can make them a
hard sell to kids and picky eaters alike. Some other folks find these
vegetables to be unpalatably bitter due to their genetics: a common
variation called the “taster gene.” Despite common misgivings, cabbage
and its kin make for some truly economic and healthy dishes. Most
seasons of the year, cabbage is dirt cheap, and it is always filling. It
is also packed with nutrition and multiple health benefits.

Cabbage belongs the Brassicaceae family of plants: a classification
whose members possess four petals arrayed in a cross pattern. The leafy
configuration is responsible for the plant family’s former name,
Cruciferae, and the casual designation that most of the members now fall
under: cruciferous (literally meaning “full of cross-bearing”). Other
members of this family include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels
sprouts, watercress, mustard greens, collard greens, turnips, and
radishes. You’ve probably been hearing a lot about this family of
vegetables lately, likely you’ve heard kale on the lips of every diet
and health food junkie, and you’ve probably seen it cooked, baked, and
blended into just about everything imaginable — some concoctions more
appetizing than others. Even though certain members of the
classification have become the focus of a few new fad diets, cruciferous
vegetables offer real health benefits.

Based on nutrient content, the USDA classifies cruciferous vegetables
into both the dark-green vegetable and “other vegetable” categories,
meaning that they are important not just generally for dietary diversity
and health, but that some members offer unique vitamin and mineral
content. Broadly, most cruciferous vegetables are excellent sources of
fiber (cholesterol reduction, bowel regularity, hunger management),
folate (red blood cell production), and vitamins C (healing, iron
absorption), E (organ function, blood pressure, antioxidant function),
and K (helps to produce blood clotting). They also contain several
carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein) that promote ocular health.

One of the other infamous properties of cruciferous vegetables is their
aforementioned unflattering, sulfurous odor when boiled or steamed. The
same compound responsible for their notoriety may actually be one of the
greatest benefits of cruciferous vegetables. The leafy, often fibrous
plants contain a glucosinolate named sulforaphane that not only produces
odors reminiscent of flatulence when saturated with water and heated,
but might also be a potent cancer-fighting compound. The actual science
is forthcoming, but a strong observational link — about 70 percent of
studies produced positive correlation — between consumption of the
sulforaphanes in cruciferous vegetables and cancer prevention. Some of
effects of sulforaphane consumption certainly lend themselves to cancer
prevention; when consumed, they, along with other pungent glucosinolates
in similar plants, can inactivate some carcinogens, protect the DNA
from damage, reduce inflammation, prevent tumors from developing a blood
supply, and induce the death of improperly functioning cells.
Essentially, they have the necessary arsenal to help prevent tumors from
developing, but they show the strongest promise in fighting breast,
prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers. Other studies are hoping that
developing evidence may also link cruciferous vegetable consumption to a
reduction in pancreatic and esophageal cancers and perhaps prove
effective against the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma.

Before you start to infuse all of your dishes with purée of cruciferous
vegetables in order to ward off cancer, it should be mentioned that
there is a modest drawback to them. Some cruciferous vegetables can
exacerbate existing thyroid malfunctions, specifically hypothyroidism.
Mostly, the risk comes from eating the vegetables raw; simply cooking
crucifers before you eat them should be enough to avoid irritating any
thyroid condition. It should also be mentioned that it takes a great
deal of raw cruciferous veggies to impact thyroid function. Really, it
takes a lot. Unless you eat large portions of crucifers at every meal
for weeks, the risk is minimal. As with most things, moderation is the
wisest course of action and variety can keep things fresh. If you have
an existing thyroid condition, consult your physician before attempting
any kitchen experiments with cruciferous vegetables. Otherwise, start
working some crucifers into your diet, the only thing you really have to
lose is houseguests if you steam broccoli a few times a week.