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Broccoli and other Cruciferous Vegetables Protect Against Chemical Carcinogens

Several population studies have suggested that cruciferous vegetables offer the most effective protection against many cancers of all the fruits and vegetables.

Widely consumed crucifers including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower are especially rich in protective plant chemicals called glucosinolates, which are converted by friendly bacteria in the human digestive tract to another form of protective chemical called isothiocyanates. Both classes of chemicals ramp up the liver's ability to detoxify carcinogens.

Practical Tips

Here are a few of the World’s Healthiest Foods quick serving ideas to help you reap the cancer-protective benefits of crucifers:

  • Toss pasta with olive oil, pine nuts and healthy sautéed broccoli florets. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • For packed lunches with a cancer-protective nutritional punch, top your sandwich filling with a spoonful of broccoli sprouts.
  • For a quick and easy gratinée, top lightly steamed broccoli or cauliflower with grated cheese and broil for just a couple of minutes.
  • Braise chopped kale and apples. Before serving, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and chopped walnuts.

To learn more about the many other benefits of these cancer-preventive members of the World’s Healthiest Foods, click broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, or kale.

For some exceptional recipes featuring these crucifers, click on the Recipe Assistant, select a crucifer from the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the crucifer chosen will appear immediately below.

Research Summary

Cruciferous vegetables are rich in protective plant chemicals called glucosinolates, which are not only protective themselves but are converted by friendly bacteria in the human digestive tract into other protective chemicals called isothiocyanates.

Researchers have examined a number of isothiocyanates and a limited number of glucosinolates in animal studies and found that these chemicals effectively block cancer-causing chemicals from initiating cancer.

Many isothiocyanates have also been found to be potent inducers of special detoxifying enzymes in the liver called Phase 2 proteins. Substantial evidence supports the view that crucifers’ ability to ramp up the production of these Phase 2 enzymes is a highly effective strategy for reducing susceptibility to chemical carcinogens.

This conclusion has recently received strong molecular support from experiments on mice bred to lack the specific transcription factor, nrf2, which is essential for inducing production of Phase 2 enzymes. In these mice, Phase 2 enzyme levels are very low and are not inducible. The experiments showed that since they are not protected by Phase 2 inducers, these mice are much more susceptible than their normal counterparts to stomach cancer caused by the chemical carcinogen benzopyrene.

These experiments provide very strong evidence for a major role of Phase 2 enzymes in controlling the risk of cancer after exposure to carcinogens.

In addition to glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, an increasing number of Phase 2 enzymes are being identified in cruciferous vegetables. These Phase 2 enzymes not only detoxify chemical carcinogens but also are being shown to exert a variety of protective mechanisms including providing long-lasting antioxidant protection.

Reference: Talalay P, Fahey JW. Phytochemicals from cruciferous plants protect against cancer by modulating carcinogen metabolism. J Nutr 2001 Nov;131(11 Suppl):3027S-33S.

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