They are not the most popular vegetables but they are among the healthiest that can be served on the table. We are talking about the vegetables of the Cruciferous family, real powerful weapons, useful for preventing tumors, neurodegeneration, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases and even capable of protecting bones and muscles. In short, crucifers are a real treasure trove of healthy properties. So let's see which vegetables belong to the cruciferous family, what these vegetables can do for our health and how we can cook them to preserve their benefits, based, as always, on the most recent scientific research.
Cruciferae, what they are and nutrients
Crucifers are a large family of vegetables that includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, savoy cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips but also arugula, cress, horseradish and wasabi (Agagunduz et al, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., 2022). The vegetables of the cruciferous family contain sulfur compounds, to which most of the health properties are attributed, but also carotenoids, such as beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, flavonoids, anthocyanins, vitamins C, E and K, folate, minerals, such as potassium, calcium, zinc and selenium, and fibers (Agagunduz et al, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., 2022). All these substances are contained in variable quantities according to the type of vegetable. For example, kale is the richest of all in fiber, beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and iron, while arugula stands out for its calcium content and broccoli provides high amounts of vitamin C (Agagunduz et al, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., 2022).
Crucifers against cancer
Crucifers have a characteristic, which distinguishes them from other vegetables. In fact, crucifers are particularly rich in sulfur compounds, called glucosinolates. Well, these compounds, during chewing, release other substances, such as indoles or isothiocyanates, which in turn modulate the activity of those enzymes designed to detoxify the body from carcinogenic substances and to protect cells from DNA damage. Not only that, these substances induce apoptosis, that is the programmed death, of diseased cells and inhibit both the formation of new blood vessels, designed to bring nourishment to the tumor, and the migration of cellular degeneration (Agagunduz et al, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., 2022). In addition, the sulfur compounds modulate the action of sex hormones, helping to prevent any cellular degeneration sensitive to hormonal alterations (Higdon et al, Pharmacol Res, 2007). The result is a proven antitumor action, with benefits especially when it comes to preventing and fighting some cancers such as those affecting the breast, prostate, colon, stomach, lungs and bladder (Zhang et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 2011).
Crucifers for heart health
Scientific studies have also revealed a cardioprotective action of crucifers (Zhang et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 2011). In fact, one of the glucosinolate products, called sulforaphane, has been shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the cardiovascular system, helping to prevent diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels (Zhang et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 2011). Not only that, the substances contained in crucifers have been shown to help reduce blood pressure, blood sugar and to control cholesterol values and the formation of atherosclerotic plaques (Connolly et al, Front Pharmacol, 2021). A high consumption of cruciferous plants has been shown, especially in adult women, to reduce by almost 50% the risk of calcification of the abdominal aorta, which is the accumulation of calcium on the wall of the aorta, the main indicator for the onset of future cardiovascular disease, stroke and even dementia (Blekkenhorst et al, Br J Nutr, 2021).
Cruciferous, benefits for the brain, bones and muscles
It has always been believed that the antioxidant substances present in crucifers have the main action of fighting tumors. Today, thanks to numerous scientific researches carried out in recent years, it is known that these substances also have benefits for the brain, bones and muscles. Crucifers, in fact, have been shown to reduce inflammation in the brain, improve memory and cognitive function, helping to prevent neurodegeneration. As for bones and muscles, crucifers and the beneficial substances they contain counteract bone fragility and osteoporosis, improve muscle strength and reduce inflammation of the muscles (Connolly et al, Front Pharmacol, 2021).
Crucifers, how to eat them to preserve their properties
The best way to eat crucifers in order to preserve their benefits is to serve them raw. In this way the anticancer substances remain intact and will be released during chewing. As for cooking, boiling broccoli for 5-10 minutes leads to a loss of between 20 and 60% of glucosinolates, as well as inactivating an enzyme, myrosinase, essential for forming indoles and isothiocyanates, substances with an antitumor action ( Higdon et al, Pharmacol Res, 2007). Instead, steaming or frying has been shown to reduce the loss of anticancer sulfur compounds (Higdon et al, Pharmacol Res, 2007). But, in any case, it is always good to prefer short cooking and not at high heat as when the heat exceeds 80° C and the cooking time is long, the enzyme myrosinase is denatured (Connolly et al, Front Pharmacol, 2021). Given these considerations, the advice of the experts is to include crucifers, raw or cooked quickly in a pan or steamed, in your daily diet, which should always be varied and balanced without excesses.