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Nutrition 101: Broccoli, Over-hyped or Super-food?

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Broccoli has a reputation as a super-food. It is low in calories but contains a wealth of nutrients and antioxidants that support many aspects of human health.

Broccoli is an edible green plant in the cabbage family. The word broccoli comes from the Italian plural of broccolo, which means "the flowering crest of a cabbage".

There are three commonly grown types of broccoli:

1.) Calabrese broccoli

Often referred to simply as "broccoli", named after Calabria in Italy. It has large (10 to 20 cm) green heads and thick stalks. It is a cool-season annual crop.

2.) Sprouting broccoli

It comes as white or purple and it has a larger number of heads with many thin stalks.

3.) Purple cauliflower

This is a type of broccoli grown in Europe and North America. It has a head shaped like cauliflower, but consisting of tiny flower buds. It sometimes, but not always, has a purple cast to the tips of the flower buds.

Other popular cultivars include Belstar, Blue Wind, Coronado Crown, Destiny, DiCicco, Green Goliath, Green Magic, Purple Sprouting, Romanesco, Sun King and Waltham 29.

Nutrition Value

Raw broccoli is 89% water, 7% carbohydrates, 3% protein, and contains negligible fats.

Below is a list of all the micro-nutrients that can be found in broccoli.

What are broccoli’s health benefits?

Boosting immune health

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that provides a range of benefits. It supports the immune system and may help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease (CVD), cataracts, and anemia. In supplement form, it may also help reduce the symptoms of the common cold and shorten the time a cold lasts.

Reducing the risk of cancer

Cruciferous vegetables contain a range of antioxidants, which may help prevent the type of cell damage that leads to cancer. One of these is sulforaphane, which is a sulfur-containing compound that gives cruciferous vegetables their bitter bite. Some scientists have suggested that cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli may play a role in “green chemo-prevention,” in which people use either the whole plant or extracts from it to help prevent cancer. Cruciferous vegetables also contain indole-3-carbinol. Research from 2019 suggests that this compound may have powerful anti-tumor properties. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, turnips, cabbage, arugula, broccoli, daikon, kohlrabi, and watercress may all have similar properties.

Improving bone health

Calcium and collagen work together to make strong bones. Over 99% of the body’s calcium is present in the bones and teeth. The body also needs vitamin C to produce collagen. Both are present in broccoli.

Vitamin K has a role in blood coagulation, but some experts have also suggested that it may help prevent or treat osteoporosis. People with low vitamin K levels may be more likely to experience problems with bone formation. Getting enough vitamin K from the diet may help keep the bones healthy.

Vitamin C and calcium in broccoli are two nutrients associated with a decreased risk of periodontal disease. Kaempferol, a flavonoid found in broccoli, may also play a role in preventing periodontitis.

Improving skin health

Vitamin C helps the body to produce collagen, which is the main support system for body cells and organs, including the skin. As an antioxidant, vitamin C can also help prevent skin damage, including wrinkling due to aging.

The process of aging is largely attributed to oxidative stress and reduced metabolic function over the course of your lifespan. Even though aging is an unavoidable natural process, diet quality is thought to be a major player in determining genetic expression and development of age-related diseases.

Research shows that sulforaphane may have the capacity to slow the biochemical process of aging by increasing the expression of antioxidant genes.

Studies have shown that vitamin C may play a role in preventing or treating skin conditions such as shingles and skin cancer.

Aiding digestion

Broccoli is rich in fiber and antioxidants — both of which may support healthy bowel function and digestive health. A 76 g cup of broccoli provides 5.4% to 7.1% of an individual’s daily requirement for fiber. Dietary fiber can help promote regularity, prevent constipation, maintain a healthy digestive tract, and lower the risk of colon cancer. In 2015, a screening trial found that people who consumed the highest levels of fiber were less likely to develop colorectal cancer than those who ate little fiber. Bowel regularity and a strong community of healthy bacteria within your colon are two vital components to digestive health. Eating fiber and antioxidant-rich foods like broccoli may play a role in maintaining healthy gut function.

A study in mice on a broccoli diet found reduced levels of inflammation in the colon, as well as favorable changes in gut bacteria.

A recent human study indicated that people who ate broccoli were able to defecate more easily than individuals in the control group.

Reducing inflammation

When the immune system is under attack, inflammation can occur.

Inflammation can be a sign of a passing infection, but it can also occur with chronic autoimmune conditions such as arthritis and type 1 diabetes. People with metabolic syndrome may also have high levels of inflammation.

Broccoli contains various bio-active compounds that have been shown to reduce inflammation in your body’s tissues.

It’s theorized that multiple compounds work synergistically to support this effect, though some seem to work individually as well.

Scientists found that the antioxidant effect of sulforaphane in broccoli helped reduce inflammation markers in laboratory tests. They therefore concluded that the nutrients in broccoli could help fight inflammation.

In a 2018 study, 40 otherwise healthy people with overweight consumed 30 g of broccoli sprouts per day for 10 weeks. At the end of the study period, the participants had significantly lower levels of inflammation.

Kaempferol, a flavonoid in broccoli, demonstrates strong anti-inflammatory capacity in both animal and test-tube studies.

A small human study in tobacco smokers also revealed that eating broccoli led to a significant reduction in markers of inflammation .

Reducing the risk of diabetes

Research from 2017 suggested that eating broccoli may help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar levels. This is due to its sulforaphane content.

Also, one 2018 review found that people who consume a high fiber diet are less likely to have type 2 diabetes than those who eat little fiber. Fiber may also help reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Eating broccoli may support better blood sugar control in people with diabetes. One human study showed significantly decreased insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes who consumed broccoli sprouts daily for one month.

Protecting cardiovascular health

The fiber, potassium, and antioxidants in broccoli may help prevent CVD.

A 2018 population study demonstrated that older women whose diets were rich in cruciferous vegetables had a lower risk of atherosclerosis. This is a condition affecting the arteries that can result in a heart attack or stroke. This benefit may be due to the antioxidant content of cruciferous vegetables, and particularly sulforaphane.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends increasing the intake of potassium while adding less sodium to food. This relaxes the blood vessels and lowers the risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular problems.

A cup of broccoli provides almost 5% of a person’s daily need for potassium.

One 2017 review found that people who eat the most fiber have a lower risk of CVD and lower levels of blood lipids (fat) than those who consume little fiber.

Broccoli is a good source of vitamin K, but this may interfere with some people’s use of blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin (Coumadin). People who use these drugs should not suddenly increase their intake of vitamin K-rich foods such as broccoli.

Broccoli also contains measurable amounts of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which may prevent oxidative stress and cellular damage in your eyes.

Many vegetables also contain traces of pesticides, but broccoli appears on the Environmental Working Group’s 2019 list of 15 “clean” vegetables. This means that the risk of contamination is low.

How to cook broccoli

Buying the Best Broccoli

When buying broccoli, choose vegetables that have a uniform green color with no major brown or yellowing spots. The broccoli stem should feel firm and the crown should be tight and springy; soft stems or limp florets are a sign of old broccoli. Store broccoli in the crisper drawer in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. Broccoli should keep fairly well for at least a week.

How to prep Broccoli

Before you cook your broccoli, you’ll want to break it down into smaller pieces first. Think of broccoli in two separate parts—the head and the stalk. The head is the flowering, upper section of the broccoli plant, and it’s the most common part that we cook and eat. Cut the broccoli head into smaller pieces and you get broccoli florets—these are great for roasting, steaming, and sauteing.

Underneath the head is the broccoli stalk. While many cooks chuck the stalk into the trash, there are actually plenty of tasty uses for it.

Cut off the bottom inch of the stalk, then peel (or slice) away the tough outer layer and thinly slice it into coins. The texture is obviously different than the little trees you’re used to, but taste-wise, they’re pretty much the same. The stalks can be treated in the same way as the florets, but note that they will take a bit longer to become tender.

How to Oven Roast Broccoli

On a large rimmed sheet tray, toss the florets and sliced stems, spray olive oil/coconut oil then season with salt and pepper. Bake at 425° until the edges are crispy and charred and the vegetables tender, 20 to 25 minutes, depending on their size. Squeeze lemon juice over and sprinkle some flaky sea salt/himalayan salt on top and you’ve got one of the best and easiest side dishes of all time.

How to Steam Broccoli

Steaming broccoli is one of the easiest ways to cook it. This cooking method also gives broccoli a vibrant, green color and crisp-tender texture.

You can use a steam cooker or a simple steamer basket over boiling water. Place the broccoli over the steam and cover them. The steamer basket keeps the broccoli elevated so the nutrients don’t leach into the water. This also helps with even cooking.

Make sure to keep an eye on the cooking time, as each minute in the heat environment can rapidly change the texture from crisp-tender to mushy. Three to five minutes is perfect.

How to Microwave Broccoli

If you use a microwave at home, you can also steam broccoli in the microwave. Use a 1-quart glass Pyrex measuring cup or a simple bowl. Pour water inside and cover it with a microwave compatible lid. Microwave technology utilizes electromagnetic waves to cook the broccoli from the inside very efficiently. The heat gets directed to molecules within the plant, so it heats up fast. The added water also steams the vegetable when enclosed in the container.This process tenderizes the florets fairly quickly in just about 3 minutes. Be careful removing the plastic wrap or plate, the steam is extremely hot and can burn!

How to Boil Broccoli (Blanching)

Adding the florets to rapidly boiling salted water for just a few minutes instantly changes the color and texture. The blanch and shock method works wonders when you need to take out that raw chew. It also makes the color a vibrant green and ensures that the cooking process halts. Plunge into into an ice water bath to stop cooking.This works great for broccoli salad, meal planning, or prepping a side dish in advance.

How to Cook Sauteed Broccoli

This speedy, high-heat cooking method makes broccoli blistered and smoky. Use a skillet that can be safely heated until just smoking, such as a cast-iron or stainless steel skillet. Once your florets turn golden brown, try deglazing the skillet with white wine, chicken stock, lemon juice, or a combination of all three—to add even more flavor.

The trick is to saute for the first few minutes to encourage browning, and then just add a few tablespoons of water, cover, and steam the veggies until fork tender. You could also add a stir-fry sauce instead of the water to help tenderize and enhance the flavor.

How to Purée Broccoli for Soup

Craving a broccoli soup? To make it from scratch, you’ll need to puree your broccoli in the blender first. Chop the broccoli into florets and peel the stems. Simmer everything until tender in chicken or vegetable stock. You can add other desired ingredients such as green peas, cauliflower, carrots, cheese etc.

How to Grill Broccoli

If you use a grill to cook your food, you can also grill your broccoli. The grill transforms this tasty veggie to be crisp tender and charred, with a hint of smoke. Cook it simply by spraying olive oil, put salt, and lemon juice, and it’s a fantastic side for any grilled dinner.

How to Eat Raw Broccoli

It is very simple: you wash it, cut it, eat it! :)

In fact, broccoli can even have more of a positive nutritional impact when eaten uncooked but many people struggle to digest cruciferous veggies in their natural state. The most common side effect is gas or bowel irritation, caused by broccoli’s high amounts of fiber. It may give you the bloated feeling due to the fiber. Besides that, it is completely safe to eat it raw, just make sure to wash it well.

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