In the early days of cancer research, Dr. Paul Talalay was considered nuts. While his colleagues were searching for ways to treat cancer, Talalay was focused on preventing it — an uncommon sentiment in the 1980s. Cancer, everyone thought, was like a roll of the dice — you either got it or you didn’t. There was no “preventing” it.
But Talalay had read studies showing that people who ate lots of fruits and vegetables had lower rates of cancer. Acting on a hunch, he gave his assistant 20 bucks and sent him to the market down the street from their lab at Johns Hopkins University. The assistant returned with a dozen vegetables, which the scientists began to study. And it was in the crucifers — a family of pungent veggies that includes broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, that Talalay identified a potent compound called sulforaphane.
Sulforaphane: Super Detoxer Our bodies have remarkable enzymes, called Phase II enzymes, that protect our cells from environmental pollutants, oxidation, and radiation, all of which can cause DNA mutations and set the stage for cancer.
Phase II enzymes usually putter along below full capacity. But sulforaphane gives them a huge boost, amping up their ability to detoxify cells. Hundreds of studies have put crucifers and sulforaphane to the test, to see how well they safeguard DNA and prevent cancer, as well as a host of other diseases. The findings are convincing. Here is just a sampling:
• Just one daily serving of cruciferous veggies was shown to cut men’s risk of prostate cancer in half.
• Crucifers were shown to aid in clearing the liver of HCAs, carcinogens that form when meat and fish are cooked at high temperatures, and which have been linked to colon, lung, and breast cancer.
• A study of 35,000 women found that those with the highest crucifer intake had the lowest risk of contracting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
• Two or more daily servings of green veggies, especially broccoli and collard greens, significantly cut the risk of estrogen-dependent breast cancer in a study of 50,000 African American women.
• A lab study showed that sulforaphane suppressed the ability of breast cancer stem cells to form tumors.
• In a polluted region in China, residents given a beverage high in sulforaphane were able to quickly rid their body of large amounts of inhaled carcinogens, including benzene.
• On other fronts, sulforaphane may improve glucose control in Type 2 diabetics, and help kids with autism improve verbal communication, social skills, and behavior.
So how can you get more of the stuff?
Kitchen Hacks to Boost Sulforaphane Surprisingly, that head of cauliflower from the grocery store doesn’t actually contain any sulforaphane. So how do you get it? Simple: All crucifers come packed with a precursor compound (called glucoraphanin) that turns into sulphoraphane when the veggies are chopped and diced. This happens thanks to a little enzyme called myrosinase.
Here’s how to use that chemistry to make your crucifers more powerful:
Use the “whack and wait” method Chop the crucifers, then let them sit for about 40 minutes. During this time, the enzyme will be churning out sulforaphane. Then you can either cook the veggies or eat them raw.
Raw crucifers, though, are hard for some people to digest. Victoria LaFont, nutritional therapy practitioner in Truckee, suggests, “If you get bloated or gassy easily, or have a chronic gut ailment like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, cook crucifers really well before eating.”
Be Lazy! Buy pre-cut crucifers, like shredded cabbage, riced cauliflower, chopped kale, and broccoli slaw. They’ve already formed sulforaphane.
Avoid Frozen Crucifers They’ve been flash-cooked before freezing, which kills the enzyme. When thawed, these veggies won’t form sulforaphane, because there’s no enzyme to make the conversion. But here’s a fix: After cooking, add some live enzymes, in the form of raw crucifers like shredded cabbage, or ground mustard seed. The veggies will start making sulforaphane out of the precursor.
Eat broccoli sprouts They contain 30 to 50 times the amount of sulforaphane of mature broccoli plants. Chop them into salads, or juice them for a real kick. Just an ounce of sprouts equals the sulforaphane in two pounds of broccoli heads. Whole Foods Reno carries broccoli sprouts as well as seeds, which you can sprout at home.
Though sulforaphane is potent, it’s just one of many beneficial compounds in crucifers, a family high in Vitamin C, carotenoids, and other phytochemicals. And no single compound (or food) is the magic bullet against cancer.
“It’s important to eat a variety of fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and legumes,” says LaFont. “The average person eats the same 20 foods all year, while our ancestors ate 150 to 200 different foods.”
So mix it up, but be sure to include one or more servings of cancer-fighting crucifers in your diet every day.
Which Veggies are Crucifers?
Cabbage (all colors)
Chinese and napa cabbage
Kale (all colors)
Turnips and greens
Rapini (broccoli rabe/raab)