Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale and wasabi are beloved by many. With kale shake recipes galore and everything made from cauliflower, there are a few reasons we’re drawn to this particular group of vegetables — they’re versatile and have health benefits, too.
Cruciferous vegetables are any type of vegetable in the Brassicaceae family of plants, also known as the Cruciferae family.
There are more than 3,000 unique species within the Brassicaceae family however, many of the veggies we know — broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens and kale — belong to one specific species called the Brassica oleracea, per November 2017 research in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Research International.
Other members of the Brassicaceae family include bok choy, daikon, horseradish, kohlrabi, maca, mustard greens, radishes, turnips and watercress.
The Benefits of Cruciferous Veggies
We know vegetables are good for us because they’re full of nutrition, but cruciferous vegetables have unique properties that may improve your health in more ways than one.
This family of vegetables may vary in color and shape but all in all, they’re fairly comparable when it comes to their nutrient content. Cruciferous vegetables are known for vitamins C and E, fiber, folate and carotenoids. They also contain a phytochemical called glucosinates, per a January 2018 review in the Journal of Human Health Research. These nutrients are said to be responsible for the health benefits these foods offer.
1. They May Support Heart Health
A growing body of research links eating cruciferous veggies to a reduced risk of heart disease. Regularly eating these vegetables was linked with lower total and HDL cholesterol levels in a January 2018 review in Molecules.
In fact, researchers pooled the findings of eight studies looking at the effects of cruciferous and leafy green vegetables on heart disease for a January 2016 review in the Journal of Royal Society of Medicine Cardiovascular Diseases. They found there was a 16 percent reduced risk of heart disease in those who ate the most cruciferous vegetables compared to those who ate these vegetables less frequently.
2. Improve Blood Sugar Control
Like all vegetables, cruciferous veggies contain dietary fiber, which helps to slow digestion and the rate at which we absorb sugar from the foods we eat, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Glucosinolates and other compounds in this family of vegetables have been linked to improvements in blood sugar control, according to a January 2016 meta-analysis in the Journal of Diabetes Investigation.
Cruciferous vegetables may help with blood sugar control by decreasing insulin resistance, per an April 2012 study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. Researchers tested the effects of different amounts of broccoli sprouts powder in people with type 2 diabetes. The groups received 10 grams (about 2.4 teaspoons), 5 grams (about 1.2 teaspoons) or a placebo.
After four weeks, the group that took the 10 grams of broccoli sprouts powder had a significant decrease in insulin levels and HOMA-IR, which stands for homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistance, a measurement used to understand diabetes risk.
3. Linked to Lower Rates of Cancer
Eating cruciferous vegetables has also been associated with a lower risk of certain cancers, according to a July 2017 review in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Research from 95 different studies was analyzed to help the scientists understand the relationship between eating fruits and vegetables and heart disease, cancer and mortality.
The researchers determined that eating cruciferous veggies regularly was linked to a decreased risk of cancer. But, these types of studies do not determine cause and effect, but more of a potential relationship.
The reduced risk they determined may be due to glucosinolates, a compound found in cruciferous vegetables. Glucosinates have been linked to killing off tumor cells, reducing oxidative stress and slowing the growth of tumor cells, according to June 2018 research in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention.
While more research needs to be done, the American Cancer Society published diet and physical activity guidelines for the prevention of cancer that highlight cruciferous vegetables, in ACS Journals. The article notes that there is ongoing research on this group of vegetables (and others) and their effect on cancer risk, and recommends following the 2020-2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans by aiming to eat 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables every day, including cruciferous vegetables.
Gas and Bloating from Cruciferous Veggies
A common complaint when eating broccoli, cabbage or other cruciferous vegetables is stomach discomfort from bloating and gas.
This happens because these vegetables are high in fiber and they contain raffinose, a complex carbohydrate that’s fermented in our guts, according to Harvard Health Publishing. When the fermentation occurs, gas builds up.
To prevent this, try to stay hydrated and start out with smaller portions, increasing as tolerated. Make sure you chew thoroughly. Another option is to take a digestive enzyme, which helps your body break down and process these foods more easily.
The USDA guidelines recommend 1.5 to 2.5 cup-equivalents of dark-green veggies each week. This group includes many cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, turnips and more.
Looking at blood sugar control specifically, eating 1.35 servings of cruciferous vegetables per day was associated with a 14 percent decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (compared to eating less than half of a serving daily) in an earlier August 2010 review in the British Medical Journal.
But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only nine percent of us are eating enough veggies on a daily basis as it is, so the best first step for most of us — regardless if you’re concerned about controlling your blood sugar or diabetes risk — is to just start eating more vegetables, period.