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Cruciferous Crusaders

FOR THE RECORD – This story incorrectly described the exact way in which the vegetables’ fiber helps the body. The story should have said the body’s toxins and bile bind to fiber in the colon, and the fiber helps move them out of the body.

“Eat your vegetables,” doctors always say, but they don’t always say which ones.

As dietitians learn more about the nutrients and compounds that make veggies so good for us, they have discovered that broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other cruciferous varieties (so named because of the cross-shaped growth pattern of their leaves) are essential to a good diet.

Don’t worry if you don’t like the way they taste; some expert cooking advice can make them sing.

What is cruciferous?
Cruciferous veggies are named for the usually cross-shaped growth of their leaves. Here are some examples to guide your next trip to the market:
â–  broccoli
â–  cauliflower
â–  kale
â–  Brussels sprouts
â–  cabbage
â–  arugula
â–  watercress
â–  rutabaga
â–  bok choy
– Oregon State UniversityCruciferous crusadersThese veggies are nutrient powerhouses and – with a few tricks – taste good, tooSee VEGGIES on PAGE D3from PAGE D1Veggies packed with nutrientsStory by Matt Andazola Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham â–  â–  â–  Of the Journal

Serve your broccoli or cauliflower with some roasted piñons and feta, or even a dash of turmeric. Blanch or steam that kale and add it to an omelette.


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The secret behind cruciferous veggies is phytochemicals, or nutrients that help rid your body of toxins, says Cyndi Silva, clinical registered dietitian at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque.

Specifically, cruciferous vegetables are famous for sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates, she says.

“That’s what imparts that strong aroma or that peppery, bitter taste” to broccoli or raw kale, she says. Once broken down by chopping or chewing, the glucosinolates release compounds that, Silva says, protect DNA from damaging toxins and prevent normal cells from morphing into cancer cells. This idea was bolstered by a 2010 study in the journal Carcinogenesis, which found that one of those compounds helps inhibit leptin, a compound known to play a role in the emergence of breast cancer.

Silva says eating a lot of cruciferous vegetables is associated with a lower risk of lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers. She cites epidemiological research, like that included in reports from the University of Hawaii in 2000 and another from the Netherlands in 1996.

Health benefits

Cruciferous vegetables may even be beneficial for people being treated for cancer, says Angie King-Nosseir, registered dietitian, owner of local nutrition counseling service Gourmet Healer and an occasional Journal columnist.

Pointing to research like a 2010 study in the journal Pharmaceutical Research about prostate cancer and a compound found commonly in broccoli, she says cruciferous vegetables may make cancer cells more sensitive to treatment.


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King-Nosseir says cruciferous veggies also help prevent and even reverse inflammation damage in blood vessels caused by too much sugar. In addition, King-Nosseir touts their vitamin K, essential to regulating inflammation in multiple body systems.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the plants is their fiber. It’s water-soluble fiber, Silva says, which slows digestion, making you feel fuller longer, and helps absorb dietary cholesterol before it enters the blood stream.

King-Nosseir says the liver uses fiber to bind and carry away environmental toxins and waste from your blood.

None of these health benefits is universal, Silva says; how someone’s body processes the nutrients depends a lot on genetics. Still, eating a lot of these veggies won’t hurt, she says. The only time to keep an eye on your veggies is when you’re on blood-thinning medication, because dark leafy greens are full of vitamin K, a blood thickener. But, she says, not all cruciferous veggies are dark leafy greens.

For all of the veggies’ benefits, the dietitians say you should include five 1-cup servings a week.

Cooking tips

If, because of the “peppery, bitter” taste, you don’t much like the veggies, consider cooking them first.

King-Nossier says you can properly cook the vegetables without losing nutritional value. Try adding herbs, spices or splashes of citrus juice for flavor.

Silva says her favorite way to incorporate cruciferous veggies is to use cooked kale instead of cooked spinach (like for an omelette).

Before cooking the veggies, King-Nosseir says to cut or chop them and let them sit for several minutes before starting to cook them.

“The biggest thing you don’t want to do with these cruciferous vegetables is overcook them,” says Margaret Collins, a home economist with the New Mexico State University cooperative extension in Santa Fe. “You want a minimum amount of cooking time.”

•  Blanching: Bring just enough water to almost cover the veggies to a boil before you add the veggies, Collins says. Cook uncovered until they are tender enough to pierce with a fork, or 3-4 minutes.

•  Roasting: Collins says to cover a baking sheet with oil and spices before baking the veggies for 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 425 degrees (again, uncovered). Silva says that’s her favorite way to cook these vegetables.

•  Sautéing: This method is just like sautéing other veggies. Just don’t go longer than 10 minutes, King-Nosseir says.

•  Steaming: To steam the veggies, use a steaming pan or a steamer (this time leaving the lid on) and let them cook for about 6 minutes, Collins says.

Collins also shares these recipes:


Makes 8-10 ( 1/2-cup) servings

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup piñón nuts or pecans, roasted

3 1/2 cups broccoli florets, cut bite size

3/4 cup reduced-fat feta cheese, crumbles

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

For the dressing

Mix these ingredients in a bowl:

1/3 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon basil, dried

1/2 teaspoon oregano, dried

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat nuts with 2 teaspoons vegetable oil. On a baking sheet spread the nuts out evenly and place them in oven. Stir occasionally for 5-10 minutes until the nuts are fragrant and lightly browned. Cool on a paper towel.

Add enough water to saucepan to just cover the broccoli, bring to a boil. Add broccoli and blanch uncovered for 3 minutes.

Remove from heat, drain and rinse with cool running water.

Mix broccoli, nuts, cheese and tomatoes in a bowl.

Add dressing and gently toss.


Makes 4 servings

8 small whole wheat flour tortillas

1 cup chopped broccoli

1 cup chopped sweet red or green bell peppers

1 cup shredded low-fat cheese

2 cups fresh spinach leaves

Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons each of bell pepper, broccoli and shredded cheese on 4 tortillas.

Add 1/4 cup spinach, and top each with another tortilla.

Heat tortillas over medium heat in large skillet for 2-3 minutes on each side or until cheese melts.

Remove from skillet, put on plate. Cut each quesadilla into 4 wedges. Serve with salsa.

– From the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service


Makes 4 1-cup servings

4 cups cauliflower cut into florets

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spread cauliflower evenly. Add oil and turmeric.

Toss and roast, uncovered, for about 15 minutes or until cauliflower is fork tender.

– Adapted from