Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards and Brussels sprouts are all part of the Brassica veggie family and have been part of the human diet for at least 2000 years. In Latin, the word “brassica” simply translates to “cabbage,” as all these vegetables are believed to be descendants of a wild cabbage native to Western Europe.
Brassicas, being nutritious and easy to grow, play an important role in feeding the worlds population and form the cornerstone of many traditional dishes around the world. For years, Germans have fermented cabbage to make sauerkraut, Koreans have fermented cabbage and called it kimchee, both long revered for their many health benefits. Cauliflower is a key vegetable in Indian cooking. In a hot environment with no refrigeration, the outer leaves of the cauliflower wilt and form a protective layer around the head, making it last longer.
Almost every part of these plants has been cultivated for food, including the root (turnips), stems (kohlrabi), leaves (cabbage, kale, collard greens), flowers (cauliflower, broccoli), buds (Brussels sprouts), and seeds (mustard seed, and oil-producing rapeseed).
This plant group has long been hailed for their nutritional value with high amounts of important vitamins, minerals and fibre. In fact, Brassicas, along with the Alliums (garlic and onions), are considered the cancer-fighting vegetables. Not only do they contain heaps of vital nutrients and antioxidants, but they are also packed with special compounds called glucosinolates. These sulfur-rich phytonutrients (plant nutrients) are responsible for the Brassicas pungent aroma and bitter flavour, as well as the hype around their preventative effects on cancer.
When chopped or chewed, the glucosinolates are broken down into various sulfur-rich compounds including allyl-isothiocyanate, Indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane, which are known for their anti-carcinogenic properties (carcinogen is a substance or agent that is a direct cause of cancer). Indole-3-carbinol boosts DNA repair in cells and appears to block the growth of cancer cells. Sulforaphane has been shown to kill cancer stem cells (CSCs) and hinder the growth of tumours. Allyl-isothiocyanate has shown it’s ability to reduce or slow down tumour growth. Studies show that a diet rich in Brassica vegetables is associated with a decreased risk of cancer (especially lung, throat, stomach and colon cancer). This huge benefit – along with all those vitamins, minerals and fibre – makes this a very important vegetable family to include in your everyday diet.
We were surprised how versatile and delicious these veggies can be. Cauliflower, for example, makes a super healthy alternative to things like rice, mash, pizza bases and fritters – now we can’t go without it.
But beware! Over-cooking causes the Brassicas to lose their special powers. Boiling reduces the level of their magical compounds (as well as their wonderful flavours and textures), but steaming and stir frying doesn’t effect it too much. Steaming or stir frying for three to four minutes is best as it maximises the sulfur-rich compounds potency… as well as leaving them deliciously crunchy.
These are some of our favourite members of the Brassica family: