Healthy Brassicaceae Family
By Gail Faith Edwards
The Brassicaceae family (commonly known as
brassica or mustard family) is a large group of plants with many useful,
tasty and exceptionally nourishing members, including a few familiar
vegetables (cabbage, turnip), oil crops (rape/canola), medicinal herbs
(shepherd’s purse), and ornamental plants (alyssum). They are found all over
the world, with many of the species occurring in the north temperate region
and a few in the southern hemisphere. They are mostly annual or perennial
herbaceous plants, with one or two small shrubs or climbers.
These are very hardy plants and can usually
withstand cool temperatures. In southern Italy (where I live part of the
year) and other similar locales, they are grown during the winter months. In
northern climates, they can be started early in spring and do best during
the cooler portion of the growing season. A short row of any of these plants
will yield enough greens for a meal every day.
Broccolo, as it is known in Italian, means
“cabbage sprout.” The ancient Romans were inspired horticulturists and
developed broccoli from their wild cabbage. Broccoli’s name is derived from
the Latin word brachium, which means branch or arm, describing how it grows.
One of the most popular types of broccoli sold
in North America is known as Italian green or Calabrese, named after the
Italian province of Calabria where it was first grown. Broccoli was
introduced to North America in colonial times and popularized by Italian
immigrants who brought this prized vegetable with them to the New World.
Leaves, Stem & Roots: The leaves are
usually alternate up the stem. In edible species selected and bred
to maximize the size of the part used – large, fleshy roots as in
turnips, large leaves as in cabbages, large flower buds as in
cauliflower and broccoli.
Flowers: It is the flowers which
give this plant family its original name of Cruciferae. They are
cruciform, made up of four petals in the shape of a cross. They are
usually in clusters or heads, and the flowers are usually white or
yellow, although they may be an array of colors when cultivated for
Seeds: The seed pods of this plant family
are also easily identifiable. They are formed of two chambers joined
by a thin membrane, which opens from the bottom. The flat membrane
often remains after the outer surface of the seed capsule has been
The cabbage family plants provide us with a
great diversity of both nutrients and flavors. You might consider that a
daily bowlful of any of the following greens or roots is indispensable for
good health: radish, turnips, shepherds purse, bok choi, napa, Chinese
cabbage, broccoli rabe, kohlrabi, mustard greens, kale, broccoli,
cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cress. In our Italian village,
even the simplest meal usually includes several courses. One of these
courses is always freshly cooked greens.
Members of the Brassica family offer uniquely
important health-promoting properties. In addition to the wide array of
necessary vitamins and minerals they provide, Brassica vegetables also
contain a number of especially potent health enhancing and protective
For instance, certain compounds in these
vegetables, known as glucosinolates, react with an enzyme called
myrosinase, which converts them into indoles and isothiocyanates. Indoles
and isothiocyanates reduce the potential of carcinogens through their
ability to stimulate liver detoxification enzymes. These phytonutrients
inhibit certain enzymes that normally activate carcinogens and also induce
other enzymes that help to dismantle active carcinogens.
another interesting compound found in the vegetables in this family, is
actually formed when vegetables such as mustard greens and broccoli are
chopped or chewed. It, too, is known to trigger the liver to produce enzymes
that detoxify cancer-causing chemicals. Sulforaphane has been shown to
inhibit chemically-induced breast cancers, reverse colon cancer cells and
stop the proliferation of breast cancer cells.
When scientists at the
World Cancer Research Fund reviewed 206 human and 22 animal studies, they
found convincing evidence that cruciferous vegetables provide excellent
protection against many forms of cancer, including tumors of the stomach,
pancreas, esophagus, lung, oral cavity and pharynx, endometrium, breast,
ovaries, prostate, and colon.
Since then, research published in the
International Journal of Cancer (Zhao H, Lin J) suggests that bladder cancer
can join the list. Those in the study eating the most cruciferous vegetables
were found to have a 29 percent lower risk of bladder cancer compared to
participants eating the least amount of this family of vegetables.
many weekly servings of Brassicas do we need to protect against cancer? Just
three to five one-cup servings per week – less than one serving a day!
Consider sprouting broccoli seeds and eating the sprouts. They are
exceptionally rich in sulforaphane – 10 to 100 times as rich as the mature
Other constituents of note include luten, a form of the
antioxidant vitamin A, found to offer considerable protection against the
formation of cataracts. Still other compounds in these vegetables offer
protection against heart disease and stroke, act to prevent skin cell
changes due to sun exposure, inhibit the growth of H. pylori in the gut and
serve as supreme immune system nourishers. The calcium-rich vegetables in
this family also help to build strong bones, teeth, hair and nails.
cup of cooked broccoli contains 74 mg of calcium, plus 123 mg of vitamin C,
which significantly improves calcium’s absorption. It also offers a hefty
1359 mcg of beta-carotene and small but useful amounts of zinc and selenium,
trace minerals that play vital roles in immune system health. A cup of
broccoli has 44 calories and supplies 94 mcg of folic acid, a critically
important B vitamin, especially necessary for pregnant women to ensure a
A study published in the Journal of the Science of Food
and Agriculture investigated the effects of various methods of cooking
broccoli. Of all the methods of preparation, steaming caused the least loss
of nutrients. Microwaving broccoli resulted in a loss of 97 to 74 percent of
the major antioxidant compounds, flavonoids. In comparison, steaming
broccoli resulted in a loss of only 11 to eight percent of the same
Study co-author Dr. Cristina Garcia-Viguera noted that,
“Most of the bioactive compounds are water-soluble; during heating, they
leach in a high percentage into the cooking water. Because of this, it is
recommended to cook vegetables in the minimum amount of water (as in
steaming) in order to retain their nutritional benefits.”
In addition to
enhancing bone health, the nutrients in Brassicas can help ease our way
through menopause. The abundant levels of magnesium are exceedingly
nourishing to the nervous system and are helpful in reducing anxiety and
stress as well as in promoting healthy sleeping patterns. Vitamin E, also
found in plentiful amounts in these foods, has also been shown to decrease
the occurrence and severity of hot flashes.
One of the dietary
recommendations from the American Cancer Society is to regularly include
cruciferous vegetables such as mustard, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli,
and cauliflower in the diet. The glucosinolates in these plants function
by increasing the antioxidant defense mechanisms, and also by improving the
body’s ability to detoxify and eliminate harmful chemicals and hormones.
Mustard greens posses a sharp, peppery flavor, add zest
and lots of nourishment to any meal and are at their peak all through the
winter months in southern Italy. In northern climates, the mustards do well
in spring and early summer, and again toward fall.
goitrogens, naturally-occurring substances in certain foods that can
interfere with the function of the thyroid gland. Individuals with thyroid
problems may want to avoid broccoli and other foods in this group.
Cooking may help to inactivate the goitrogenic compounds, but it
isn’t clear just how many of them are affected or how much.
Mustard greens are
the leaves of the mustard plant, Brassica juncea. The greens can have either
a crumpled or flat texture and may have toothed, scalloped, frilled, or lacey
edges. There are lots of varieties of mustard and each has distinct
characteristics. Most mustard greens are an emerald green color but they can
also be shades of dark red or deep purple.
In addition to its nutritious
greens, this plant also produces the acrid-tasting brown seeds that are used
to make Dijon mustard.
Mustard greens originated in the Himalayan region
of India and have been grown and consumed for more than 5,000 years. They
are a notable vegetable in many different cuisines, including Italian,
Chinese, and the American south. Like turnip greens, mustard greens became an
integral part of cuisine in the U.S. south during the times of slavery.
Mustard greens are an excellent source of many vitamins, including vitamin
A, vitamin C, folate, and vitamin E. They also offer an excellent source of
the mineral manganese and plenty of B-6, calcium and copper. They are also a
very good source of phosphorus, vitamins B-1 and B-2, magnesium, protein,
potassium, and iron. Mustard greens provide fiber and are low in calories
and high in antioxidants.
Studies have shown that mustard greens share the anti-cancer effects of
the other Brassicas. They have the ability to protect against breast cancer
and heart disease. Their high content of nutrients (such as calcium, folic
acid, and magnesium) also supports healthy bones.
In Italy during the month of March, we climb the mountainsides looking
for wild asparagus, where it grows in abundance. The shoots of these plants
are thin, but so delicious, and provide a welcome burst of nourishment as
well as wild flavor to almost any pasta dish.
Asparagus is low in calories and carbohydrates and, compared to other
vegetables, relatively high in protein. One cup of asparagus supplies only
24 calories, almost half of which are derived from protein. Asparagus is an
excellent source of potassium, vitamin K, folic acid (263 micrograms per
cup), vitamins C and A, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamin B-6. It is also a
very good source of dietary fiber, niacin, phosphorus, and iron.
Historically, asparagus has been used as a diuretic and for the
management of arthritis and rheumatism. The amino acid asparagine may be
responsible for the diuretic effect of asparagus. When this amino acid is
excreted in the urine, it gives off a strong, characteristic odor.
Cabbage is another low calorie, nutrient-dense food that offers an
excellent source of many nutrients including vitamin C, folic acid,
potassium, vitamin B-6, calcium, biotin, magnesium and manganese. Along with
its nutrient content, cabbage also contains the powerful anti-cancer
compounds known as glucosinolates. Studies have shown that cabbage is also
extremely effective in the treatment of peptic ulcers.
In ancient Rome, sauerkraut was considered delicious and easy to digest
and prized for its medicinal value as well. Large barrels of it were taken
on long journeys to the Middle East, as the Romans knew it would keep them
healthy and protect them from intestinal parasites.
When Pliny wrote in 50 BC, he described two methods the Italians had for
lacto-fermenting cabbage. The first consisted of mashing shredded cabbage in
a large earthenware urn, which was then hermetically sealed. The second
method included mixing vegetables and wild herbs with the cabbage, such as
cucumbers, turnips and beets, sorrel and grape leaves, and then covering
them with a mixture of water and salt. This method was called a composituror
mixture. The ancient Greeks also understood that amazing changes took place
in the nutritional value of naturally fermented foods and vegetables. Their
term for this process was “alchemy.”
Fermented foods generally offer increased protein content as well as
enhanced values of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and amino acids, all vital
nutrients for good health. The acid conditions produced by the lactic acid
bacteria, as well as the alcohol produced by the yeasts, inhibit the growth
of putrefying bacteria. Thus the fermenting process not only enhances the
nutritional value of foods and increases their bioavailability hence our
ability to digest them, but also acts as a means of preservation, greatly
extending shelf life.
Lacto-fermented foods can be eaten as soon as the initial fermentation
process is complete. However, these foods improve with age, and experts say
it can take up to six months for sauerkraut and other vegetables to fully
mature and reach their peak of flavor and nutritional benefits.
Cauliflower is not as nutrient-dense as many of the other vegetables in
the cabbage family but it is still packed with nutrition. It is an excellent
source of vitamins C and K. It is also a very good source of potassium,
fiber, phosphorus and B vitamins. Cauliflower is a good source of the trace
mineral boron and, like other members of the family, contains several cancer
fighting phyto- chemicals in the form of glucosinolates.
Brussels sprouts have similar nutritional qualities as broccoli. They are
a great source of folic acid, vitamins C and K, and also beta carotene. They
provide plenty of vitamin B-6, fiber, thiamine, potassium. and those all
important cancer-fighting glucosinolates.
Kale is an excellent source of vitamins B-6 and C, carotenes, and
manganese. Kale is also a very good source of vitamins B-1, B-2, and E,
fiber, iron, copper, calcium and phosphorus. Kale and collard greens exhibit
the same anti-cancer properties as other members of the cabbage family.
Radishes and their greens provide an excellent source of vitamin C.
Radish leaves contain almost six times the vitamin C content of their root
and are also a good source of calcium. Daikon radishes provide plenty of
potassium and copper. Like other members of this plant family, they also
contain cancer-protective properties.
Radishes have a strong reputation and history of being used as medicine
for liver disorders. They contain a variety of sulfur-based chemicals that
increase the flow of bile. Therefore, radishes in the diet help to maintain
a healthy gallbladder and liver, and will also improve digestion. Fresh
radish roots contain a larger amount of vitamin C than cooked radish roots.
So be sure to eat those brassicaceae because they’re not only delicious
but full of healthy nutrients.
Gail Faith Edwards is an author, herbalist, and gardener who
splits her time time between Italy and Maine. She is the founder of the
Blessed Maine Herb Farm (established in 1977) where she and her family
cultivate three acres of medicinal herbs and create their MOFGA Certified
Organic herbal products. She is also the Director of the Blessed Maine Herb
Farm School of Herbal Medicine, an active on-site learning center and offers
an 12 month long Herbal Medicine Correspondence Course attended by students
from around the world.