In a few short days from now, many of us will be sitting down to a festive meal of turkey with all the trimmings. One common accompaniment to the traditional Christmas dinner is the Brussels sprout. The presence of this vegetable on our plate is no assurance that we will eat it though: the Brussels sprout’s distinct bitter flavour will cause many of us to push it neatly to one side. Eschewing some lovingly prepared sprouts not only risks offending the chef, but has other potential downsides too. There is considerable evidence that sprouts wield considerable nutritional power in the body, and may help keep us free from major maladies such as cancer and heart disease. Despite their rather unpalatable reputation, a growing crop of research suggests that Brussels sprouts are well worth swallowing on a regular basis.
Brussels sprouts belong to a botanical family known as the brassica that includes other veggie stalwarts such broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Like other brassica vegetables, Brussels sprouts are rich in a group of substances known as glucosinolates. In the body, glucosinolates have the capacity to transform into other chemical entities called isothiocyanates and indoles. One of the effects of these substances is to boost the liver’s ability to deal with potentially toxic substances. Interestingly, compounds derived from Brussels sprouts seem to help the liver disarm chemicals known to have cancer-inducing potential in the body.
More evidence that suggests Brussels sprouts mat help keep the body free from cancer comes from studies examining their effects on DNA. DNA controls the division of each cell in the body. Damage to the DNA in a cell may cause it to replicate much more rapidly than normal, and it is this change that is integral to the cancer-causing process. Several studies show that extracts of Brussels sprouts have the ability to help protect DNA from damage. This effect, coupled with their ability to quell potentially cancer-causing substances in the body, means that Brussels sprouts have at least a theoretical ability to keep cancer at bay.
Many studies have shown that the consumption of brassica vegetables is linked to cancer risk. In fact, a recent review of 80 studies concluded that those who eat plenty of this kind of vegetable seem to be at reduced risk of several types of cancer, particularly those of the lung, bladder, stomach, colon and rectum. Another study found that high brassica consumption was associated with a halving in the risk of bladder cancer.
Another important nutrient that Brussels sprouts have to offer the body is folic acid. Although folic acid has made its name on its ability to help protect against birth defects such as spina bifida, increasing amounts of research suggests that it has the ability to reduce the risk of heart disease too. Folic acid reduces the level of a blood chemical called homocysteine, high levels of which are strongly associated with increased susceptibility to heart disease. Recent evidence suggests that increasing folic acid intake may significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and other circulatory conditions including stroke and potentially troublesome clots in the legs. The evidence suggests that Brussels sprouts have a wealth of health-promoting properties in the body. Bitter though they may be, Brussels sprouts have benefits for us that seem to be very sweet indeed.