By Gail Faith Edwards
The Brassicaceae family (commonly known as brassicas 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.
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.
Brassicas 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 phytonutrients.
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.
Sulforaphane, 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.
How 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 broccoli.
Other constituents of note include lutein, 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.
One 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 healthy fetus.
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 flavonoids, the major antioxidant compounds. In comparison, steaming broccoli resulted in a loss of only 11 to eight percent of the same antioxidants.
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.
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 lacy 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 and Lacto-fermenting Brassicas
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 brassicas, 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 and, indeed, the rest of the brassicas.
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 brassicas, 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 brassicas because they’re not only delicious but full of healthy nutrients.
Characteristics of Brassicas
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 ornamental use.
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 shed.
Brassicas contain 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.
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. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.