November 18, 2012

Brussels Sprouts – a strange name for a super food

‘Tis the season for brussels sprouts!  When I think about Thanksgiving and winter holidays, my mind goes beyond turkey, potatoes, and pumpkin pie.  Veggies are one of my favorite parts of traditional meals and of all the tasty options brussels sprouts are among my most preferred.  This Thanksgiving I will cut them in half, sprinkle them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary and roast them in the oven.

I just finished a very “veggie” week.  I listened to a webinar called “Meatless Monday” which discussed the science behind the movement of trying to incorporate a vegetarian day into individual patient’s diets as well as large facilities (think schools and hospitals) for health.  I also went to a great presentation on vegetarian eating for cancer prevention where the speakers discussed many studies that support high intake of fruits and veg concerning anti-cancer properties.  I made friends with dietitians at the Block Cancer Center and got invited to observe a vegan cooking class they put on for their patients there.  So all of this made me day-dream about brussels sprouts.  But why are the called “Brussels” sprouts and why do they grow in such a strange manner?

Closely related to Kohlrabi (another interesting veggie), brussels sprouts are just different horticultural forms of the same species called Brassica oleracea of the Cruciferae plant family.  Cruciferous” vegetables may sound familiar to you.  Originating from a common relative (wild cabbage) other veg in this category include:  cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, and horseradish.   The most important word to remember about this category of veggie is:  “glucosinolate” which is a sulfur-containing compound (the origin of the funky smell when cooking some of these veg).  These are one of many compounds in plants called phytochemicals that likely provide health benefits to humans but have not been quantified in regards to proven needs for health like vitamins and minerals have.  We may not yet know exactly how much glucosinolate a person needs, but we do know that these compounds are most probably important for human health. 
In order to reap the anti-cancer benefits of these compounds, an enzyme called myrosinase needs to be activated by processing the plant (such as chopping or chewing).   With myrosinase being stimulated, two classes of chemicals can become active:  indoles and isothiocyanates.  You don’t have to remember these long names, but do recall that eating plenty of these types of foods can be beneficial to your health because they block/suppress cancer development, decrease inflammation, and play a role in detoxification of foreign substances in the body. 

Besides their bioactivity and anti-cancer properties, Brussels sprouts also contain a lot of fiber (4 grams in 1 cup), so they can assist in lowering blood cholesterol levels.  They are high in vitamin K, C, A, folate, potassium and B vitamins.  They are very low in calories.  

Apparently, brussels sprouts were named partly because the plant did grow in Brussels, Belgium and may be native to that region.  The first known description has been tracked to 1587 though it has surely existed for some time before that point.   I hope you’ve had the opportunity of seeing Brussels sprouts on their stalks instead of simply in their severed cabbage-head form in a bag in the store.  They grow from the ground on large, thick stalks with small sprouts that form the whole way along it instead of one large head like a common cabbage.  Brussels sprouts require a cool growing season, which is another reason they may have gained popularity in northern Europe and the British Isles.  Most of the America crop is now produced in the cooler, foggy areas of California. 

On a final note, the German word for this vegetable is much better in my opinion:  Rosenkohl aka “rose cabbage”.  Much more suitable and descriptive in my opinion.


1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh, I forgot all about myrosinase! Thanks for the refresher. :) Great post about one of my favorite things to eat!
    - Carrie @ The Cook's Palette