How science is making broccoli even healthier for you

You probably know that broccoli is one of the healthiest vegetables we can eat. It’s a sunshine miracle food. At the Spanish national research institute CSIC in Murcia, Spain, scientists are studying how make one of the world’s healthiest vegetables even more beneficial.

This affordable superfood is already high in vitamins C, A and K (which together help boost levels of D), as well as chromium and folate minerals, and the cancer-busting glucosinolate phytonutrients.  So how can scientists make it even better?

Working in conjunction with agricultural research body CEBAS, CSIC has projects from soil to plant that look to increase beneficial compounds in fruit and vegetables, with broccoli a main area of study.

‘We simulate natural conditions in a special growth lab, and as we make changes, we study the results,’ says Professor of Research, Dr Cristina Garcia-Viguera.  ‘With broccoli we are trying to increase magnesium and iron.’

But the reason for increasing these minerals is not, as we might immediately assume, for us as consumers to get a higher intake of these nutrients. The scientists noticed that under certain conditions like high temperatures, plants compensate by increasing their levels of minerals and vitamins to protect themselves and become stronger plants. In broccoli this process was found to increase the anti-cancer compounds – which is how we benefit.

Water levels are a main factor affecting grown and nutrients so the scientists puncture a cell in the plant and experiment with different levels of water to see how the plant changes its composition. Then the process is recreated in a field and analyzed once again. The institute has €2m-worth of sophisticated equipment analyzing the plants.

Broccoli in the science laboratory at CSIC, Murcia, Spain
Broccoli in the science laboratory at CSIC, Murcia, Spain

‘We try to find natural ways to change natural conditions,’ says Dr Garcia-Viguera.

The next stage involves looking at the human metabolic system which involves working with hospitals conducting trials. This way the scientists can work out how increased levels of nutrients in broccoli can benefit a variety of conditions from obesity to cancer.  The studies also monitor the best way to cook broccoli.

‘Microwaving broccoli is definitely the worst way as the beneficial compounds go into the water and 40% of these are lost,’ says Dr Garcia-Viguera. ‘The healthiest way is steaming it. Stir frying quickly for one minute is also healthy as well as quick and convenient.’

As for that yukky-grassy smell we get when cooking broccoli, it seems we have to learn to love it. The compounds that cause this smell are the same glucosinolates that are anti-carcinogenic.

For more information on fruit and vegetables from Europe including delicious recipes take a look at we care you enjoy

Coming soon here on Sunshine Foodie: The broccoli journey from seed to supermarket shelf

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