Broccoli (Brassica oleracea, variety italica)

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Brassica oleracea (variety italica), or more commonly referred to as broccoli, is a native of the Mediterranean. Ancient Etruscans, considered the horticultural geniuses of their time, engineered broccoli from a relative of the cabbage plant. It is basically a large flower that can be eaten. Both the stalks and florets can be consumed raw or cooked. The leaves tend to be bitter tasting and therefore usually discarded, but some chefs can prepare them in specialised ways.  Broccoli is a relative of cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

Cultivation of broccoli started in Italy and was given the name of Broccolo, meaning “cabbage sprout”.  The name derived from “brachium”, a Latin word meaning arm or branch, an indication to its tree-like structure of a thick stalk divided into smaller stems, and ending in a thick head of florets. It is also sometimes known by its Italian name Calabrese, named in recognition of the Italian province Calabria where it was first cultivated.  There are many varieties of broccoli ranging in colour from dark green to purple-green and even deep sage.

Broccoli is particularly loved by the Americans, according to the statistics put out by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA. The average American consumes over four pounds of the vegetable each year. The USA is the third largest broccoli producer in the world, with more than 90% of the vegetable being grown in the state of California. One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was also a big admirer of broccoli. He especially imported seeds from Italy to plant in his home at Monticello, Virginia as early as 1767.

Broccoli also has a close association with the James Bond Films. The Italian born American, Albert R Broccoli, was responsible for putting the Ian Fleming books on film. All of the James Bond movies made during his lifetime were produced by Mr Broccoli himself.


Normally, the Etruscan people are associated with Italy. However, they were initially known as the Rasenna and migrated from what is now Turkey (formerly Asia Minor). It was here, in the region of Rasenna, that the cultivation of cabbages (predecessor to broccoli) was started by them. In the eighth century BCE, the Rasenna migration to Italy started and the knowledge travelled with them.  The mobile trading of the Rasenna, with Phoenicians, Sicilians, Greeks, Corsicans and Sardinians, eventually led them to Rome, where some of them settled in the area of Tuscany. These immigrants were called “Tusci” or “Etrusci” by the Romans, and ancient Tuscany was referred to as Etruria.

An Italian naturalist and writer (23 – 79 CE) named Pliny, records that Romans cultivated broccoli in the first century CE. Initially, Romans enjoyed the purple sprouting variety that took on a green colour when being cooked. Later, a variety called Calabrese was developed, and it is the most commonly used type even today in the United States. Broccoli has been considered to be a precious food by the Italians ever since the Roman Empire. In fact, it was initially introduced into the USA by Italian immigrants.

Health Benefits

Broccoli is a superhero of the veggie kingdom. This is due to the health benefits that are associated with the plant.  The high levels of potassium not only aid in optimal functioning of the human brain, but also keep the nervous system healthy and enhance the growth of muscles. The large quantity of soluble fibre in the vegetable is good at eliminating cholesterol from the body. Additionally, this same fibre also helps to keep a check on digestive issues and constipation, while giving the feeling of being fuller for longer periods of time, thus contributing to maintaining healthier levels of blood glucose.

Dr. Peter Hoagland and Dr. Philip Pfeffey, of the U.S Department of Agriculture, found in their research that broccoli contains the fibre called calcium pectate.  Calcium pectate attaches to bile acids thereby keeping more cholesterol in the liver and allowing less into the blood. They learned that broccoli is just as efficient at lowering cholesterol as some cholesterol medicines.1 The chromium found in broccoli may be useful at preventing the onset of diabetes in some adults. Dr. Richard Anderson of the US Department of Agriculture (an expert in diabetes) found chromium to boost insulin’s ability to function better.

Broccoli is also credited with detoxifying the body because of the beta carotenes, vitamin C, calcium phytochemicals, and the indoles and disothiocynates found within it. These enzymes further help to prevent heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer, in particular prostate, cervical and breast cancers. The Magnesium, calcium, and potassium found in broccoli, are thought to help regulate blood pressure.

Broccoli also contains certain components that can be harmful if caution is not practiced. For individuals on blood thinning medications, excessive amounts of broccoli is not advisable. This is because it may impede with the functioning of those medications and increase the risk of stroke. Consuming more than two cups of broccoli in one day may also enhance the chances of developing kidney stones.

Nutritional Value

Proper preparation of a vegetable is important in retaining the maximum nutritional value it has to offer. To get the best flavour and nutritional value out of broccoli, it is best to use it soon after purchase. Even when refrigerated a vegetable loses its flavour and a considerable amount of the vitamin value over time. Cooking veggies also impacts their ability to provide the right amounts of nutrients. For attaining the greatest nutritional value out of broccoli, it is best eaten raw.

After five minutes of boiling, broccoli loses 20 – 30% of its cancer fighting compounds like sulforaphane. Ten minutes of boiling and this goes up to 40 – 50%, and thirty minutes takes away as much as 77% of the anti-carcinogenic properties. Other cooking methods, like microwaving, steaming, or stir frying, do not have any substantial effect. Broccoli has an abundance of vitamins, and minerals. It contains vitamin B1, B2, B3, B6, C, iron, Folic acid, magnesium, potassium and zinc.  The dark green colour of the vegetable indicates its rich content of vitamin A.

One cup of cooked broccoli provides 71.8 mg of calcium, which is what one would get by drinking 4 oz. of milk. The same one cup delivers 116.4 mg of vitamin C, a quantity contained in one whole orange. This fulfils the daily adult requirement of vitamin C. One cup also provides 10% of the daily iron needs, while the vitamin C helps in the absorption of the iron. Additionally, it delivers 4 grams of protein yet only 44 calories. This combination of beneficial nutrients makes broccoli the ideal diet food. Usually, frozen broccoli contains roughly 35% more beta carotene compared to the fresh kind. This is simply due to the fact that most of this substance is found in the florets, and frozen packages are mostly florets. However, the stems contain extra calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin C. Putting it simply, the whole broccoli flower should be consumed to get the full benefit of all its nutrients.

How to Use

Wash broccoli with cold water and divide the florets into quarters so they cook evenly. Trim away and discard any woody parts of the stem and any hard leaves. Peel the remaining stem and cut into ½ inch slices. To gain all the unique health benefits, make sure you let the cut broccoli stand for several minutes before cooking.

To attain the maximum nourishment, cook broccoli in a temperature range of 212°F (100°C), with a cooking time of no more than five minutes. Since the stems are fibrous and take longer, they should be cooked apart for a few minutes, prior to adding the florets.

The best way to cook broccoli is to steam it. Just fill the bottom of a steamer with two inches of water and allow it to boil. Put the stems in first, and after two minutes add the florets for a maximum of five minutes. Remove and top with optional ingredients as desired, things like cheese, yoghurt, or a Mediterranean Dressing. Steaming preserves the flavonoids, B complex vitamins, and vitamin C, as well as caratenoids and glucosinolates in the vegetable.

Stir-frying broccoli is another cooking option. However, there is the risk of nutrient damage from the high oil heat. To stir fry broccoli, heat the pan to 248°-284°F (120°-140°C), for no longer than three to three and a half minutes. When cooked in this way, roughly two-thirds of the nutrients are retained. To retain greater nutritional value, the heat can be maintained at the lower end (approximately 250°F/121°C), and the frying time reduced to three minutes. This will help to retain more than two-thirds of the nutritional value.

Clinical Trials

1 Studies carried out by Nutrilite Health Institute to determine the effects cooking had on the beneficial compounds in broccoli, found that the glycosinolates in the plant are transformed into isothiocyanates (ITCs), which are associated with powerful antioxidant properties. Within a few hours of eating either fresh or steamed broccoli, ITCs were found in the blood of participating volunteers.

Research carried out at Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, discovered that the “sulforaphane” found in broccoli provides not one, but two ways to prevent cancer. While the actual studies were carried out to research the compounds effect on prostate cancer, researchers say the effect will most probably be the same on colon and breast cancers.

A laboratory study funded by Arthritis Research UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Diet, Health Research Industry Club (DRINC), and The Dunhill Medical Trust, found that sulforaphane in broccoli slowed down the damage to human cartilage in joints. Researchers claim that a diet rich in this compound can help with diseases like osteroarthritis.

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About Andy Williams

In a processed food culture, simply eating may not be enough. Dr. Andy Williams is a scientist with a strong interest in Juicing and how it can supply the body with the nutrients it needs to thrive in modern society. You can subscribe to his free daily paper called Juicing The Rainbow and follow him on Facebook orTwitter.

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