Brussels Sprouts (Brassica oleracea, variety gemmifera)


Introduction to Brussels Sprouts

Botanically brussel sprouts, scientific name Brassica oleracea (variety gemmifera), belong to the Brassica family. This family contains a large number of vegetables we eat, including cabbage, horseradish, broccoli, turnips, mustard, cauliflower and kale to name a few.

The sprouts are actually leaves that have been customized. The clusters of leaves superimpose over each other tightly and give a ball like shape, with the net result of green buds looking like minute cabbages. Rows of sprouts develop along each long stem of the plant. Initially they start as bumps at the base of the stalk and move upwards. To get sprouts that are of uniform structure, it is customary to cut off the tip of the stalk as soon as sprouts begin developing at the stalk bottom. The size of the vegetable varies from half an inch to two inches in diameter. The plant has a fairly long growing season with the fall harvest being more abundant and flavorful.

History of Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts have been cultivated for over 2,500 years, growing during the winter months and providing highly nutritive food during the colder winters of thousands of years ago. It is believed that the original vegetable that Brassica oleracea belongs to, grew wild along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Many different types of vegetables have been developed through selective breeding of advantageous characteristics. These include collard, with extra large leaves, kale with curled leaves, cabbage the terminal bud, Brussels sprouts with large leaves folded into a tight mass and kohlrabi with enlarged stems. Broccoli and cauliflower are actually overly grown flowers.

While the Brussels sprouts cultivar’s (specifically bred rather than wild) is not known exactly, the French are credited with coining the term in the 18th century. During those times it was common to put a landmark label on the food, regardless of whether they were developed in Brussels, Belgium or not. There is documentation of Brussels sprouts in the location of present day Brussels dating as far back as 13th century, hence the name.

Brussels sprouts continued to exist as a local crop until their spread throughout Europe during World War I. They were initially introduced to America in the 1800s by the French. Today nearly the entire Brussels sprout crop grown in the U.S is from California and nearly all of it ends up as frozen products. As luck would have it, despite the fact that the roots of Brussels sprouts lie in Belgium, it is the Netherlands that are Europe’s key producer of the vegetable.

Health Benefits of Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are a hugely nutritious vegetable that offer protection against a large number of modern day ailments. When steam boiled, they provide some unique cholesterol-reducing benefits. The fibrous components found in the veggie bind better with bile acids in the digestive tract when cooked in this way. This makes it easier to remove them from the body with the net result that cholesterol is lowered.

Brussels sprouts have an exclusive ability of protecting DNA. Upon regular consumption of the vegetable, certain constituents in the sprouts block sulphotransferase enzymes. This in turn improves the stability of DNA in white blood cells. Brussels sprouts are a rich source of glucosinolates, important phytonutrients known to be the chemical initiators of many cancer-protective materials. For example the glucoside, sinigrin destroys pre-cancerous cells in the colon. The Zea-xanthin is an important carotenoid absorbed by selection into the eyes, where it provides light-filtering duties of UV rays and prevent retinal destruction as well as age related macular degeneration in the elderly. Additionally, Brussels sprouts supply these nutrients, unlike some other cruciferous vegetables, without endangering the thyroid gland.

The Di-indolyl-methane in Brussels sprouts is a successful anti-bacterial and anti-viral substance. Together the antioxidant vitamins C, A and E eliminate the body of harmful free radicals. Vitamin K plays an important role in maintaining bone health and aid in minimizing neuron damage which delays the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Consumption of Brussels sprouts also delivers a number of important minerals. Potassium is needed in cells and body fluids to control heart rate and blood pressure, manganese is a co-factor needed for antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase while iron is needed for cellular oxidation and generation of red blood cells.

Nutritional Value of Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts have many good points. To start with they are low in calories and sodium, totally free from cholesterol and very high in dietary fiber. In the mineral department they are very high in manganese and potassium and high in iron, magnesium and phosphorus. In the vitamin department they are very high in vitamins A, B6, C and thiamin, and high in riboflavin. They also provide some thiamine, folate, niacin and riboflavin. Finally, Brussels sprouts are rich in a number of important phytonutrients.

A one hundred gram serving of the veggie provides only 43 calories, and 15% of the daily recommended allowance of fiber, 15% vitamin A, 142% vitamin C, 4% vitamin E, 221% vitamin K, 15% folate, 11% vitamin B6, 9% thiamin. Brussels sprouts are a potent source of some vital minerals. They supply 8% of the daily iron needs, 11% of potassium, 7% phosphorus, 6% magnesium, and 17% manganese.

Uses of Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are a traditional winter food in UK, usually consumed boiled especially at Christmas time. However, there are numerous other ways of using them. They may be oven roasted, stir-fried, steamed or made into a soup.

To prepare the sprouts they should be washed and the base with any portion of stem removed. Next remove any leaves that become lose due to the cutting of the base and discard. A lot of people cut a cross into the stem when boiling or steaming to speed up the cooking process by allowing the penetration of heat to the middle of the veggie, but I prefer to cut the sprout in half. Excessive cooking the sprouts can lead to the release of sulfur compounds in the vegetable, which makes them release an unpleasant odour reminiscent of school dinners. Blanching the sprouts in boiling water for five minutes and cooling before addition to recipes will eliminate this problem.

Quick Serving Ideas

  • Microwaving and lightly topping with butter and seasoning with herbs.
  • Roasting and salting. A favorite snack in Europe.
  • Blanching and combining with other vegetables like green beans, mushrooms or carrots.
  • Use as a side dish with roasts or chicken casseroles.

Roasting Technique

After preparing according to the above instructions, place the sprouts in a large bowl. Lightly drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle to taste with coarse salt, and freshly ground pepper. Thoroughly toss the sprouts so all of them are properly coated. Layer them individually on a cookie sheet and allow them to roast in an oven preheated at 425°F (220°C) for approximately 20 minutes. When half cooked, the sprouts should be turned once and then allowed to finish cooking.

Sprouts in Salad

Steam Brussels sprouts and put aside (you can put them in ice water to help preserve shape and colour, and stop them from over-cooking in their own heat). In a bowl slice red onions, toss in mild cheese of choice (feta or goat cheese are good), walnuts and the sprouts. Add balsamic vinegar and olive oil and toss to allow all flavors to blend. Enjoy as a side dish or on its own as a great tasting salad.

Clinical Trials

The Beta-carotene, sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol, 3,3’- diindolylmethane and a number of other glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts have been found to suppress the progression of cancer in human breast cells3. Furthermore they have exhibited the effect of chemotherapy drug Taxol, while the kaempferol in the sprouts might offer protection against cardiotoxicity1, 2.

A number of clinical studies have shown Brussels sprouts to be beneficial in conditions like gastric ulcers, cardiac conditions, asthma, morning sickness and Helicobacter pylori infection. In addition it is believed that sprouts may help against conditions like macular degeneration, lung, stomach and prostate cancer. The sprouts also show some promise as antacids, and mild laxatives. Being anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral, the sprouts are also beneficial against many skin disorders. Lastly applications of brassica leaf extracts have helped relieve swelling in lactating women.

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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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