For most people, Christmas dinner isn’t complete without a side helping of Brussels sprouts. Indeed, they are Britain’s favorite Christmas dinner vegetable. But if you’re not a convert, maybe these health benefits will convince you to give them a second chance.
Sprouts belong to the healthy cruciferous or brassica family of vegetables, which includes cabbage, kale and broccoli. Like all brassicas, Brussels sprouts are packed with fiber, which is good for keeping the beneficial bacteria in your gut happy.
They also provide important minerals, such as potassium and calcium, to keep your muscles and bones healthy. They are rich in vitamins K and C, supporting the immune system and healthy bones.
Pound for pound, you’ll get more vitamin C from them when eaten raw than from oranges. Cooked Brussels sprouts still contain vitamin C, though – about the same pound for pound as you get from orange juice and raw oranges.
The more bitter, the better
Most importantly, Brussels sprouts are rich in a variety of natural chemicals, such as carotenoids and polyphenols, which are associated with good health. It is especially abundant in sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates.
Think back to the last time you cooked Brussels sprouts, cabbage or cauliflower. Have you ever stopped and wondered what that pungent smell is? It is a sulfur compound in the broken shoots. They are also what give Brussels sprouts their characteristic bitter taste. So to fill you with these beneficial chemicals, the more bitter, the better.
So you might be wondering why this chemical is so special. Several scientific studies have shown that this sulfur compound is a powerful antioxidant that can promote health by preventing cell damage.
Some studies also show that consuming more of these glucosinolates from cruciferous vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale and cabbage, is associated with a reduced risk of developing various types of cancer. Research continues to accumulate more evidence of its benefits, but the best advice to keep in mind is to try to consume about five portions of brassica vegetables per week and vary the choices.
Bitter sulfur compounds are part of Brussels sprouts’ sophisticated defense system, known as mustard oil bombs, which repel insects from biting them but attract insects that allow pollination.
And because plants are smart, about 200 different glucosinolates exist in brassica vegetables, and each of these vegetables has a different combination, giving them their characteristic flavor. This is why the following vegetables, which belong to the brassica family, have different tastes: broccoli, cabbage, kale, swede, wasabi, horseradish, radish, rocket, watercress, cauliflower and mustard.
How to cook it
For convenience, Brussels sprouts are often boiled. But if you boil it too long, not only will it lose its nutritional value (some of the glucosinolates will be destroyed by the heat and disappear into the water), but it will also give the bean sprouts an unpleasant smell and taste.
So what are the other options?
You can simply fry the bean sprouts in a pan with a little olive oil or butter and some garlic and herbs. The alternative is to steam it or use a microwave. But make sure they keep their problems.
Or why not try being adventurous and trying something new by making them raw, cut into small pieces, and adding sprouts to a salad?
Next time you pass the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket, don’t forget to try Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Brassicas like Brussels sprouts are for life — not just for Christmas.
Federico Bernuzzi, Research Scientist, Quadram Institute and Maria Traka, Head of Research, Personalized Nutrition and Gut Microbiome, Quadram Institute
This article is reproduced from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.