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Broccoli and Cancer Prevention

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Photo: Broccoli split

I’ve heard that broccoli has some anti-cancer properties. Hard to belief, I know, but apparently there is some truth to that. This is what I’ve found during my research:

Origins and Historical use
Folk Medicine
Culinary uses
Health benefits
Negative effects / allergies

Origins and Historical use

Broccoli is native to the Mediterranean and was originally eaten for its stems, and later bred to have large, delicious flowers. Indications point to the vegetable’s being known 2,000 years ago. Broccoli’s name comes from the Italian “brocco,” meaning “sprout” or “shoot,” which comes from the Latin, “brachium,” meaning “arm” or “branch”. Since the Roman Empire, broccoli has been considered a uniquely valuable food among Italians. The Roman natural history writer Pliny the Elder (1st century A.D) wrote about a vegetable that fits the description of broccoli and some vegetable scholars recognize broccoli in the cookbook of Apicius. Apicius, the beloved cookbook author of ancient Rome, prepared broccoli by first boiling it and then bruising it “with a mixture of cumin and coriander seeds, chopped onion plus a few drops of oil and sun-made wine”.

Purple sprouting broccoli is the original ancestor and was used throughout Europe until the green Italian variety swept the continent. The purple does turn green when cooked. Early forms were highly prized by the Romans. Broccoli spread to northern Europe and arrived in England in the 18th century. It was called “sprout colli-flower” and “Italian asparagus” by the English. Green broccoli was first mentioned in North American literature in 1806, but was certainly cultivated long before that. It is thought that early Italian settlers introduced it to the New York and Boston area. Technically, the word “broccoli” exists only in America. In Italy, the word means “little sprouts” and has been used for centuries to describe, among other things, sprouts on cabbages and cauliflowers left in the field.

Folk Medicine

Broccoli was known for its medicinal properties as far back as ancient Rome. Romans used broccoli leaves to treat wounds and ulcerations, and they ate raw broccoli before banquets to help their bodies absorb wine better. The leaves can be used as a poultice to cleanse infected wounds – the mid-rib is removed and the leaf ironed then placed on the affected area whilst still hot. The poultice should not be left on too long or it an cause blisters.The seeds are anthelmintic, diuretic, laxative and stomachic.

Broccoli was used as a laxative in the 16th century in Italy, and its juice, mixed with honey, was used to treat coughs. In the 17th century, broccoli soup was a remedy for all respiratory ailments, and 19th century Italian medical texts recommended that broccoli be used to treat colds, pleurisy, gout and rheumatism. Broccoli was used in the treatment of children’s infections like respiratory infections, measles, and gastroenteritis. Broccoli was also used in the treatment of eye inflammations and near-sightedness, and being a good source of iron and beta carotene it was used to prevent anaemia.

Broccoli combined with milk thistle (Silybum marianum) was given in cases of mushroom poisoning. It was also used as a natural detox, and as a digestive support. Modern Italian folk medicine treatment for asthma and bronchitis is to drink a cup of juice from cooked and filtered broccoli leaves, sweetened with honey, twice a day. Broccoli is rich in sodium, potassium, magnesium, vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and stimulates the production of haemoglobin.

Culinary uses

Long before the modern European cooks were serving broccoli with rich sauces, the Romans were presenting this vegetable with all sorts of creamy sauces, some cooked with wine, others flavored with herbs. Broccoli is a cool-weather crop that does poorly in hot summer weather. The flower clusters and stalk are usually boiled or steamed, but they may be eaten raw and broccoli has become popular as a raw vegetable in hors-d’oeuvre trays, called crudités.

Boiling reduces the levels of suspected anti-cancer compounds in broccoli, with losses of 20 – 30% after 5 minutes, 40 – 50% after 10 minutes, and 77% after 30 minutes. Other preparation methods like steaming, microwaving, and stir frying had no significant effect on the compounds. Steaming broccoli for 3–4 minutes is recommended to maximize potential anti-cancer compounds, such as sulforaphane. The flower clusters are eaten before the flower buds open. Broccoli is an important ingredient of many cuisines, especially Italian and Chinese, and is used in a variety of ways – raw (in salads), steamed, stir fried, and even in sauces and soups.

Health benefits

Broccoli packs more nutrients than any other vegetable. ome of the nutrients found in broccoli include vitamins C, K, A, B1-3, B5-6, E, Zinc, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Manganese, Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Phosphorus, Tryptophan, Folate, Protein and Dietary Fiber among others. Broccoli contains large amounts of vitamin C and beta carotene which are important antioxidants. Broccoli contains twice the vitamin C of an orange. Broccoli also has as much calcium as milk; this is a good source of nutrition for those with osteoporosis or calcium deficiencies. Broccoli contains selenium, a mineral that has been found to have anti-cancer and anti-viral properties. Broccoli is a modest source of vitamin A and alpha-tocopherol vitamin E. Broccoli is rich in cholesterol-reducing fiber and has anti-viral and anti-ulcer activity. Broccoli also fights anemia, and lessens the risk of spina bifida.

One of the richest sources of iron in the vegetable world, broccoli has probably attracted more attention than any other vegetable regarding its potential anticancer properties. Because of its high levels of vitamin C, beta carotene, and fiber, broccoli is a powerful antioxidant that helps to prevent damage to cells caused by free radicals, believed to be a factor in cancers, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, arthritis, and in the aging process itself. The high fiber content of broccoli is also of benefit in cases of diabetes. Because of its impressive nutritional profile that includes beta carotene, vitamin C, calcium, fiber, and phytochemicals, specifically indoles and aromatic isothiocynates, broccoli and its kin may be responsible for boosting certain enzymes that help to detoxify the body. It is a super source of chromium that helps regulate insulin and blood sugar.  This may be effective in preventing adult-onset diabetes in some people.

Broccoli also helps sun-samaged skin, helps in significantly reducing heart disease risk, and helps in cataract prevention. Broccoli can help boost the immune system, build stronger bones and is useful during pregnancy with 1 cup of brocolli offering 94 mcg of folic acid. Folic acid deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency in the world.


More than 300 research studies on broccoli have converged in one unique area of health science – the development of cancer, and its relationship to three metabolic problems in the body. Those three problems are (1) chronic inflammation (2) oxidative stress, and (3) inadequate detoxification. While these types of problems have yet to become part of the public health spotlight, they are essential to understanding broccoli’s unique health benefits.

Broccoli and cancer prevention: The unique combination of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and pro-detoxification components in broccoli make it a unique food in terms of cancer prevention. Connections between cancer development and oxidative stress, chronic inflammation, and inadequate detoxification are so well-documented in the research that any food improving all three of these metabolic problems would be highly likely to lower risk of cancer. In the case of broccoli, the research is strongest in showing decreased risk of prostate cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer, and ovarian cancer. Hundreds of research studies occur every year on the cancer preventive potential of plant nutrients. The cancer preventive property of cruciferous vegetables and SGS is the subject of over 700 research studies to date. The table here is a representation of the epidemiological evidence of cancer prevention by cruciferous vegetables.

Sulforaphane: The phytonutrients, sulforaphane and the indoles, contained in broccoli have significant anti-cancer effects. in 1992, a team of Johns Hopkins University scientists isolated a cancer fighting phytochemical in broccoli called glucoraphanin, which is the glucosinolate precursor8 of sulforaphane (sulforaphane glucosinolate or SGS). When chewed, broccoli releases glucoraphanin and myrosinase, an enzyme found in another part of the plant cell, which work together to produce sulforaphane, which, in turn, stimulates the body’s immune system to deactivate free radicals. In 1997, it was discovered that SGS is in higher concentrations in 3 – 4 day old broccoli sprouts. The highest concentration of sulforaphane is found in the seed. Since sprouts are consumed with the seed still attached, it stands to reason that the sulforaphane content is high. Freshly germinated Broccoli sprouts is estimated to contain 30-50 times the concentration of sulforaphane as mature broccoli. Researchers estimate that broccoli sprouts contain 10-100 times the power of mature broccoli to boost enzymes that detoxify potential carcinogens. This discovery was written about in the New York Times, and created a global shortage of broccoli seed that could not meet the sudden high demand.

Sulforaphane has anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties, and is a potent inducer of protective phase-2 enzymes that provide defense against cancer-causing chemicals. These detoxification enzymes trigger ongoing antioxidant action for at least 72 hours. As a result, the indirect antioxidant activity of sulforaphane lasts significantly longer than that of direct antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and beta carotene. Sulforaphane2,3, along with other cancer-protective isothiocyanates, does not induce damaging phase-1 enzymes. Besides protecting against the risk of cancer occuring, sulforaphane appears to reduce6 the severity of cancers that do occur. It works against prostate cancer5, breast cancer4,9, oral cancer1, multiple myeloma, lung cancer, colon cancer7, and even cancers of the organs like liver cancer. It speeds up the removal of estrogen from the body, helping suppress breast cancer. In diabetic patients, sulforaphane activates the Nrf2 protein, which protects cells and tissues from damage by stimulating the phase-2 enzymes, which detoxify ROS molecules. Sulforaphane reduced Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) molecules by 74%, thus reducing damage to blood vessel cells by hyperglycemia. High glucose levels can cause a threefold increase in ROS levels, which can damage human cells. These results16 suggest that sulforaphane from broccoli may help reverse the damaging effects of diabetes-linked vascular disease.

Research has shown that the compound (indole-3-carbinol)10,11 helps deactivate a potent estrogen metabolite that promotes tumor growth, especially in estrogen-sensitive breast cells, while at the same time increasing the level of 2-hydroxyestrone, a form of estrogen that can be cancer-protective. Indole-3 carbinol has been shown also to suppress not only breast tumor cell growth, but also cancer cell metastasis (the movement of cancerous cells to other parts of the body).

Broccoli and cardiovascular support: Although research in this area is still in the early stages, anti-inflammatory substances found in cruciferous vegetables are becoming the topic of increasing interest with respect to heart disease12. One particular focus here involves the anti-inflammatory properties of sulforaphane. In some individuals susceptible to high blood sugar, sulforaphane may be able to prevent (or even reverse) some of the damage to blood vessel linings that can be cause by chronic blood sugar problems. Decreased risk of heart attacks and strokes may also eventually be linked in a statistically significant way to intake of broccoli and its glucoraphanin.

Another focus area on broccoli for cardiovascular support involves its cholesterol-lowering13 ability. In a pilot study14, researchers at Tokyo University of Agriculture & Technology and The Japan Institute for the Control of Aging found that individuals who ate 3½ ounces of broccoli sprouts a day for just one week showed decreased overall levels of cholesterol, while increasing HDL or good cholesterol.

Broccoli and Hypertension: In laboratory studies15 with animals that are bred to have high blood pressure, Dr. Bernhard Juurlink at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, found that sulforaphane-induced Phase-2 enzymes from broccoli sprouts improved cardiovascular health by decreasing inflammation and improving heart, artery and kidney function.

Eye Health: Two carotenoids found in significant concentrations in broccoli, lutein and zeaxanthin, play an especially important role in the health of the eye. The outer portion of the retina (peripheral retina) has high concentration of lutein, while the macula near the central portion of the retina, is concentrated with zeaxanthin. Risk of problems involving the macula (macular degeneration) and problems involving the lens area of the eye (cataracts) have both been show to lessen with intake of broccoli that provide significant amounts of the lutein and zeaxanthin carotenonids.

Skin Health: The glucoraphanin found in broccoli, converted into sulforaphane, has received the most research attention. Since skin cells can carry out the process of detoxification, it may be detox-related benefits of sulforaphane that is especially important in helping to counteract sun damage.

Negative effects / allergies

Broccoli is safe in the small amounts found in a normal diet. When applied to the skin, broccoli can cause an allergic rash in hypersensitive people. According to Amercian Cancer Society reports, consuming high-fiber broccoli sprouts may irritate your digestive tract causing gassiness. So people who have intestinal problems or diarrhea should avoid eating high-fiber foods, such as broccoli sprouts, as consumption of these food products may exacerbate such medical conditions.

Enlarged thyroid gland: Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, contain goitrin, thiocyanate, and isothiocyanate, chemical compounds that inhibit the formation of thyroid hormones and cause the thyroid to enlarge in an attempt to produce more. These chemicals, known collectively as goitrogens, are not hazardous for healthy people who eat moderate amounts of cruciferous vegetables, but they may pose problems for people who have thyroid problems or are taking thyroid medication.

False-positive test for occult blood in the stool: The guiac slide test for hidden blood in feces relies on alphaguaiaconic acid, a chemical that turns blue in the presence of blood. Broccoli contains peroxidase, a natural chemical that also turns alphaguaiaconic acid blue and may produce a positive test in people who do not actually have blood in the stool.

Special precautions and warnings: Broccoli may interfere with your blood-thinning medications, putting you at greater risk for stroke. Broccoli can cause hyperoxaluria – increased urinary excretion of oxalate caused by excessive intake of oxalate-containing foods (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc.) resulting in kidney stones. Increased use or use of broccoli extracts and supplements should only be done after proper consultatation during pregnancy and breast-feeding.


  1. Jee HG, Lee KE, Kim JB, Shin HK, Youn YK. Sulforaphane Inhibits Oral Carcinoma Cell Migration and Invasion In Vitro. Phytother Res. 2011 Mar 17. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3397.
  2. Tomczyk J, Olejnik A. Sulforaphane–a possible agent in prevention and therapy of cancer. Postepy Hig Med Dosw (Online). 2010 Nov 29;64:590-603.
  3. Guerrero-Beltrán CE, Calderón-Oliver M, Pedraza-Chaverri J, Chirino YI. Protective effect of sulforaphane against oxidative stress: Recent advances. Exp Toxicol Pathol. 2010 Dec 1.
  4. Li Y, Zhang T, Korkaya H, et. al. Sulforaphane, a dietary component of broccoli/broccoli sprouts, inhibits breast cancer stem cells. Clin Cancer Res. 2010 May 1;16(9):2580-90.
  5. Hahm ER, Singh SV. Sulforaphane inhibits constitutive and interleukin-6-induced activation of signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 in prostate cancer cells. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2010 Apr;3(4):484-94.
  6. Ho E, Clarke JD, Dashwood RH. Dietary sulforaphane, a histone deacetylase inhibitor for cancer prevention. J Nutr. 2009 Dec;139(12):2393-6.
  7. Nishikawa T, Tsuno NH, et. al. Inhibition of autophagy potentiates sulforaphane-induced apoptosis in human colon cancer cells. Ann Surg Oncol. 2010 Feb;17(2):592-602.
  8. Perocco P, Bronzetti G, et. al. Glucoraphanin, the bioprecursor of the widely extolled chemopreventive agent sulforaphane found in broccoli, induces phase-I xenobiotic metabolizing enzymes and increases free radical generation in rat liver. Mutat Res. 2006 Mar 20;595(1-2):125-36.
  9. Cornblatt BS, Ye L, et. al. Preclinical and clinical evaluation of sulforaphane for chemoprevention in the breast. Carcinogenesis. 2007 Jul;28(7):1485-90.
  10. Wu Y, Feng X, Jin Y, et. al. A novel mechanism of indole-3-carbinol effects on breast carcinogenesis involves induction of Cdc25A degradation. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2010 Jul;3(7):818-28.
  11. Ping J, Li JT, et. al. Indole-3-carbinol inhibits hepatic stellate cells proliferation by blocking NADPH oxidase/reactive oxygen species/p38 MAPK pathway. Eur J Pharmacol. 2011 Jan 15;650(2-3):656-62.
  12. Akhlaghi M, Bandy B. Dietary broccoli sprouts protect against myocardial oxidative damage and cell death during ischemia-reperfusion. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2010 Sep;65(3):193-9.
  13. Rodríguez-Cantú LN, Gutiérrez-Uribe JA, et. al. Broccoli ( Brassica oleracea var. italica) sprouts and extracts rich in glucosinolates and isothiocyanates affect cholesterol metabolism and genes involved in lipid homeostasis in hamsters. J Agric Food Chem. 2011 Feb 23;59(4):1095-103.
  14. Murashima M, Watanabe S, Zhuo XG, et. al. Phase 1 study of multiple biomarkers for metabolism and oxidative stress after one-week intake of broccoli sprouts. Biofactors. 2004;22(1-4):271-5.
  15. Juurlink BH, Paterson PG, et. al. Dietary approach to attenuate oxidative stress, hypertension, and inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 May 4;101(18):7094-9.
  16. Xue M, Qian Q, Adaikalakoteswari A, Rabbani N, Babaei-Jadidi R, Thornalley PJ.  Activation of NF-E2-related factor-2 reverses biochemical dysfunction of endothelial cells induced by hyperglycemia linked to vascular disease. Diabetes. 2008 Oct;57(10):2809-17.

Epidemiological Evidence of Cancer Prevention by Cruciferous Vegetables

Site of Cancer Amount of Crucifers Eaten RR – relative risk OR – odds ratio (P value) Reference
Bladder >5 servings/week RR 0.49 (0.008) Michaud et al. (1999)
Lymphoma >5 servings/week RR 0.67 (0.03) Zhang et al. (2000)
Prostate 5 servings/week OR 0.61 (0.006) Kolonel et al. (2000)
Prostate >3 servings/week OR 0.50 (0.02) Cohen et al. (2000)
Colon (men) Top 20% RR 0.76 (0.011) Voorips et al. (2000)
Colon (women) Top 20% RR 0.51 (0.004) Voorips et al. (2000)
Breast Top 25% OR 0.05 (0.01) Fowke et al. (2003)
Kidney Top 25% OR 0.53 (0.001) Yuan et al. (1998)

Source: E.H. Jeffrey, Phytochemical Review, 2008