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'Super' broccoli: Are nutrients from food better than supplements?

'Super' broccoli: Are nutrients from food better than supplements?

Beneforté, a new kind of broccoli sold in the U.K., contains much more cancer-fighting nutrients than regular broccoli. But is "super" broccoli needed? A new study shows that supplements can boost absorption of the key nutrient, glucoraphanin, in regular broccoli.

Love it or hate it, good old broccoli has made worldwide headlines lately, with the launch of (fanfare, please) "super" broccoli in U.K. supermarket chain Marks and Spencer. Dubbed (with classic European panache) Beneforté, the hybrid strain contains up to three times the levels of the cancer-fighting nutrient glucoraphanin than run-of-the-mill broccoli strains.

Curious about what made broccoli such a healthy food, scientists at the U.K.’s Institute of Food Research and the John Innes Center eventually identified a type of wild broccoli that contained very high levels of glucoraphanin and set about creating a hybrid, lead researcher professor Richard Mithen told Conventional breeding techniques were used, he said, and the Institute still owns the intellectual property on Beneforté.

Broccoli is the only popular vegetable that contains significant amounts of this sought-after nutrient (crucifers cauliflower and cabbage also contain glucosinates), which research shows may help reduce chronic inflammation and stop uncontrolled cell division, important for combating heart disease and cancer, respectively.

What's next: 'Super' spinach and kale?

Beneforté is not currently making any label health claims, but aims to get a heart-health claim approved in future.

Then last week, more breaking broccoli news: In order to reap the full health benefits from eating regular broccoli, people need to eat the whole vegetable as opposed to supplements, according to a new study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

When eaten raw or lightly cooked, enzymes in broccoli help break down glucosinates into two beneficial compounds: sulforaphane and erucin. Because supplements lack these enzymes, the body absorbs five to eight times fewer healthy metabolites, said researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

Sounds like bad news for manufacturers of sulforaphane supplements, right? (And good news for Beneforté.)

Not so fast. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Illinois reported that combining supplements with super nutrient-dense broccoli sprouts may boost sulforaphane absorption. So perhaps there’s a synergistic solution: Have your broccoli and your supplements, too.

A researcher and doctor's take

Delicious Living’s medical editor, Robert Rountree, MD, has been doing some research with the Brassica Chemoprotection Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, the folks that originally discovered sulforaphane. Here’s his take:

Numerous published studies have shown that eating brassica vegetables can have a powerful effect in preventing chronic disease—especially cancer—an effect which is much more powerful than what is seen from consuming other classes of vegetables.

A compound called glucoraphanin that is unique to brassica is thought to be responsible for much of this benefit. When brassica vegetables are crushed or chewed, they release an enzyme called myrosinase that converts glucoraphanin—an inactive substance—into sulforaphane, which is the active compound that works in the body.

Broccoli sprouts are a very rich source of glucoraphanin; they also contain high levels of myrosinase. Broccoli seed extracts also contain high levels of glucoraphanin, but no myrosinase.
The assumption was that humans make sufficient quantities of myrosinase in the gut to convert all that glucoraphanin into sulforaphane. What these recent studies have shown (something we have also confirmed with our own research) is that myrosinase production is all over the map—some people make lots of it and others hardly make any. What this means is that some people greatly benefit from taking broccoli seed extracts and other people don’t benefit at all. The problem is that we have no way of predicting who is going to be a good myrosinase producer.

The other wrinkle: Most of the broccoli eaten around the world is thoroughly cooked, which destroys most of the myrosinase. But numerous studies show that people who eat a lot of broccoli have less cancer. We know people are benefitting from eating cooked broccoli, so they must be making a fair amount of myrosinase in their guts.

So why not just eat broccoli?

Because the epidemiologic studies indicate that you would need to eat 1.5 pounds of minimally cooked (or raw) broccoli (or other brassica vegetables) every day for years to get the full benefit.

What about broccoli sprouts?

These could be a better choice, but you would have to eat 4-8 ounces daily, which is an expensive proposition. On top of that, the public health authorities are now saying that there is no way to effectively ensure that sprouts will be free of bacterial contamination, even if all the proper growing procedures are followed.

The bottom line

For maximun benefits, always consume a serving of brassica vegetables (for the myrosinase) in combination with the broccoli seed extract, Rountree says. In effect, this is like consuming Beneforté’s "super" broccoli, which effectively triples the amount of the active sulforaphane that gets into the bloodstream. Finally, stay tuned, he says—lots more broccoli data to come.

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