• Dr. Timothy Smith

Your Broccoli Is Really a Cabbage

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

The next time you walk through the produce section at the grocery store, look closely at the broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. It may not seem possible at first glance, but they, in fact, all come from the same plant. The primary plant called cabbage has the scientific name written in Latin as Brassica oleracea. Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, red cabbage, and green cabbage all come from the same wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) native to southern and western Europe. Botanists (scientists who study plants) refer to the different types or variations of cabbage as cultivars. Cultivars refer to plants that share the same species but have been selectively bred to bring out various features. For example, brussels sprouts look like tiny cabbages because they share the same tightly wrapped leaves, forming a ball, or head, as the cabbage with no visible flower structure, but the cabbage produces one head while the brussels sprout produces a stalk with many little heads. In comparison, the flower part of the cabbage appears in an exaggerated form in broccoli and cauliflower with broccoli exhibiting edible stems with flower buds on the end and cauliflower as a large white flower structure. Moreover, kale and collard greens represent a lose-leaf form of cabbage. In other words, for plants, the word cultivar indicates plants that look different but share the same genetic material. An excellent analogy to cultivars in animals would be breeds of the same species. The domestic dog with the scientific species name of Canis familiaris has many breeds. The Great Dane and Chihuahua, although very different in size and temperament, remain dogs and share the same genetic material. Selective breeding of dogs has chosen traits such as size, color, and personality to produce a remarkable variety of dogs. In the same fashion, the cultivation of cabbage began thousands of years ago and resulted in over 400 different varieties of cabbage today.

Cabbage and all its cultivars today garner the title of super food because of the many health benefits associated with the nutrients found in them. The ancient Greeks such as the philosopher Pythagoras (570-495 BC) mentioned cabbage and noted its health benefits. All the cabbage cultivars contain high levels of vitamin C. In fact, Captain James Cooke, the famous eighteenth century British explorer who made the first European contact with the Hawaiian Islands, credited the success of his missions to the health-sustaining quality of cabbage. Cabbage also contains some less commonly mentioned nutrients than vitamin C. Researchers have determined that cabbage includes chemicals called glucosinolates. Cells in the body convert glucosinolates through chemical reactions into chemicals called isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates have been shown to protect the body from cancer, and research has demonstrated that a regular diet of cabbage and its cultivars protect against certain types of cancer, including lung, prostate, breast and colorectal cancers. (National Cancer Institute), Interestingly, cabbage also contains a nutrient called Indole-3-carbinol that the body converts to diindolylmethane, or DIM. DIM acts to help the body rid itself of bad chemicals that would otherwise encourage certain types of cancer to grow. Moreover, DIM has been shown to protect the body against radiation by stimulating the body’s ability to repair DNA damaged by radiation. (PNAS, 2013)

A wide variety of vegetables available at the supermarket from broccoli and kale to brussels sprouts and cauliflower may look and taste entirely different from each other, but in fact, they all come from the same plant—cabbage. Farmers have cultivated cabbage for thousands of years and over that time have developed many different cultivars or varieties that we see today. The different cultivars accentuated specific attributes such as the florets in broccoli or the little tightly wrapped leaves of the brussels sprout. The variety of cultivars provide different flavors and textures that make them popular in many different cuisines. However, cabbage and its cultivars not only make for great food but have remarkable health qualities. Cabbage contains vitamin C as well as some potent anti-cancer chemicals such as isothiocyanates and DIM. Such chemicals have been shown to be anti-cancer through many scientific studies. So, the next time that you have cabbage or any of its cultivars, remember it does not just taste good. It really is good for you.