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As a member of the Brassicaceae family,1 cauliflower is related to broccoli, cabbage, turnips and rutabaga.2 Plants in this family may be annuals, biennials or perennials. In the most common form, cauliflower is white. However, it's a versatile vegetable that also comes in green, purple and orange varieties.3
White cauliflower will turn yellow when exposed to the sun, so farmers sometimes use the large outer leaves to cover the plant. The purple variety is called Sicilian Violet, Graffiti or Violet Queen. Anthocyanin is the phytochemical responsible for the beautiful purple color. This phytochemical is also responsible for the red or purple color in berries.4
The orange varieties are called Cheddar or Orange Bouquet Cauliflower. They’re formed by a genetic mutation and hold more beta-carotene in the plant. Green cauliflower is a hybrid of cauliflower and broccoli. While the green variety has more beta carotene than the white variety, broccoli contains more than either.5
So, with a variety of color choices for cauliflower, you aren’t limited to just white on your menu. But, as you consider your choices, which has more health benefits, better flavor and is easiest to grow?
Health Benefits of Cauliflower
On the whole, cauliflower packs a punch for your health. In one evaluation by the CDC,6 researchers defined what might constitute a powerhouse fruit and vegetable, in other words, foods strongly associated with a reduction in disease.
They considered 47 foods and chose 41 nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables to propose a classification system for education and dietary guidance. They gave each a nutrient density score associated with nutrients protective against chronic disease.
The scores were capped at 100, but because it wasn’t possible to include all data on phytonutrients, the researchers wrote the scores “do not reflect all of the constituents” related to health benefits.7
The median score for this powerhouse list was 32.23, with cauliflower ranking 24th out of 41 with a score of 25.13. To put this in perspective, scientists estimate there are more than 300,000 edible plants, of which we eat approximately 200.8
Specifically, 1 cup of cooked white cauliflower contains 73% of your daily value of vitamin C, 19% of vitamin K and 14% of folate.9 In addition, it’s also a good source of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and phosphorus, as well as dietary fiber. As a raw vegetable it has a low estimated glycemic load of 2 on a scale of zero to 250.10
As a powerhouse vegetable, cauliflower has been at the center of several research studies to identify how consuming it affects your health, and how to best retain the antioxidant levels. Some of the more prominent findings include:
- Boosting antioxidant levels — Cauliflower is noted for its high antioxidant activity. However, if you choose to cook it, be sure to stir-fry it if you want to make the most of the nutrients.11
- Eliminating harmful bacteria in the gut — A 2017 study notes brassica vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower may help eliminate sulphate-reducing bacteria, which may help boost gut health.12
- Protecting cognitive health — In research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, it’s noted that cauliflower may have neuroprotective properties thanks to its sulforaphane content.13
Purple Cauliflower Offers Additional Benefits
While white cauliflower has many health benefits, the purple variety has one flavonoid not found in others — anthocyanins. This water-soluble compound belongs to the family of flavonoids. Major sources of anthocyanins include purple grapes, cherries, strawberries and blueberries.14
In the past, the pigments have been used as a natural food coloring and are now being considered as potential pharmaceutical ingredients for their health benefits.15 Studies in cell culture, animal models and clinical trials demonstrate the antioxidant capacity of the antimicrobial activities of anthocyanin.
These properties have been shown to help neuronal diseases, cardiovascular disease and cancer. They also have an impact on diabetes and inflammation.16 Scientists have identified a variety of effects anthocyanins have on platelets, blood vessels and lipoproteins.17 Peer-reviewed studies have published data noting in vitro activity regulating pathways involved in cardiovascular disease development.18
Human Interventional studies have demonstrated improvements in lipid peroxidation, dyslipidemia and total plasma antioxidant capacity.19 In one meta-analysis of 19 studies, researchers found that those who had the highest level of anthocyanin consumption were 9% less likely to have heart disease and 8% less likely to succumb to health conditions associated with it.20
Researchers have also noted the potential antitumor effects of anthocyanin and its ability to inhibit proliferation by changing signal pathways and stimulating apoptosis.21,22 Pharmaceutical companies are also interested in taking advantage of the anticancer properties of anthocyanins.
Researchers from the Department of Pharmacy at the Himalayan Institute of Pharmacy and research write that new anticancer agents may be developed using anthocyanins as a basic structure.23
Researchers are looking into the use of anthocyanins for their neuroprotective capacity to mitigate the oxidative stress that leads to neurodegeneration. In cell studies, anthocyanin has been shown to have both neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties; this indicates it may address neurodegeneration.24,25,26
Cancer Researchers Interested in Cauliflower Glucosinolates
The various types of cauliflower are classified as cruciferous vegetables which contain a group of compounds known as glucosinolates. As you are preparing, chewing and digesting cauliflower, this compound breaks down and forms other biological compounds such as thiocyanate, isothiocyanates and indoles. Indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane are two of the most frequently analyzed compounds for the effects they have on cancer cells.27
In several animal studies researchers found these two compounds were able to stop the development of cancer cells in the bladder, colon, stomach and liver. In studies done on cells in the lab, scientists have identified some of the ways they may help prevent the formation of cancer, including:28
- Protecting cells from DNA damage
- Inactivating carcinogens
- Having antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects
- Initiating apoptosis
- Inhibiting angiogenesis and tumor cell migration
Scientists believe the presence of glucosinolates in vegetables in the Brassica family is so important that there are those who are investigating breeding programs to potentially increase the bioavailability of isothiocyanates and other functional glucosinolates.29 Bioavailability of the compounds is affected by preparation of the vegetable.30
After eating, the compounds may be partially absorbed through your stomach mucosa but the majority are metabolized in your gut. When eaten raw, the plant contains an enzyme called myrosinase, which is used to hydrolyze the glucosinolate in the upper part of the gut. It increases bioavailability of the metabolites, including indole-3-carbinol.
When the vegetable is cooked, the myrosinase gets inactivated and hydrolysis occurs using your intestinal microbiota.31 Researchers from Rutgers University have also demonstrated the sulforaphane found in cauliflower has chemoprotective properties that may prevent the expression of cancer-related genes.32
Although they could not identify how the compounds accomplished the protective benefits, the researchers demonstrated results using an animal study and found sulforaphane induced apoptosis and inhibited the proliferation of tumors.33
Which Has the Better Flavor?
While healthy and beneficial, you must first eat cauliflower to enjoy the benefits. If you don’t enjoy the taste this isn’t likely to happen. However, unlike many other cruciferous vegetables with a somewhat bitter flavor,34 cauliflower has a relatively mild taste.
In fact, cauliflower has such a unique ability to take on the flavor of the foods and spices that it’s used with that it may be used as a substitute for rice, mashed potatoes and even pizza crust when you’re trying to lower your carbohydrate intake. If you're using cauliflower this way for the first time, it's important to remember the texture will be different since you’re substituting a vegetable for a grain.
While it doesn’t have the same texture, its freshness has proven it to be a versatile alternative. Purple and orange cauliflower have the similar, subtle taste as the common white variety.
Although it’s called Cheddar Cauliflower, the orange vegetable tastes nothing like cheese. The purple cauliflower is mild and slightly sweet with a somewhat nutty flavor, while the orange variety has a creamier texture.35
History of Your Homegrown Cauliflower
Cauliflower is believed to have come from the Mediterranean region in what is now Turkey. Varieties were not usually selected for large compact heads as in the U.S., but rather according to which heads were loose. China and India, where it’s more popular than in the U.S., now produce 74% of the cauliflower world’s.36
The purple variety has been available for decades and gets its color from anthocyanin. Unfortunately, with cooking the purple color is lost.37
The orange variety was bred from a mutation discovered in 1970 and was then hybridized.38 A Canadian farmer found one orange cauliflower in a field of white that was less flavorful and smaller than the rest of the crop. Then, a New York horticulture professor crossed the mutant with standard cauliflower and the first orange cauliflower made its way to grocery stores in the fall of 2003.39
Cauliflower is challenging to grow as it's sensitive to temperature changes and prefers a cool season. In the U.S., nearly 75% of commercially grown cauliflower is found in the valleys of California.40 Although tricky, you can grow it at home if you watch your temperatures closely, use rich soil and provide it with a steady supply of water.
The size of a mature plant will depend on the variety. Most are ready for harvest in two months, although some varieties mature a little quicker. They will not form a head in warm weather and can’t handle frost, so it's important to choose a variety that will mature in your climate zone.41
Cooking With Cauliflower
If you're substituting cauliflower for rice for the first time, there are a couple mistakes you're going to want to avoid.42 Unlike rice, it doesn’t need to be cooked in water because this makes it mushy. If you're using it as a base, quickly sauté it for a minute or two over medium heat to soften it without losing some of the texture. Don't leave it on too long; three minutes should do the trick.
You'll need to change your flavor expectations as it doesn't have the same neutral taste that rice has. It also doesn't soak up moisture so if you top your dish with too much sauce it just sits on the bottom. You can use colored cauliflower in the same way — rice it, mash it, roast it or use it in soup.
While it’s loaded with antioxidants, the length of time it's exposed to heat can impact its health benefits. Using hot water, such as with steaming and boiling, causes the greatest loss of antioxidants, while dry cooking methods are usually the best, such as with stir-frying and roasting.43
Since cauliflower is high in fiber, eating it in excess may cause bloating and flatulence. It's a good idea to slowly increase your intake of high fiber foods to reduce this risk. Cauliflower is also high in vitamin K, so anyone who is taking a blood thinner shouldn’t suddenly start eating large amounts of it.44
If you’re new to cauliflower, consider this zesty roasted dish flavored with jalapeno pepper and lemon, adapted from Epicurious.45 When made with purple cauliflower you’ll enjoy a slightly nutty addition to the flavor combination. It is delicious served hot and is an excellent snack that can be enjoyed in its raw form.
Roasted Cauliflower with Lemon zest, Parsley, Capers and Jalapeño
- 1 head cauliflower cut in bite-sized florets
- 3 to 4 tablespoons coconut oil, plus extra for drizzling
- Fresh ground Himalayan sea salt and black pepper
- 1 lemon
- 1 large handful parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced
- Himalayan sea salt
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Spread the cauliflower florets on a baking sheet, drizzle with the coconut oil and season generously with salt and pepper.
- Toss the vegetables to coat evenly with the oil and seasoning.
- Roast in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, tossing halfway through, until they are a deep golden color and crispy.
- While the cauliflower is roasting, peel three strips from the lemon.
- Cut each strip in thin crosswise pieces.
- Slice the lemon in half.
- Once roasted, transfer the cauliflower to a bowl and top with parsley, capers, jalapeños and the sliced lemon zest.
- Squeeze the mixture with half the lemon and drizzle more oil.
- Toss to coat all ingredients.
- Sprinkle with salt as desired.
The celery juice phenomenon is often attributed to Anthony William, who considers himself the originator of the Global Celery Juice Movement.1 The movement has received both social media and major media attention in The New York Times2 and LA Times3 among others.
You can easily grow your own organic celery at home when you keep it cool, give it an unfailing supply of water and plant it in good soil.4 It’s important to choose organically grown celery as it’s one of the more contaminated vegetables available at the grocery store.
Choose Organic Celery for Your Table
Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG),5 a nonprofit organization aimed at protecting health and the environment, publishes a guide to pesticides in produce. This document is called “The Dirty Dozen;” celery usually makes an appearance on the list.
In 2012, it was No. 2 on the list and the one most likely to contain multiple pesticides, with 96% of the samples testing positive and nearly 90% retaining more than one pesticide.6 By 2019, celery had dropped to number 11, having been overtaken by strawberries, spinach and kale.7
Before testing the fruits and vegetables, the produce was washed and peeled as consumers may be expected to at home.8 The Shopper’s Guide, which the EWG has published since 2004, ranks contamination in 47 fruits and vegetables based on more than 40,900 samples.9 Carla Burns, EWG Research Analyst, commented:10
“The main route of pesticide exposure for most Americans who do not live or work on or near farms is through their diet. Studies have shown that eating fruits and vegetables free of pesticides benefits health, and this is especially important for pregnant women and children.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics11 emphasizes children's exposure should be limited. Pesticide exposure is linked with poor mental development, pervasive developmental disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Their data also suggest an association with physical birth defects, fetal death and neurodevelopmental effects.
The EWG evaluated the U.S. Department of Agriculture's tests, which found 225 different pesticides on fruits and vegetables.12 Dr. Philip Landrigan is director of the Global Public Health Initiative at Boston College and one of the writers of the 1993 National Academy of Sciences study, “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children.”13
He underscores the implications of pesticide exposure and stresses that when possible, steps should be taken to lower a child's exposure while continuing to offer a diet full of fresh produce.14
The dangers of pesticide exposure continue into adulthood. The Pesticide Action Network reports long-term toxicity at low doses has been associated with Parkinson's disease, depression, anxiety, asthma and certain cancers.15
Celery Juice Trending: Rising Cost Is a Perfect Storm
Michael Karsch is the CEO of a New York chain of juice bars, Juice Press,16,17 and he tracks juice trends. In 2018 he noticed a rise in celery juice interest and decided to offer a 12-ounce, one ingredient drink for $7. Karsch spoke to The New York Times about the shortage and his take on the future, saying:18
“Within a few days, it was our third best selling beverage, which is astonishing for a one-ingredient offering. I have been historically unimpressed by celery. It’s not vibrant. It’s got a ton of water and a ton of a fiber … Three months ago where we couldn’t provide enough celery juice for about 4 days … Five years ago it was organic almonds, there was kale maybe 7 years ago. Usually what happens is it corrects.”
Vandana Sheth,19 spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, finds these trends are often driven by social media and may be enticing because she believes many people are looking for a quick fix for their health.
She noted moving back and forth between different trending eating plans may be dangerous, and said:20 “I'm seeing a lot more of a disordered way of eating in my practice. It's not sustainable long-term.”
Sammy Duda,21 senior vice president of Duda Farm Fresh Foods, one of the largest celery growers in the world, spoke to The New York Times about his family’s familiarity with the supply and demand issue when celebrities endorse a specific type of vegetable juice. Out of 10 items listed on their products page, three of those are packaged celery and one is fresh celery.22
The cost not only is affected by demand from the juice trend, but also by the weather. The New York Times23 reports a warm, dry fall in Palm Beach, Florida, where some of the crop is grown, and a cold, wet winter on the west coast where other fields are located, have affected growth and harvest.
The crop on Duda Farm was also impacted by a soil-borne disease, which together added up to a shorter than normal supply in an environment with a greater than normal demand.
Phytonutrients Promote Health Benefits
Although there’s been a push to promote celery as a cure for many different health conditions, scientific evidence supports a more limited number. One cup of raw celery contains 40% of your daily value of vitamin K.24 In addition to this it contains 11% of your daily value of molybdenum,25 a trace mineral your body uses for the detoxification of heavy metals.
Some of the larger threats from heavy metal are associated with cadmium, mercury, arsenic and lead.26 Long-term exposure may result in neurological damage, skin cancers, kidney damage and bone fractures.
Toxicity will depend on several factors including the route of exposure and duration.27 You can read more about how molybdenum functions in heavy metal detoxification in my past article, “The Three Pillars of Heavy Metal Detoxification.”
Celery also contains measurable amounts of folate, potassium and vitamin B2. Celery stalks are a great source of antioxidants, phytosterols, flavanols and flavones, many of which provide anti-inflammatory benefits.28 But, one of the more advantageous compounds found in celery may be apigenin, gaining interest for its potential to fight cancer.29
Apigenin is a flavonoid found in several fruits and vegetables and some Chinese medicinal herbs. It has strong anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties and is now being reported as subduing different forms of cancer. This has been found in vitro and in vivo by initiating apoptosis and autophagy, as well as stimulating an immune response.30
Apigenin is associated with stimulating the growth of nerve cells. One animal study demonstrated learning and memory improvements when apigenin was injected or taken orally.31 Studies have also linked apigenin with activating AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) in human skin cells.
The results suggest that “one of the mechanisms by which apigenin exerts its chemoprotective action may be through activation of AMPK and induction of autophagy in human keratinocytes.”32 In another published study, scientists looked at the anticarcinogenic properties on the regulation of oxidative stress and DNA damage. They wrote:33
“One of the most well-recognized mechanisms of apigenin is the capability to promote cell cycle arrest and induction of apoptosis through the p53-related pathway. A further role of apigenin in chemoprevention is the induction of autophagy in several human cancer cell lines.”
Large Amounts May Interfere With Kidney Function
Although not high in oxalates, celery has between 11 and 20 mg for every 3 1/2 ounces of the vegetable. Oxalates are found in plant and animal foods with some of the more concentrated sources including spinach, almonds and beet greens.34 Oxalates are related to kidney stone formation and calcium absorption.
Your gut bacteria play a role in how available oxalate will be for absorption. A combination of oxalate and nonoxalate-containing foods will also impact how much soluble oxalate gets absorbed from the digestive tract.35
Calcium oxalate kidney stones are among the more common types of stones. However, it's not high amounts of calcium that cause the stones but, rather, oxalate.36 Oxalates are compounds that protect plants from predators.37 The oxalic acid binds with calcium to make it less bioavailable and insoluble, increasing the risk of kidney stones.
Oxalates are broken down by gut bacteria, but when your microbiota are compromised the compounds enter the bloodstream and get stored in the kidneys. While 11 to 20 mg of oxalate in one 3 1/2-ounce serving of celery is minor, drinking 16 ounces of celery juice each day may not be.
One 16-ounce glass of celery juice requires one large bunch of celery,38 which often contains 10 stalks39 and weighs about 16 ounces or more.40 Drinking this much celery juice is roughly equivalent to 90 mg of oxalates every day. In addition to other foods, including chocolate, berries, nuts, legumes and grains,41 this may increase your risk for kidney stones.
Soothing Chamomile Tea — An Option With Similar Benefits
Herbal teas are a rich source of polyphenols and flavonoids with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. One of the most soothing is chamomile tea, belonging to the Asteraceae family42 containing a large number of herbs, shrubs and trees.43
In addition to being used as a tea, chamomile has been praised for many health benefits, including those in the volatile oils found in the flowers. One of the major constituents in the flower is apigenin, primarily found as a glycoside.44
Adults can use the volatile oils from the flower in a bath, as a cream for flaky skin, as an inhalant or tincture to relieve menstrual cramps and to improve sleep. For more information about the benefits of chamomile and how to make a tincture at home, see my past article, “What Are the Benefits of Chamomile?”
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