The Anti-Cancer Mob: Cruciferous Vegetables

Known for releasing a less-than-desirable odor when cooked, these little stinkers make up for it in healthy nutrients. Cruciferous vegetables are not only the most powerful anti-cancer foods in existence, but they are also the most nutrient-dense of all vegetables.


The name cruciferous comes from the Latin for “cross bearer” and it reflects the shape of the flowers, which have four equally spaced petals in the shape of a cross. The cruciferous family is as large, as it is diverse. The most well-known members include: Arugula, Bok Choy, Broccoli and his little brother Broccolini, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collard Greens, Escarole, Green Beans, Horseradish, Kale, Mustard Greens, Rutabaga, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Turnips and Watercress. Spinach, Kale and Brussel Sprouts are the Godfathers of the cruciferous family, packing the most vitamin power.



Spinach originated from Persia in the 2nd century and made its way into Europe around the 8th century thanks to Arab agronomists who used sophisticated irrigation techniques to grow spinach in an arid environment. Spinach made its way into Spain in the 12th century and gained the nickname “captain of leafy greens.” This Captain earned its stripes for being an iron powerhouse by mistake. In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach, when he misplaced a decimal. Thus, he bestowed upon spinach gargantuan iron powers of 35 milligrams/100 g serving instead of the actual 3.5 milligrams it contains. Taking the story further, Popeye the Sailor Man ate spinach by the can in order to stay strong. While spinach does help muscles by facilitating oxygen flow, its actual muscle building power is overrated. The true power of Popeye was in his ability to boost consumption of spinach in the US by a third.


Spinach might have received a lot of (deserved and undeserved) credit for Popeye’s muscle power but he might have been better off choosing kale instead. Although similar in nutrients, kale is a nutritional powerhouse and it trumps spinach when it comes to vitamins A, B6, C and K. Kale also contains a healthy dose of fiber that binds bile acids, which helps lower blood cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of heart disease, especially when kale is cooked instead of consumed raw.


Brussel Sprouts

“Brussel Sprout, Brussel Sprout./You’re one food I can live without./I tried to feed you to the dog but he spit you out./Doggie won’t eat no Brussel Sprout.” That’s how a song written by Madeline L. Pots goes. Infamous for getting a nose turn from everyone, the Brussel Sprouts can actually be delicious if they are fresh and not overcooked. Plus, they bring with them a good dose of nutrients that can really boost your body’s anti-cancer fighting powers. So, give them another chance!


Cruciferous vegetables are powerful cancer fighters, being packed with vitamins, fiber and disease-fighting phytochemicals. Although all vegetables contain protective micronutrients and phytochemicals, cruciferous vegetables have a unique chemical composition: whenever these veggies are blended or chopped, a chemical reaction occurs that converts their sulfur-containing compounds to isothiocyanates (ITCs). ITCs are compounds with proven anti-cancer activities and some have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immunologic effects. Although the National Cancer Institute recommends 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day for cancer prevention, they have not yet established specific recommendations for cruciferous vegetables.

Here are some interesting stats about this mighty vegetable family:

  • Cruciferous vegetables are twice as powerful as other plant foods when it comes to decreasing the risk of cancer.
  • Only 3 servings of cruciferous vegetables per week can decrease prostate cancer risk by 41%, as compared to 28 servings of other vegetables per week that decrease prostate cancer risk by 33%.
  • One or more servings of cabbage per week reduces risk of pancreatic cancer by 38%.


As a proud member of the cruciferous family, spinach is a mighty green. Spinach is an excellent source of free radical-scavenging vitamin A, energy-producing iron and vitamin B2, heart-healthy folate and vitamin B6, immune system boosting vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, bone-healthy potassium and vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, and calcium. It is a very good source of digestion-supportive dietary fiber, muscle-building protein, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and heart-healthy niacin and selenium. Spinach has a high concentration of health-promoting phytonutrients such as carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin) and flavonoids, which provide powerful antioxidant protection. Because of its high fiber and low caloric content, spinach can help manage type 2 diabetes and is a great addition to any weight loss plan.


We should always write Kale with a capital K! Kale delivers 684 percent of the required daily dose of vitamin K, while his more popular brother, spinach delivers 181 percent. Word to the wise: since vitamin K is a coagulant, consult your doctor if you are taking blood-thinning medication, as large amounts of vitamin K will interfere with the drug.

This slightly bitter green gets sweeter in the winter but the nutrients it packs are a sweet reward year-round: one cup of kale provides a day’s worth of A and C vitamins. Kale delivers three and half times as much vitamin A and 10 times as much vitamin C as spinach. Like spinach, kale has a very low caloric content and it can help manage type 2 diabetes when added to any diet. In addition, kale is a good source of antioxidants such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Kale contains the anti-inflammatory antioxidant quercetin, which protects against arthritis and memory loss, as well as riboflavin, a B vitamin that may protect against migraines.

Brussel Sprouts

Notorious for their sewage-like smell, these bad boys of the family are actually misunderstood: they are really delightful once you get to know them and cook them right. Most people cook the sprouts whole and they over-cook them. You can bring their lovable side out by cutting them in half or quarters, which reduces the cooking time needed. You can also add some herbs and salt and gently sauté  them for a nice side dish, without losing their freshness and crunch.


All cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates, which are a type of phytonutrients. However, brussel sprouts have a total glucosinolate content greater than the amount found in mustard greens, turnip greens, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, or broccoli. Brussels sprouts pack 161% of the daily required vitamin C intake in just one cup. They are also extremely high in vitamin K and contain a healthy dose of folate and vitamin A.

Here is what the cruciferous family stars bring to the table (percentage of daily recommended intake per 1 cup consumed):

Cruciferous Family MemberSpinachKaleBrusselSProutsBenefit
A56%206%24% Eye and Skin Health
B69%3%14% Heart and Brain Health
C9%1%161% Tissue Growth and Repair
K684%181%274% Bones and Blood Clotting
Folate5%15%24% Fetus Health
Iron5%3%7% Blood Health
Calcium9%3%6% Bones and Teeth
Copper10%2%6% Red Blood Cells, Nerve and Immune Health
Manganese26%13%18% Connective Tissue


Cruciferous vegetables might get a bit stinky but what stinks more is that, in 2013, there were approximately 36 thousand new cases of cancer recorded in the state of Tennessee. Given their potent anti-cancer fighting powers, cruciferous vegetables are obvious tools in the battle against this disease.

It’s hard to find fresh greens during the winter months but some of the cruciferous vegetables are actually sweeter in winter. Take advantage of this fact and play around with incorporating these nutritional superpowers into your winter diet. Use them in stews and soups, sautee them with a touch of salt and olive oil, or combine them with citrus fruit and milder tasting lettuce to complement your main meal. You and your family can benefit of fresh and healthy meals even when the cold weather increases the temptation to give into comfort foods.

Fun Facts and Traditions

  • Spinach was the favorite vegetable of Catherine de Medici, the 16th century Italian noblewoman who became the Queen of France when she married King Henry II. When she left her home of Florence, Italy, to marry the king of France, she brought along her cooks, who could prepare spinach just the way she liked it. Since then, dishes prepared on a bed of spinach are referred to as “a la Florentine.”
  • In Holland, it is believed that reheating spinach is harmful and may cause cancer. It is true that reheating spinach can cause the formation of nitrites, which should be avoided by infants of up to 6 months. However, the effects of these nitrates are negligible for adults.
  • Spinach contains oxalic acid, which inhibits calcium absorption. Research has shown that the boiling of spinach in large amounts of water helps decrease the oxalic acid content by as much as 50%. Do not cover the pot when cooking spinach. Leaving the pot uncovered helps to release more of the acids with the rising steam.
  • Kale inspired a healthy eating, healthy living blog called The Daily Kale ( The author, Krysten grew up in Georgia and discovered a healthy way of living when she moved to California to pursue her artistic dreams.
  • Because kale can grow well into winter, one variety is called Hungry Gap, named after the period in the cold season when, in traditional agriculture, little could be harvested.
  • Lenexa, Kansas was proclaimed the “Spinach Capital of the World” during the 1930s. On March 26, 1937, a Popeye statue was unveiled during the spinach festival held in Crystal City, Texas.
  • There is a group of 5th grade writers in the US who call themselves “The Brussel Sprouts”. They have written 24 stories for Fantasy, Action, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Historical, Kids, and War.
  • A recent study placed Brussels sprouts at the top of the list of most hated vegetables in America and the UK.
  • Linus Urbanec of Sweden holds the 2008 Guinness World Record for most Brussels sprouts eaten in one minute: 31!

Get recipes.

  • Kale and Cannellini Bean Soup
  • Saag Paneer

Article was first published in Cityview Magazine – Jan/Feb 2014

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