Combining broccoli and other veggies can help fight cancer, other ailments

Combining broccoli and other veggies can help fight cancer, other ailments

URBANA — Want to make one of the most nutrition-packed foods on the planet even better for you?

University of Illinois researchers have learned that eating broccoli with certain other veggies or with something spicy — such as horseradish, wasabi or mustard — will boost broccoli's cancer-fighting power and other health benefits.

But not just anything spicy will do: This particular pairing needs to include a food that contains an enzyme necessary to form the cancer-preventing component in broccoli called sulforaphane, UI nutrition Professor Elizabeth Jeffery said.

Those foods include, in addition to the three spicy condiments, broccoli sprouts, radishes, cabbage, arugula, watercress and Brussels sprouts, she said.

Broccoli already contains this cancer-fighting compound on its own, but it's often destroyed through overcooking, said Jeffery and the study's lead author, Jenna Cramer.

That's where the partner foods can step in and help, they say.

Even if you wind up overcooking your broccoli, you can still get its health benefits if you eat it with an arugula salad or any of the other enzyme-containing foods, Jeffery said.

"If you think you may have cooked your broccoli more than 4 minutes, it's a good idea to have some radish with your salad or some mustard on your meat," she said.

Ideally, Jeffery said, broccoli should be lightly steamed for 2 to 4 minutes to get its maximum health benefits. Briefly stir-frying it in a bit of olive oil until it's just tender-crisp should produce about the same health effect.

And if you pair optimally prepared broccoli with one of the companion enzyme foods, then you get a "huge benefit," Cramer said.

Still another benefit of protecting the enzyme, myrosinase, in your foods, is the cancer-fighting compound will be released in the part of the digestive system in which it can be well-absorbed quickly, Jeffery said.

Cramer said she often eats broccoli sprouts, adding them to sandwiches and salads, sometimes even to the top of pizzas after they come out of the oven.

And if broccoli and some of its health-boosting partners may not be among the favorite foods many people have, more folks may give the broccoli combos a try if they know there's a health benefit involved.

"You can always add a little seasoning or butter," she said. "That's not going to hurt."

Jeffery, who has done several studies about broccoli and how to maximize its health benefits, is currently studying the way frozen broccoli is blanched before packaging. Blanching is a process in which a food is plunged into boiling water, then ice water.

A lot of people eat frozen broccoli, she said, but her research is finding the processing methods used in some frozen broccoli products kill the enzymes, so she's looking at the possibility of a different blanching method.

Still another research project in the works, she said: The health benefits of eating broccoli and onion together.