Meet Cancer’s Unlikely Kryptonite

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Broccoli has recently experienced a resurgence of interest in the medical community, thanks to a series of studies that found correlation between broccoli and a reduced risk of cancer.

Inside Out was a critical and box office smash, returning Pixar to its rightful throne as purveyor of quality kids movies, but for all the abundance of creativity and wit on display in the 102 minute romp, there was an extremely unfortunate victim caught in their maelstrom of vitriol, Broccoli.


Poor broccoli was cast as the secondary antagonist almost (yes, I understand the whole point of Inside Out is that there are no antagonists), functioning as an object of disgust and ridicule for the protagonist, Riley and her little emotion avatars. Pixar is neither the first, nor the last crusader against the vegetable. Pop culture is rife with metaphorical witch hunts against the unassuming flowerhead, inadvertently turning a whole generation of children against it, bestowing the narrative of “healthy, but not really worth eating”.

Reviewing Broccoli

But it is time to radically rewrite the narrative. Recent findings have discovered that broccoli is not just your run of the mill healthy vegetable, it is so much more. The long maligned broccoli has recently gained fame as a superfood, due in part to its high concentration of sulforaphane.

Scientific research has suggested that sulforaphane induces enzymes that deactivate carcinogens and free radicals. Excessive free radical damage in your cells or the presence of carcinogenic toxins, which accelerates the aforementioned damage, is one of the primary causes of non-melanoma cancer, colloquially known as skin cancer.

There are obviously a multitude of other mutations, most we have not even come close to grasping, that causes cancer. But in the case of free radicals and carcinogens, broccoli has proven to significantly aid the fight against them.

While there has not been enough thorough research to indicate causation between broccoli and eradication of cancer in humans. Smaller mammals have been hard at work proving the cancer preventing properties of broccoli.


A recent lab test by the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) in conjunction with UPMC CancerCenter found that broccoli sprout extract protected the mice against oral cancer, the extract proved tolerable in a small group of healthy human volunteers as well. This follows previous findings that showcased cruciferous vegetables mitigating the effects of environmental carcinogens.

Another lab test, conducted this time by the University of Michigan, tested sulforaphane in mice (again) and cell cultures. The findings showed that sulforaphane did indeed inhibit the cancer stem cells in the breasts and downregulated the Wnt signalling self-renewal pathways, lowering the risk of cancer.

Now before you start boiling a crate load of broccoli, freezing them for later consumption and microwaving them right before the broccoli feast of your life, there are a few asterisks on broccoli’s usefulness against combatting cancer.

Cooking Methods

The aforementioned sulforaphane’s precursor, glucoraphanin, is water soluble, so boiling it is going to eradicate most of the cancer fighting traits that broccoli possesses. Consuming frozen broccoli that has been blanched is also not ideal due to the loss of glucoraphanin as well. A Spanish study also found that microwaving broccolis for one minute or less destroyed the majority, 97 percent, of myrosinase, an enzyme found in broccoli that is essential for sulforaphane to form.

So what culinary options are you left with? Well, eating it raw is possibly the most effective method in ensuring you get the full dose of glucoraphanin, which in turn will be converted into sulforaphane during chewing. Cooked, or steamed, broccoli is also fine, but unlike ingesting it raw, the conversion to sulforaphane happens in the gut, which differs in efficiency from person to person.

A good middle ground can be found in supplementing cooked broccoli but with some other raw food items that are also rich in sulforaphane, such as brussel sprouts, kale and cabbage.

If after listing all the health benefits broccoli provides, and considering its vaunted status as a superfood, you still find the concept of eating broccoli tantamount to cannibalism, there are alternative food groups you could eat that could possibly help ward off cancer.


Other cruciferous vegetables, cabbage, kale, wasabi to name a few, when uncooked possess the same myrosinase that helps in the formation of sulforaphane. Tea is another noted beverage that helps stave off cancer, with the predominant polyphenols in green tea, the theaflavins and thearubigins in black teas possessing antioxidant qualities. In the same vein, other fruits that are high in antioxidants, raspberries, strawberries among others, also prove effective in preventing cancer.

Another traditionally vilified food, garlic, has also been proven effective in fighting cancer. A number of population studies in China actually showed an association between increased intake of garlic and reduction in risk of certain cancers, including stomach, colon, oesophagus, pancreas and breast cancer. Garlic compounds were found to produce reactive oxygen species in brain cancer cells, and since cancer cells have high metabolism and requires a lot of energy for rapid growth, garlic essentially gorges the cells to death by activating numerous passages and blocking pathways to slow down the proliferation of brain tumours.

Much like the restrictions levelled on broccoli, garlic is also subjected to specific cooking techniques. The best method to ensure optimum potential anti-cancer benefits is to cut and peel a piece of fresh garlic and allow it to sit for fifteen minutes before eating it raw.


A good rule of thumb in finding alternatives is to pay as much attention to what you put out of your diet as you do to what goes in it. Food items such as processed meat and refined sugar have been found to elevate the risk of cancer.

World Cancer Day

The concept of cancer is nothing new, but the depth in which a cancer diagnosis cuts both the individual and their loved ones cannot be underestimated. Two prominent figures from the entertainment industry, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, recently passed away from liver and pancreatic cancer respectively. And they represent just two of the 14 million people that are diagnosed annually with cancer, or the eight million who die from cancer every year.

But while we mourn the individuals who have passed away due to cancer, and provide support for those afflicted with the disease, this World Cancer Day, let us also remember to give a toast (using raw broccolis if possible) to the broccolis and garlics of the world, doing their best to protect us from cancer, even in the face of universal dislike. This one is for you broccoli.