Historically speaking, Brussels sprouts are among the least popular of the cruciferous vegetables, especially if one takes into consideration their ubiquitous cousin, plain old cabbage. Nevertheless, in recent decades, Brussels sprouts (along with broccoli, another member of the same family) are soaring the popularity charts, in large part due to their amazing nutritional value and the important number of health benefits they literally bring to the table.
This article aims to provide you with an in-depth analysis of what you can expect from constant servings of Brussels sprouts – a review of their composition with caloric information and breakdown of the significant vitamins and minerals of both raw and cooked Brussels sprouts, a comprehensive list of ailments which are better prevented or managed through the consumption of Brussels sprouts, and a few suggestions for a more frequent inclusion of this wondrous vegetable in your diet.
Before getting to the hard facts, however, let us begin with an entertaining introduction to the world of Brussels sprouts.
Fun Facts about Brussels Sprouts
As their name suggests, Brussels sprouts have been quite a local commodity, limited to the area around the Belgian capital for many centuries. In fact, their first appearance in relevant writing of any kind is in the 16th century. A Recent investigation, however, places initial sprouts cultures in the Mediterranean region, and wild precursors seem to have been cultivated in Ancient Rome. The elevation of Brussels sprouts to a dietary staple of the Western world is a by-product of the turmoil characteristic of European history – the five battles in and around the town of Ypres during the First World War exposed many nationalities fighting the war on the Western Front to the delights of Belgian cuisine and the versatility of Brussels sprouts.
The cultivation conditions for the sprouts, on the other hand, are a bit more rigid. While the temperature range at which they survive is between 7 and 24 degrees Celsius (45 °F – 75 °F), the best production values are achieved when the average high temperature is roughly from 15 °C to 18 °C (19 °F – 65 °F). These conditions account for the origins of the vegetable – northern European countries subjected to the counter-balancing Atlantic currents. Harvesting can take place anywhere from three to six months after planting, depending on a broad range of factors.
If production figures are any indication, then the Brussels sprouts are most popular in the Netherlands, the world’s largest producer (though the UK is not far behind), accounting for more than 80.000 tons for the year 2013. Brussels sprouts began to be cultivated in the United States in the early 1920’s, but the annual yield of just over 30.000 tons means it is nowhere near as popular as it is in Europe, and about 80 percent of it is destined for the frozen vegetable market. It must be from all that abusive treatment it gets in popular culture.
When choosing Brussels sprouts make sure they have a firm texture and an intense light green color. Discoloration means that they are not fresh and spots mean pest activity. If sold individually and not in stalks, select sprouts of equal size for uniform cooking. As mentioned above, Brussels sprouts are adequate to be stored in the freezer, maintaining a fair amount of their nutritious value for up to one year. However, when stored in the refrigerator, make sure to place them in thicker plastic bags with the least possible amount of air let in during the packaging process. One must also be aware not to wash or trim them. Nevertheless, they should be refrigerated for no more than ten days, though if one is interested in healthy eating, there is no need for either freezing or refrigerating because Brussels sprouts are available all year long, albeit with some variation in price as their peak is between late autumn and spring.
Brussels Sprouts Nutritional Facts Sheet (Raw vs. Cooked)
All values presented in this section are for 100 grams of Brussels sprouts, either raw or cooked (meaning boiled, drained and with added salt). As general observations go, Brussels sprouts are recommended in any diet (they are especially useful when aiming for weight loss) due to their containing extremely low amounts (virtually negligible) of cholesterol and other saturated fats. The sprouts are also an excellent source of dietary fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin A and Vitamin K while also scoring decent points for their concentration of Potassium, Manganese, and Folate. Raw Brussels sprouts have an ideal caloric ratio – as three-quarters are represented by carbohydrates, 6 percent by fat and 19 percent is protein. The situation changes somewhat in the case of the cooked variety as the amount of fat doubles at the expense of both protein and carbs. In both cases, 100 grams of Brussels sprouts account for about 3 percent of the sugars needed to lead a healthy life, which is a first-class glycemic load.
100 grams of raw Brussels sprouts means an energetic input of 43 calories or 2% of the daily recommended value. Of the 43 calories, 32.2 come from carbohydrates, 2.5 from fat, and the remaining 8.3 from protein. The fact that they contain zero saturated fat is also noteworthy. 4 out of those 100 grams are dietary fiber, an amount that equates to more than 15% of the daily recommended intake, a figure which is far superior to “established healthy vegetables” such as spinach. The situation changes substantially when considering the cooked sample of 100 grams of Brussels sprouts – there is the interesting development of less overall calories (36), however, it contains double the amount of fat present in the raw version and a significantly lower amount of dietary fiber (over 33% less than the raw variant).
In their natural form, Brussels sprouts have almost no fat in their composition except traces of Omega-3 (99 mg per 100 grams of vegetables) and Omega-6 (45 mg per 100 grams) fatty acids. While cooking it adds a bit more fat to the end-product, both saturated and unsaturated; it also increases the amount of the two beneficial polyunsaturated acids – 173 mg in the case of Omega-3 and 79 mg for Omega-6.
Consuming 100 grams of raw Brussels sprouts means you get your daily recommended dose of vitamins C and K and then some – 142% and 221% respectively. You can also acquire a major amount of Vitamin A (15%), Folate (15%), Vitamin B6 (11%) and Thiamin (9%). Furthermore, there are less significant proportions of Pantothenic Acid, Vitamin E, Niacin and Riboflavin (between 3 and 5 percent of the daily value). Naturally, the figures are somewhat diminished in the case of cooked Brussels sprouts, yet no dramatic decrease can be pointed out, with the most significant reduction being the case of vitamins C and K of about 20 percent. All in all, one cannot help but become awed at the vitamin powerhouse that is this vegetable.
Finally, on the minerals front, we should point out that Brussels sprouts are not impressive at all. While they are a satisfying source of Manganese, Potassium, and Iron (17%, 11% and 8% of the daily value, respectively), they provide a minimum input of Magnesium, Calcium, Phosphorus, Zinc, Copper, and Selenium (between 2 and 5 percent of the daily value). A small but uniform decrease in all the above-mentioned minerals can be observed in the cooked 100 grams sample of Brussels sprouts.
Main Health Benefits of Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts, as studies on the various species of cruciferous vegetables have shown, are renowned for their roles as cancer-preventing agents. There are many compounds in Brussels sprouts that induce this effect, and they are usually classified on their merits in providing support for three fundamental processes – the body’s detoxification mechanisms, antioxidant effects, and anti-inflammatory support. Let’s see how the various chemical components in Brussels sprouts serve the human body perform these tasks.
Brussels sprouts help detoxify the body due to their containing two types of compounds needed for this: glucosinolates and nutrients rich in sulfur. Consuming foods that are rich in glucosinolates is beneficial for the body’s detoxification process because these compounds act as a trigger in the excretion of enzymes that neutralize the pernicious effect of tumor-causing substances, both at the cellular and whole tissue levels.
Glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts – gluconasturtiin, sinigrin, glucobrassicin, glucoraphanin – trigger the production of compounds called isothiocyanates (phenethyl-isothiocyanate, allyl-isothiocyanate, indole-3-carbinol, sulforaphane) which are proven carcinogenesis suppressants. For example, the compound indole-3-carbinol was found to alter the cell division cycle in patients with breast cancer, slowing down the division while not killing the existing cells. Naturally, research about controlling the cellular division process is in its infancy. Nevertheless, the actions of agents present in vegetables such as Brussels sprouts could one day be artificially replicated and better controlled. To sum up, a regular consumption of Brussels sprouts has been linked with a lower incidence of breast cancer, colon cancer (though not necessarily due to the process described above, but because of the benefits derived from the high amount of dietary fiber), and ovarian cancer. Another study performed with cruciferous vegetables in mind showed that the daily consumption of one and a half cups decreases DNA damage in the cells up to 30 percent after less than two months of steady intake. When considering that Brussels sprouts are way more nutritious than broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower, one can understand why some nutritionists have added the label of superfood.
After the toxins are chemically broken down in the body, they need to be flushed out of the system. This process is speeded up through the actions of sulfur-containing nutrients. As some people may recognize, the powerful and rather unpleasant smell emanated when cruciferous vegetables are overcooked originates because those particular sulfurous compounds are released. This is the final phase of the detoxification process and, a lack of these substances from an individual’s diet can lead to the build-up of the by-products from the toxins and also from the enzymatic remnants.
There are dozens of studies exploring the antioxidant agents that are present in cruciferous vegetables and, therefore present in Brussels sprouts. As we have mentioned in the nutritional facts sheet, Vitamin C, and Vitamin A (as beta-carotene) are present in generous amounts in Brussels sprouts, in addition to Manganese, the mineral with the most pronounced antioxidant effect. However, there are many more compounds that perform the same task at the cellular level – ferulic and caffeic acids; flavonoids such as kaempferol, quercetin or isorhamnetin; polyphenol antioxidants.
Although most people are aware of the importance of a steady consumption of foods rich in antioxidants, we should state that this derives from the need to combat oxidative stress, a condition made chronic by a mostly sedentary lifestyle and which is one of the most important risk factors in many types of cancers and also cardiovascular disease.
As is the case with chronic oxidative stress, modern life also makes us prone to chronic inflammation due to behaviors like diets rich in fats and sugars, lack of constant physical activity, abuse of prescription drugs but also of certain dietary supplements and other over-the-counter medication, overall stress or sleep deprivation. To combat this, Brussels sprouts through their content of glucosinolates perform anti-inflammatory actions at the cellular levels. In fact, there is some speculation that indole-3-carbinol (derived from glucosinolates) is best assimilated at an early age, allowing certain anti-inflammatory responses to become genetic habits.
Another crucial anti-inflammatory agent present in Brussels sprouts is Vitamin K, and the whopping amount of 221 percent of the daily value present in 100 grams of sprouts makes them more desirable, at least from the nutritional point of view.
The final anti-inflammatory benefit that Brussels sprouts provide comes via their unexpected input of Omega-3 fatty acids. Cruciferous vegetables are not renowned for their beneficial fatty acids composition. However, 100 grams of cooked Brussels sprouts provides the body with almost the whole daily recommended intake of Omega-3.
Typically, a lot of space is dedicated to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of vegetables in relation to cancer prevention, however, cardiovascular and immunological benefits are also associated with them. The role of antioxidant substances in the prevention of conditions such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and ischemic heart disease has long been acknowledged. However, recent research has also stressed the importance of anti-inflammatory compounds. Chronic inflammation slowly and silently damages tissues over a long period without any symptoms, until an important function is affected, usually beyond repair. Isothiocyanate Sulforaphane, synthesized by the body from glucoraphanin from Brussels sprouts, is actually the specific anti-inflammatory agent in the blood vessels. This is but one aspect of the cardiovascular benefit.
Isothiocyanate Sulforaphane is also beneficial to the well-being of the stomach because it performs a protective action against the deadly attacks from invasive bacteria like Helicobacter pylori and E. coli.
Another pivotal benefit we can derive from Brussels sprouts consumption comes from the ability to reduce cholesterol. And this is down to the dietary fiber content – 15 percent of the daily recommended intake per 100 grams and higher figures if Brussels sprouts are cooked. The liver uses cholesterol for the production of bile acids, biochemical substances essential to the digestion and assimilation of fat from nutrients in the small intestine. Dietary fiber and these acids become bound and are released from the body through feces. To replenish the bile acid lost through the process, the liver appeals to an extra round of cholesterol for the “manufacturing process”, thus lowering the overall levels of cholesterol.
The benefits of dietary fiber also apply to the maintenance of overall digestive health. It is an integral part of healthy bowel movements. Therefore, diets rich in dietary fiber help in the sustenance and/or treatment of conditions as diverse as Chron’s Disease, insulin resistance, type-2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis.
Returning to the anti-inflammatory benefits, it is important to stress that a host of dysfunctions may be triggered by inflammatory stress – allergies, asthma, autoimmune conditions – in addition to the ones we have discussed until now. Keeping these in mind, scientists researching obesity (a chronic ailment that produces afflictions that go far beyond the biological realm, is also a social and economic plague) are beginning to pinpoint the relationship between inflammation and risk of obesity.
The preceding arguments for the consumption of Brussels sprouts certainly are impressive; however, we should mention that is not the end of the story. There are indications that a steady, diverse diet including Brussels sprouts is also useful in:
- Maintaining and Improving Bone Health – as we have seen, the amount of Vitamin K provided by a serving of 100 grams of Brussels sprouts is more than impressive, and coupling that with a noteworthy input of calcium per serving, definitely makes sense in designing Brussels sprouts as an unexpected ally for bone health.
- Diabetes Management – intensely green vegetables contain a high amount of chlorophyll which, in turn, is associated with the presence of alpha-lipoic acid, an agent recognized for the natural lowering of glucose levels and a marked increase in the insulin sensitivity. This is just speculation, however, because most tests regarding alpha-lipoic acid have been conducted using the intravenous variant; therefore the results of oral administration are still a matter of supposition.
- 20/20 Vision – though that designation may be a slight exaggeration on our part, a generous input of Vitamin C daily is nevertheless required to neutralize harmful effects from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Moreover, Brussels sprouts contain an antioxidant also found in carrots, zeaxanthin, a compound that protects the walls of the cornea and also neutralizes normal age-induced macular degeneration.
- Younger Looking Skin – the concert of Vitamin A and Vitamin C (as we have mentioned, 15% and 140% of the daily value in each serving of 100 grams of Brussels Sprouts) is a key in the production of collagen, a protein which is crucial in the structure of connective tissue, which means less damage from sun and pollution, less wrinkles (both in number and in prominence) and better global skin texture.
Healthy Cooking of Brussels Sprouts
What we have presented until now are more than enough arguments for Brussels sprouts. However, before plunging into sophisticated arguments, one should know everyday aspects like the fact that merely washing and scrubbing Brussels sprouts is not enough to ensure that they are ripe for cooking. Before or after a first washing, they should be cut from the stalk to make sure that any insects do not survive in hidden places among the inner leaves. Furthermore, cutting sprouts from the stalk into smaller pieces ensure a quicker cooking and better overall taste.
If you opt for serving Brussels sprouts as a side dish, then you should know that the healthiest way of preparing them is through the steaming process – the bottom of the pot should be filled with no more than two inches of water and wait until it reaches the boiling point, then they should boil for five minutes if chopped into smaller pieces, or for six to seven minutes if chopped into quarters. A delicious and healthy salad can be made from combining the fresh steamed Brussels sprouts with walnuts, minced red onions, feta or goat cheese, all of that sprinkled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
References [ + ]