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The Role of Sulforaphane in Cancer Prevention

TON - September 2017, Vol 10, No 5 - Diet and Nutrition

We all know that green is good if it is the vibrant color of leafy vegetables. For consumer health, leafy vegetables warrant a constant coaxing from the ranks of nutritionists, television health gurus, and medical practitioners, thanks to numerous studies showcasing the reasons why.

What exactly raises broccoli to a primo status now that scientists have found it has preventive qualities for various types of cancer and heart disease?

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, Registered Dietitian and Wellness Manager, Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, OH, cited the results of a 2011 study that found eating whole cruciferous vegetables (eg, broccoli) increases cancer-fighting–nutrient absorption.1

The study investigators looked specifically at a key enzyme found in broccoli, myrosinase. Necessary for the formation of sulforaphane, myrosinase is responsible for broccoli’s health benefits. Under intense scientific scrutiny, sulforaphane is the focus of hundreds of published studies that suggest it may be an effective weapon in the fight against cancer.

A recognized chemoprotective agent, sulforaphane shows up >700 times in the database when queried in conjunction with the word “cancer.” With its unique ability to regulate human genes in such a way as to protect them from mutagenesis, sulforaphane operates as a cancer antagonist.

Results from a 2009 study showed that sulforaphane is capable of switching genes on and off for the purpose of stopping tumor cells from replicating and spreading.2 Sulforaphane may also cause cancer cells to self-destruct, a process known as apoptosis.

Research has shown that sulforaphane blocks DNA methylation and controls certain processes in cell cycle progression that would otherwise contribute to the development of cancer.3 Scientists in Oregon discovered that sulforaphane may have therapeutic potential for patients with high-risk prostate cancer.2

This is significant because, according to the American Cancer Society, approximately 15% of men will receive a prostate cancer diagnosis at some point during their lifetime.4 Sulforaphane consumption has been proven effective in selectively pursuing malignant cancer cells while simultaneously offering healthy cells protection.2

Sulforaphane has also been shown to act upon gene expression and support the body’s natural tumor-suppressing ability, and helps to thwart disease without leading to harmful and potentially life-threatening side effects.3

Broccoli, a man-made vegetable, was produced from Brassica oleracea, a wild cabbage plant, and was bred to appeal more to human palates.5 Other cultivars of Brassica oleracea include cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, brussels sprouts, and cabbage.

The United States is the largest manufacturer of broccoli in the world. California is responsible for producing 90% of the nation’s broccoli crop.6 Arizona, Texas, and Oregon are also leading producers of the vegetable. In 2011, >2 billion pounds of broccoli were produced in the United States, with a value of greater than $750 million on more than 130,000 acres.

Even with all of the tweaking of broccoli’s flavor, and the multimillion-dollar bump it gave the agricultural economy, the vegetable has not always received rave reviews. President H. W. Bush, noting his high political stature and poor regard for broccoli, famously quipped “I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”7

However, the medical community and popular culture espouse broccoli’s merits. Broccoli shows up as a side dish on many cooking shows, and is frequently featured on The Dr. Oz Show. The doctor-cum-television medical guru has given broccoli consistent star billing as he wages campaigns for healthy diets and cancer prevention.

In The Dr. Oz Show’s frequent cooking segments, broccoli has been a signature centerpiece in recipes for salads, scrambles with tofu, frittata; simmered in a skillet with olive oil and garlic; and paired with salmon in a broccoli gratin.

1. The Dr Oz Show. Getting the most out of broccoli. Published November 3, 2011. Accessed April 27, 2017.
2. Ho E, Clarke JD, Dashwood RH. Dietary sulforaphane, a histone deacetylase inhibitor for cancer prevention. J Nutr. 2009;139:2393-2396.
3. The Truth About Cancer. Researchers praise this key compound in broccoli for cancer prevention. Published 2016. Accessed June 21, 2017.
4. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for prostate cancer. Accessed June 21, 2017.
5. Orem W. The first broccoli. Published December 29, 2016. Accessed June 21, 2017.
6. Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. Broccoli production. Published 2012. Accessed April 27, 2017.
7. Dowd M. ‘I’m President,’ so no more broccoli! Published March 23, 1990. Accessed June 22, 2017.

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Last modified: July 22, 2021