Cancer researchers have long known that certain vegetables contain powerful anticancer compounds, but whether our bodies get the full dose of these substances often depends on how we cook the vegetables and even what other foods we eat along with them.
This week, at the annual conference of the American Institute for Cancer Research, scientists presented new research on how to get the most cancer-preventive properties out of certain vegetables we eat.
Here’s what you should know:
Steam your broccoli. Broccoli has a powerful anti-cancer compound in it called myrosinase, but over-cooking it or using the wrong cooking method can pretty much wipe out this important enzyme.
The best way to cook it, cancer researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said, is to lightly steam the vegetable for up to five minutes until it turns bright green. Boiling broccoli or microwaving it — even for less than a minute — destroyed the majority of the enzyme, said researcher Elizabeth Jeffery, Ph.D., who conducted a study comparing the methods.
Why is myrosinase so critical? Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, as well as Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower, have a naturally occurring compound in them called sulforaphane, which has been shown to kill precancerous cells or block their proliferation. (It’s also what makes those vegetables stinky when you cook them.) The enzyme myrosinase is needed for sulforaphane to form. Destroy the myrosinase, and your vegetables will have no sulforaphane.
Eat some mustard, radish and arugula. If you do like well-cooked broccoli, or are using a broccoli recipe that calls for a method of cooking other than steaming, you still may be able to get sulforaphane to form by adding other raw foods containing myrosinase to your meal.
“Mustard, radish, arugula, wasabi and other uncooked cruciferous vegetables such as cole slaw all contain myrosinase, and we’ve seen this can restore the formation of sulforaphane,” Jeffery said.
Chop garlic, then wait 10 to 15 minutes. Waiting before heating the garlic allows its inactive compounds to convert into the active, protective phytochemical known as allicin. Allicin, which gives garlic its pungent aroma, has been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, and to be able to kill cancer cells in lab studies.
Cook your tomatoes. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant in tomatoes and other red produce, and cooking helps release it from the plant cells so it can be more easily absorbed by the body. Several studies in the past have linked a diet high in lycopene with a lower risk of cancer and heart attack.
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