Eating raw broccoli may combat cancer

from New Scientist magazine April 2003


Eating your greens could be even better for you than anyone thought. Macerated raw broccoli turns out to contain small amounts of a potent chemical that inhibits the oxidising enzymes that damage DNA and potentially cause cancer.


When you chew broccoli, its cells rupture, releasing an enzyme that produces a class of chemicals called sulphoraphanes. Nathan Matusheski, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, crushed raw broccoli in the lab to mimic chewing, and tested the resulting mush.


Matusheski says that in common supermarket broccoli, 20 per cent of the sulphoraphanes are the anti-carcinogenic kind, which have an extra sulphur atom in each molecule. The rest lacks this crucial sulphur and has no cancer-fighting capability. But when he tested broccoli that had been heated to 60 C, he found the relative levels were reversed, favouring the anti-cancer compound.


A protein in broccoli called ESP plays a role in pushing the balance towards the sulphur-poor sulphoraphane. Matusheski confirmed that heating the broccoli destroys the ESP, tipping the balance in favour of the beneficial sulphoraphane. But cooking broccoli conventionally does not help, as the enzyme that produces sulphoraphanes in the first placed is also destroyed.


One way to ensure high levels of the beneficial compound may be to eliminate the genes that code for the ESP protein. This could be done by making hybrids with wild strains, says Matusheski, who prefers this approach on an ethical basis. Another method would be gene silencing.


"This is one of many studies that will build our knowledge of immune-enhancing foods", says Sara Risch, a food technology adviser with the Chicago-based food science consultancy Science by Design. "This research identifies something that could be taken to the plant breeders," she says.


Matusheski's research was presented at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in New Orleans.