Health Benefits of Cauliflower


Cauliflower is the cabbage that looks like a brain. Smart people eat cauliflower on a regular basis because of its mild flavour, potent nutrition, and extraordinary versatility as a substitute for many of the “white carbohydrates” that dieters try to avoid.

What Is Cauliflower?

Cauliflower, white cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts, are all varieties of the same plant species, Brassica oleracea. They have very different appearances and subtle differences in nutrition, but they can interbreed with each other to make many varieties of the same vegetable.

Cauliflowers come in a number of different shapes, sizes, and colours. There is the familiar white cauliflower, but there are also purple and orange cauliflowers too, as well as a green cauliflower, sometimes marketed as Romanesco broccoli. In Great Britain, a variety of broccoli with purple flower heads is sold as “purple cauliflower,” but it is not the purple cauliflower with the large florets known as curds.

What Are the Key Nutritional Benefits of Cauliflower?

Cauliflower, like other related cabbages, is a good source of the following:

Carotenoids, plant chemicals related to beta-carotene, which the body can convert into vitamin A as needed.

Glucosinolates, which protect against cancer in small doses, but act as goitrogens, interfering with the thyroid's ability to absorb iodine and make thyroid hormone, in high doses.

Indole-3-carbinol, which enhances DNA repair, and mitigates the carcinogenic effects of oestrogen in tissues that are sensitive to it.

Sulforaphanes, which have some cancer-fighting qualities.

All of these chemicals are leached out of cauliflower when it is boiled, but remain in the vegetable when it is eaten raw or cooked by other methods. Boiling cauliflower for 45 minutes or longer removes essentially all of these phytonutrients, but boiling cauliflower for 15 minutes or less has minimal effect. The sulforaphanes are only released when cauliflower is chewed; cauliflower purees don't provide them.

Some people just don't like the taste of cauliflower. This is due to the presence of a bitter plant chemical called sinigrin which breaks down when the vegetable is roasted. Not everyone can taste sinigrin, but some people are extremely sensitive to it.

Purple cauliflower (which is purple because of a chance mutation in a single gene, not because of genetic modification in a lab) contains anthocyanin pigments that carry many of the same benefits of similar purple pigments found in blueberries, blackberries, and plums.

Farmers have an unusual incentive to provide organically grown cauliflower. The more the plant is treated with the chemical fertilizer ammonia, after a certain point, the heads become smaller. So it is actually more profitable for farmers to use little or no chemical fertilizer on most cauliflower crops.

What Health Issues Are Especially Responsive to Cauliflower?

There is good epidemiological evidence which suggests eating any of the various forms of cabbage on a regular basis, including cauliflower and its close relatives, actually helps to reduce the risk of lung cancer in smokers, plus bladder cancer and multiple myeloma. Cauliflower is particularly helpful with various conditions caused by inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis. It also helps lower cholesterol.

 

The thing to remember about cauliflower, and other Cabbage-family vegetables, is that more is not always better. It's not usually a good idea to eat more than five servings a week, especially if you eat your cauliflower and cabbage raw. More than that increases the risk of getting too many of the sulforaphane compounds that are goitrogenic, and these can interfere with the thyroid's ability to absorb iodine. Adding iodized salt to your food, or taking iodine capsules, will do nothing to offset the effects of the goitrogens. Also, if you have gout, cauliflower is one of the foods which contain gout-inducing purines; although there are far fewer purines in cauliflower than there are in other foods that are problematic for gout, such as meat and legumes.

Where Does Cauliflower Fit in the Families of Vegetables?

Cauliflower doesn't just look like an especially brainy cabbage, it actually is a cabbage. It belongs to the very same species, Brassica oleracea, as cabbage, kale, and collards (a funny looking cabbage that has been cultivated in Turkey for nearly 1500 years, and has been popular in France and England for nearly 400 years). There is also enormous production of cauliflower in modern China.

What Is the Best Way to Eat Cauliflower Raw?

Cauliflower is understandably popular on snack trays. When it's pureed, cooked cauliflower is firm enough to use as a tasty dip. Some people prefer it is a crunchy accompaniment to carrot sticks, celery sticks, jicama, and radishes. But how you select your cauliflower at the market, and way you prepare raw cauliflower, can make a difference to its nutritional value.

Selection

When buying cauliflower at the market, go for a compact, creamy-white (or bright orange or bright purple), clean looking curd. The florets should not be separated. Do not buy cauliflowers that have spots or small flowers, or if the colour is brownish or grey, or anything other than a nice bright white, orange, or purple (depending on the variety).

Heads that are surrounded by many leaves are usually fresher. You will need to remove those leaves before you serve or cook the cauliflower. Note that the size of the head is not an indicator of quality. Wash the cauliflower thoroughly when you bring it home from the market, making sure it has drained and dried properly before placing it in the coldest part of your refrigerator.

Storage

It is important to store cauliflower with some kind of barrier between it and other vegetables you might have, especially melons. Cauliflowers have lots of nooks and crannies that could host bacteria or molds from the dripping of other produce. If you store cauliflower in a plastic bag, make sure the bag has holes so that the air can circulate and keep the head dry. Even better, store your cauliflower in a paper bag.

Uncooked cauliflower should retain its flavour and nutrients in the refrigerator for at least a week. Pre-cut florets should be consumed within two days.

Tips for Preparation

Always cut cauliflower with a sharp knife. Dull knives are prone to spread bacteria, plus they crush the tissues of the vegetable causing the juices and minerals they contain to leak out. Sharp knives actually trigger the cauliflower to increase its antioxidant content to repair the wound.

Never mince or shred cauliflower unless you intend to marinate it, and if you do, be sure to use the vegetable on the same day that you mince or shred it. The smaller the dice, the faster the vegetable will go off.

What Is the Best Way to Use Cauliflower in Salads?

Cauliflower that has been grown in cold weather, especially during the winter months, has a sweeter, nuttier flavour that is best for salads. Warmer-season cauliflower should be cooked first.

Throughout much of Latin America, cauliflower is pickled in vinegar for up to a week, sometimes with carrots, pearl onions, and slices of sweet red peppers. Cauliflower can also be marinated in lemon juice and served with any combination of capers, dill, pitted black olives, pitted green olives, black pepper, salt, and olive oil. Eating cauliflower raw with vinegar slows down the passage of food from your stomach to the rest of your digestive tract, which in turn helps control blood sugar levels.

Looking for still more new ways to serve cauliflower in salads? Okay, here are some other suggestions. Combine cauliflower with shaved or sliced fennel bulb, using the fronds as garnish. Serve raw cauliflower with cherry tomatoes cut into quarters, then add red pepper slices with lemon juice and oil, black pepper and salt. Add cauliflower along with carrot into traditional salads of lettuce and tomatoes. Try a paleo cauliflower salad made with raw cauliflower, raw broccoli, cooked bacon, and mayonnaise (we didn't say it was a low-calorie salad!), and add carrots, sweet red peppers, capers, anchovies, onion, black pepper, salt, and lemon juice as desired.

What Is the Best Way to Cook Cauliflower?

The sulfur compounds in cauliflower react with the iron in cast iron cookware to form brown spots. To prevent this from happening, add a little lemon juice to the cooking liquid if you use iron cooking utensils.

Many Indian curries contain cauliflower. You can use a curry mix, add prepared curry sauce and yogurt, or make your own, but make sure the cauliflower is cooked until tender and allowed to stand for at least 10 minutes so that it can absorb all the spices and flavours.

You can also roast cauliflower to bring out smoky, caramel flavours. Break individual curds from the head then wash and cut them into bite-sized pieces. Coat with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and then roast in a hot oven until the curds begin to brown on the edges from the caramelisation. Garlic and Parmesan cheese add additional flavour to roasted cauliflower.

Cauliflower Is Also a Great Substitute for Many High-carb Foods

Cauliflower makes a great low-carb substitute for mashed potatoes. To get a potato-like taste, it's essential to remove all the leaves before boiling the cauliflower, otherwise any green in the vegetable will impart the taste of cabbage to the mash (one kitchen trick is to boil the cauliflower with an unshelled English walnut to absorb cabbage-y flavours.) Before ricing or mashing the cauliflower, be sure to drain it thoroughly, and then press out any excess water through a strainer or colander. Then add salt, butter, milk, and cream to taste. The cauliflower alternative to mashed potatoes can also be seasoned with rosemary, thyme, and garlic. The consistency of the mash can be adjusted by the addition of one or two tablespoons of ricotta cheese.

Combine cauliflower, crimini mushrooms and hazelnuts (about twice as much cauliflower as the other ingredients) to make a stuffing for your Thanksgiving turkey. Replace bread with cauliflower and use your regular seasonings.

What Are Some Ways to Make Cauliflower Juice More Interesting?

Cauliflower and cucumber juice is surprisingly refreshing when drunk after a workout or during hot weather. Cauliflower and apple juice has a sweet taste that masks the drinks' cabbage-y origins.

How Do I Get Kids to Like Cauliflower?

A cauliflowers looks a little like a brain. Pointing this out to children could make them a great deal more, or possibly a great deal less, interested in eating the vegetable. Perhaps the best way to get cauliflowers into your kid's meals is to disguise it as rice or mashed potatoes. Seasoned like potatoes, cauliflower might not even be noticed.

How Long Does Cauliflower Keep?

Nobody likes to see grey or black moldy patches on cauliflower. The way to avoid this is to make sure that the vegetable is stored as close to freezing as possible. You can do this by putting it in the coldest part of the refrigerator and placed in a bag or vegetable keeper that “breathes.” Storing cauliflower in cling film or plastic wrap is almost a guaranteed to make it go moldy in a week or even less. If the container for the cauliflower is ventilated, a head of cauliflower should keep for about three weeks.

It's not common for cauliflower to be contaminated with E. coli although other vegetables are much more likely to be problematic. When cauliflower does pick up pathogenic bacteria, it usually gets them from incomplete manures that are used as compost in organic field operations. These bacteria persist on the leaves rather than on the curd itself. Just to be safe, don't eat the green leaves raw, and rinse the florets after removing them from the head so that you can rinse both top and bottom.

Tips for Frugal Use of Cauliflower

Don't be afraid to freeze cauliflower you can't use in a week or less. Break it into bite-sized florets, and blanch in boiling water for three to five minutes. Shock the blanched florets in ice water, drain thoroughly, allow to cool down to room temperature, then place into freezer bags and store in your freezer. Be sure to push air out of the bag before you seal it. Cauliflower you freeze yourself should be good for up to three months.

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About Andy Williams

Andy Williams has a Ph.D. in biology and a strong interest in health and nutrition. The Paleo Gut web site was created to explore the health benefits of the Paleo diet and see how it is changing lives. Also, get our free daily Paleo Gut newspaper delivered to your inbox. Please feel free to contact me and let me know about your Paleo experiences or favorite recipes.

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