What's New and Beneficial About Cabbage
- Cabbage can provide you with some special cholesterol-lowering benefits if you will cook it by steaming. The fiber-related components in cabbage do a better job of binding together with bile acids in your digestive tract when they've been steamed. When this binding process takes place, it's easier for bile acids to be excreted, and the result is a lowering of your cholesterol levels. Raw cabbage still has cholesterol-lowering ability, just not as much as steamed cabbage.
- Researchers now realize that different types of cabbage (red, green, and Savoy) contain different patterns of glucosinolates. This new knowledge means that your broadest health benefits from cabbage are likely to come from inclusion of all varieties in your diet.
- Cabbage in general—but also Savoy cabbage in particular—turns out to be an especially good source of sinigrin. Sinigrin is one of the cabbage glucosinolates that has received special attention in cancer prevention research. The sinigrin in cabbage can be converted into allyl-isothiocyanate, or AITC. This isothiocyanate compound has shown unique cancer preventive properties with respect to bladder cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer.
- In one recent study, short-cooked and raw cabbage were the only types of cabbage to show cancer-preventive benefits—long-cooked cabbage failed to demonstrate measurable benefits.
- New research shows that steaming is a better cooking method than microwaving if you want to maximize the health benefits of glucosinolates found in cabbage. That's because two minutes of microwaving destroys the same amount of myrosinase enzymes as seven minutes of steaming, and you need those myrosinase enzymes to help convert cabbage's glucosinolates into cancer-preventive compounds.
Include cabbage as one of the cruciferous vegetables you eat on a regular basis if you want to receive the fantastic health benefits provided by the cruciferous vegetable family. At a minimum, include cruciferous vegetables as part of your diet 2-3 times per week, and make the serving size at least 1-1/2 cups. Even better from a health standpoint, enjoy cabbage and other vegetables from the cruciferous vegetable group 4-5 times per week, and increase your serving size to 2 cups.
Traditional methods of steaming or boiling make cabbage watery. To retain the maximum number of nutrients and flavor we recommend lightly sauteing or lightly steaming (2 minutes or less) cabbage. Slice cabbage into 1/4-inch slices and let sit for 5 minutes to enhance its health-promoting benefits before cooking.
While green cabbage is the most commonly eaten variety of cabbage, we highly recommend trying red cabbage because of it added nutritional benefits and its robust hearty flavor. The rich red color of red cabbage reflects it concentration of anthocyanin polyphenols, which contribute to red cabbage containing significantly more protective phytonutrients than green cabbage. Interest in anthocyanin pigments continues to intensify because of their health benefits as dietary antioxidants, as an anti-inflammatory, and their potentially protective, preventative, and therapeutic roles in a number of human diseases.
A recent study showed that a 100 gram (about 3 ounces) serving of raw red cabbage delivers 196.5 milligrams of polyphenols, of which 28.3 milligrams are anthocyanins. Green cabbages yielded much less per 100 grams: 45 milligrams of polyphenols including 0.01 milligram of anthocyanins. The vitamin C equivalent, a measure of antioxidant capacity, of red cabbage is also six to eight times higher than that of green cabbage. Red cabbage is one of the most nutritious and best tasting vegetables on the planet.
Cancer prevention tops all other areas of health research with regard to cabbage and its outstanding benefits. More than 475 studies have examined the role of this cruciferous vegetable in cancer prevention (and in some cases, cancer treatment). The uniqueness of cabbage in cancer prevention is due to the three different types of nutrient richness found in this widely enjoyed food. The three types are (1) antioxidant richness, (2) anti-inflammatory richness, and (3) richness in glucosinolates.
Antioxidant-Related Health Benefits
Cabbage ranks high in Vitamin C content. In terms of antioxidants in the newer, phytonutrient category, cabbage is impressive, even among cruciferous vegetables. Polyphenols rank at the top of the list for phytonutrient antioxidants in cabbage. In fact, one group of researchers has described polyphenols as the primary factor in cabbage's overall antioxidant capacity. Even white cabbage (a very lightly-colored form of green cabbage and the most commonly eaten variety of cabbage in the U.S.) provides about 50 milligrams of polyphenols in a half-cup serving. Red cabbage is even more unique among the cruciferous vegetables in providing about 30 milligrams of the red pigment polyphenols called anthocyanins in each half cup. (These anthocyanins qualify not only as antioxidant nutrients, but as anti-inflammatory nutrients as well.) The antioxidant richness of cabbage is partly responsible for its cancer prevention benefits. Without sufficient intake of antioxidants, our oxygen metabolism can become compromised, and we can experience a metabolic problem called oxidative stress. Chronic oxidative stress—in and of itself—can be a risk factor for development of cancer.
Without sufficient intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients, regulation of our inflammatory system can become compromised, and we can experience the problem of chronic inflammation. Especially when combined together with oxidative stress, chronic inflammation is a risk factor for development of cancer.
The anthocyanins found in red cabbage are well-documented anti-inflammatory compounds, and make red cabbage a standout anti-inflammatory food for this reason. However, all types of cabbage contain significant amounts of polyphenols that provide anti-inflammatory benefits.
Glucosinolates and Cancer Prevention
Given the roles of oxidative stress and chronic inflammation as risk factors for cancer, the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory richness of cabbage would provide anti-cancer health benefits without the addition of cabbage's glucosinolates. But glucosinolates are cabbage's trump card with regard to "anti-cancer" benefits. The glucosinolates found in cabbage can be converted into isothiocyanate compounds that are cancer preventive for a variety of different cancers, including bladder cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer.
The isothiocyanates (ITCs) made from cabbage's glucosinolates act to protect us against cancer through a variety of different mechanisms. In some cases, they help regulate inflammation by altering the activity of messaging molecules within our body's inflammatory system. In other cases, they improve our body's detoxification system and leave our cells with a smaller toxic load. But the bottom line is decreased risk of cancer from consumption of cabbage and its glucosinolates. We've seen one study, from Poland, showing impressive reduction of breast cancer risk in women consuming large amounts of cabbage. (In this particular study, this reduction in risk was associated with consumption of at least 4 cabbage servings per week, in comparison with the once-per-week serving consumed by women with higher breast cancer risk.)
Digestive Tract Support
Long-established in health research is the role of cabbage juice in helping heal stomach ulcers (called peptic ulcers), but more recent studies on cabbage have looked at the overall health benefits of this food for the stomach and digestive tract as a whole. Present-day studies make it clear that cabbage contains a variety of nutrients of potential benefit to our stomach and intestinal linings. These nutrients include glucosinolates (and the anti-inflammatory isothiocyanates or ITCs made from them), antioxidant polyphenols, and the amino acid-like substance called glutamine. In the case of ITCs, digestive tract benefits include proper regulation of bacterial populations of Helicobacter pylori inside the stomach. These bacteria are normal stomach inhabitants, but their populations can become too large and they can latch onto the stomach lining in an undesirable way. The ITCs made from cabbage's glucosinolates can lower the risk of these unwanted stomach events.
You can count on cabbage to provide your cardiovascular system with valuable support in the form of cholesterol reduction. Researchers understand exactly how this process takes place. Your liver uses cholesterol as a basic building block to produce bile acids. Bile acids are specialized molecules that aid in the digestion and absorption of fat through a process called emulsification. These molecules are typically stored in fluid form in your gall bladder, and when you eat a fat-containing meal, they get released into the intestine where they help ready the fat for interaction with enzymes and eventual absorption up into the body. When you eat cabbage, fiber-related nutrients in this cruciferous vegetable bind together with some of the bile acids in the intestine in such a way that they simply stay inside the intestine and pass out of your body in a bowel movement, rather than getting absorbed along with the fat they have emulsified. When this happens, your liver needs to replace the lost bile acids by drawing upon your existing supply of cholesterol, and as a result, your cholesterol level drops down. Cabbage provides you with this cholesterol-lowering benefit whether it is raw or cooked. However, a recent study has shown that the cholesterol-lowering ability of raw cabbage improves significantly when it is steamed. In fact, when the cholesterol-lowering ability of steamed cabbage was compared with the cholesterol-lowering ability of the prescription drug cholestyramine (a medication that is taken for the purpose of lowering cholesterol), cabbage bound 17% as many bile acids (based on a standard of comparison involving total dietary fiber).
Cabbage has a round shape and is composed of superimposed leaf layers. It is a member of the food family traditionally known as cruciferous vegetables and is related to kale, broccoli, collards and Brussels sprouts. All cruciferous vegetables provide integrated nourishment across a wide variety of nutritional categories and provide broad support across a wide variety of body systems as well.
The word "brassica" translates in Latin as "cabbage," and this word is being used more and more by researchers to refer to the entire group of cruciferous vegetables. You'll find many plant scientists now using the Latin word Brassicaceae and the phrase " brassica vegetables" instead of Latin word Cruciferae and the traditional phrase "cruciferous vegetables" when referring to cabbage, kale, broccoli, collards and other foods in this vegetable subgroup.
Because cabbage's inner leaves are protected from the sunlight by the surrounding leaves, they are oftentimes lighter in color. There are three major types of cabbage: green, red, and Savoy. The color of green cabbage ranges from pale to dark green. Both green and red cabbage have smooth-textured leaves. Red cabbage has leaves that are either crimson or purple with white veins running through it. The leaves of Savoy cabbage are more ruffled and yellowish-green in color. Red and green cabbage have a more defined taste and crunchy texture as compared to Savoy cabbage's more delicate nature. Bok choy as well as Chinese (Napa) cabbage are other varieties of cabbage available. Bok choy has a mild flavor and a higher concentration of vitamin A. Chinese cabbage, with its pale green ruffled leaves, is great to use in salads. Red cabbage contains additional health benefits not found in green cabbage.
Sturdy, abundant, and inexpensive, cabbage is a longstanding dietary staple throughout the world and is so widely cultivated and stores so well that it is available throughout the year. However, it is at its best during the late fall and winter months when it is in season.
Cabbage has a long history of use both as a food and a medicine. It was developed from wild cabbage, a vegetable that was closer in appearance to collards and kale since it was composed of leaves that did not form a head.
It is thought that wild cabbage was brought to Europe around 600 B.C. by groups of Celtic wanderers. It was grown in Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations that held it in high regard as a general panacea capable of treating a host of health conditions.
While it's unclear when and where the headed cabbage that we know today was developed, cultivation of cabbage spread across northern Europe into Germany, Poland and Russia, where it became a very popular vegetable in local food cultures. The Italians are credited with developing the Savoy cabbage. Russia, Poland, China and Japan are a few of the leading producers of cabbage today.
Sauerkraut, a dish made from fermented cabbage, has a colorful legacy. Dutch sailors consumed it during extended exploration voyages to prevent scurvy. Early German settlers introduced cabbage and the traditional sauerkraut recipe were introduced into the United States. As a result of this affiliation, German soldiers, and people of German descent were often referred to as "krauts."