Broccoli Sprouts Have Impressive Health Benefits
Numerous studies support the profound positive health effects of consuming cruciferous vegetables. These benefits are partly due to compounds unique to cruciferous vegetables that have impressive effects on the body. These compounds, such as sulforaphane, have benefits for just about every part of your body, from your skin to your liver to your hormones. Unfortunately, these compounds, along with many micronutrients, are depleted during the packaging and transport of broccoli from farm to grocery store.
One way to mitigate this effect is to grow your own broccoli or find some at your local farmer’s market that was grown locally and harvested the same day or the day before. Another option is to eat broccoli sprouts in order to ingest large amounts of these beneficial compounds.
I hesitate ever to call something a panacea, but broccoli sprouts come pretty darn close. Some of the most powerful compounds found in broccoli are packed into these tiny little sprouts at up to 100 times the concentration1.
Below are a few of the reasons I love broccoli sprouts, and some scientific studies to back up all of these claims of vegetable magic. Many of the beneficial effects of broccoli sprouts are due to their potent anti-inflammatory properties. I have a jar growing at all times (I even bring them with me when I travel to visit family for the weekend to make sure I can keep up with the rinsing).
Skip to the end of this post for super simple instructions for how to grow broccoli sprouts in your kitchen.
1. Pollutant Detoxification
This research is what initially got me excited about broccoli sprouts. When I started a job in the middle of the city, I spent way too much time worrying about breathing air contaminated with toxic chemicals from car exhaust. We are all exposed to contaminants of some kind, and those of us who live and/or work in cities have to deal with breathing in exhaust on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, this is exposure is unavoidable for the most part, short of quitting city jobs and moving into more rural areas. Which is why I was SO excited to learn about broccoli sprouts and the effect they have on helping the body to detoxify chemicals that are common in exhaust.
Multiple studies have been conducted that provide evidence for the powerful ability of broccoli sprouts to help the body clear toxins. Sulforaphane is the compound in broccoli that is responsible for most of the health benefits provided by this plant*. A good number of studies take place in China, where air pollution is notoriously problematic.
Benzene, in particular, is a contaminant of great concern. Benzene is a toxic contaminant that is found in gasoline, including vehicle exhaust. It is carcinogenic and increases the risk of numerous diseases. Benzene causes damage to the liver, heart, kidney, lungs, and brain and is not considered safe in any amounts. Benzene also causes direct damage to telomeres, meaning that long-term exposure can result in more rapid aging and may even shorten lifespan.
Even minor exposure is problematic, and long-term exposure is a known cause of leukemia. Given these negative health impacts, and the fact that benzene exposure is unavoidable, it is vital to find ways to help our bodies process and eliminate benzene as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Enter broccoli sprouts. In one study, participants who were given a beverage derived from broccoli sprouts for 12 weeks had significantly greater excretion of various contaminants, including benzene2. Another study used a similar treatment, testing the effects of consuming a sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprout beverage. Results were similar, with significant detoxification of benzene and other contaminants among participants who were given the broccoli sprout beverage3.
At least some of the detoxification properties of broccoli sprouts can be attributed to the effects of sulforaphane on the liver. Broccoli sprout extract has been shown to increase the activity of genes related to detoxification and synthesis of glutathione. Broccoli sprout extract is able to protect the liver from a variety of toxic substances through improved detoxification and improved synthesis of glutathione4.
By detoxifying benzene in the body, broccoli sprouts also protect our telomeres and can help us to live longer.
2. Cancer Protection
Together with pollutant detoxification properties, cancer protection and prevention is one of the most well-researched and powerful benefits of sulforaphane. It is consequently one of the most compelling reasons to consume broccoli sprouts on a regular basis. The probability of being diagnosed with cancer during your lifetime is constantly increasing. Finding strategies to prevent cancer, especially when those strategies are natural, easy, and inexpensive, is powerful and exciting.
Broccoli sprouts have been shown to help protect against numerous type of cancer, including breast, colon, skin, and bladder cancer. Broccoli sprouts are nutrient dense and are a rich source of several isothiocyanates, which are a class of compounds known to protect against cancer. They also activate proteins that have an antioxidant effect5.
In animal studies, consumption of broccoli sprouts led rats to develop significantly fewer mammary tumors, and to protect against colon and bladder cancer6,7. Broccoli sprout extract not only helps to prevent bladder cancer, but it can also limit the spread, size, and progression of cancer when it does occur. Protection against bladder cancer is especially powerful, because isothiocyanates have a very high concentration in urine and have the opportunity to be active on bladder tissues as urine sits in the bladder.
Part of the power of broccoli sprouts comes from their ability to induce detoxification and boost antioxidant status, both of which protect against cancer induced by exposure to chemicals. Cancer studies have found benefit from uncooked fresh broccoli sprouts and from extracts derived from broccoli sprouts. When fresh broccoli sprouts are consumed, toxin excretion is higher when sprouts are chewed thoroughly rather than swallowed whole8. This was good news for me, as my favorite way to eat broccoli sprouts is to add them to smoothies.
3. Healthy Cholesterol Levels
Healthy cholesterol levels are a main focus for many healthcare practitioners and can be an indicator of overall health. Some studies suggest that consumption of broccoli sprouts can help to lower LDL cholesterol levels, while preserving or improving levels of HDL.
In a study on hamsters, researchers found a benefit of broccoli sprouts in lowering cholesterol. Those animals with diet-induced high cholesterol saw a reduction in cholesterol levels when they consumed freeze-dried broccoli sprouts. This reduction was tied to a change in gene expression9.
Broccoli sprouts had a stronger effect than glucoraphanin extract alone (glucoraphanin is a precursor to sulforaphane). Food work synergistically, which is why supplements alone often aren’t as effective as whole foods!
Broccoli sprouts have also been shown to protect against fructose-induced metabolic disorders and lower unhealthy cholesterol levels. In one study, rats were fed either a regular diet, or a high fructose diet that either did or did not contain broccoli sprout powder. Those in the broccoli sprout powder condition had a lower mean weight than either of the other two groups and had significantly lower LDL cholesterol and higher HDL cholesterol than those in the high fructose group 10.
4. Protects Skin from Sun Damage
Sun exposure can be such a tricky topic. I am a strong believer in the benefits of sun exposure. However, there is a lot of fear surrounding the role sun exposure plays in increasing cellular damage and skin cancer risk. Ideally, we would be able to find strategies that allow us to get plenty of sun-filled outdoor time without increasing our risk of skin cancer. Broccoli sprouts to the rescue!
Not just for salads and smoothies, broccoli sprouts can also work their magic through the skin. Used topically, broccoli sprout extract has been shown to prevent skin damage and inhibit the formation of cancerous skin cells.
UV radiation leads to skin oxidation that can cause inflammation, cell damage, and tumor formation. Studies have shown that topical treatment with sulforaphane isolated from broccoli sprout extract protects against oxidation and can reduce the development of cancer in skin cells. It acts by activating protective enzymes in the cells, which protect cells from damage and prevent cancer growth. Topical application of broccoli sprout extract can also reduce inflammation and susceptibility to sunburn11,12,13.
Eating broccoli sprouts can also have skin benefits. In a study on mice, those found that mice with chronic exposure to UV radiation benefited from daily doses of broccoli sprout extract. They had fewer and smaller tumors than mice exposed to UV radiation that were not fed broccoli sprout extract14.
Bonus: protecting against and healing sun damage also slows skin aging. So you will be protected from cancer and keep your skin looking healthy and damage-free!
5. Improved Immune System
The immune system is what protects our bodies from everything ranging from the common cold to cancer. It is important to keep it as healthy and and high-functioning as possible. Luckily, broccoli sprouts can help us out in this arena as well.
There is some compelling research into the ability of broccoli sprouts to improve immune response to the flu virus. Studies conducted in both smokers and non-smokers show that consuming broccoli sprout extract for as little as four days significantly reduced flu virus quantity in the nose. Those who consumed the extract also had increased immune cell activity with 2 days15,16.
The research into the ability of broccoli sprouts to boost the immune is still in early stages, but there are important implications for enhanced antiviral properties.
6. Healthy Babies
Prenatal stressors can lead to various health issues in newborns. Severe maternal inflammation can lead to developmental delays, and problems like placental insufficiency can cause brain damage in babies. There is evidence that the consumption of broccoli sprouts might help to mitigate some of the effects of severe maternal stressors on babies. Most of the existing research has been performed on rats and is still in early stages. There’s a lot more research to be done here, but the findings so far are exciting.
In one study17, pregnant rats were given LPS (an endotoxin that triggers inflammation and strong immune responses in animals) to cause severe inflammation. Rats in one group were given a daily dose of dried broccoli sprouts, while others were given their typical diet. Pups in the group without broccoli sprouts had restricted growth, delayed movement, movement impairment, and increased grooming behavior. Those in the broccoli sprout group had higher birth weights, no delays or movement abnormalities, and less grooming behavior.
Placental insufficiency is a condition in which the placenta does not deliver sufficient oxygen and nutrients to the fetus. It results in impaired development and leads to a 40-fold increase in the risk of cerebral palsy. In a study on rats with placental insufficiency18, those supplemented with broccoli sprouts had offspring with improved reflexes, higher numbers of neurons in the hippocampus, more white matter in the brain, and better performance on behavioral tests compared to those not fed broccoli sprouts.
Overall, supplementation with broccoli sprouts prevented many of the neurological effects of placental insufficiency.
Broccoli sprouts have some impressive benefits in terms of mitigating damage due to more severe stressors in-utero. Given their known anti-inflammatory effects, the sprouts may also offer more subtle benefits for babies of women with mild to moderate inflammation during pregnancy.
Now that you know some of the secrets about the magic of broccoli sprouts, it’s time to start growing some of your own. They are easy to grow, and it’s quite fun to see little seeds turn into delicious sprouts in less than a week. I find the full grown sprouts to have a bit of a spicy taste, a lot like radishes. I like to eat them raw, add them to salads, or toss them in a smoothie with some berries.
How to Grow Broccoli Sprouts in Your Kitchen
Broccoli sprouts are insanely easy to grow at home, even in the smallest of spaces. I almost always have a couple jars going, as long as I will be home during the days they are growing. Here are the steps I use:
Ingredients and Tools:
- Broccoli Seeds – I prefer to buy organic seeds whenever possible, but these are a great option and I use them frequently
- Mason Jars – Any size works and I like to use quart size
- Sprouting Lids – These are not strictly necessary, though I do highly recommend them as they make the process infinitely easier and less messy
- Measure 1/4 cup of broccoli seeds into a quart-sized mason jar
- Cover with water (about 4 times the volume of the broccoli seeds)
- Place sprouting lid on top of jar, then leave on the counter for 8-12 hours
- Drain and rinse the seeds every 8-12 hours (*Make sure to keep the jar upturned in a large bowl so that it can continue to drain. Failure to do this left me with some gross slimy and smelly sprouts)
- Once the seeds have sprouted and grown yellow leaves, make sure they are in a spot that gets some sunlight
- The sprouts are ready to eat once they turn green (this usually takes mine 5-6 days, depending on room temperature)
- Keep refrigerated for up to a week
Any questions thoughts, or ideas? Please share them in the comments!
*Technically, glucoraphanin and myrosinase are found in broccoli sprouts, and those compounds interact to form sulforaphane.
Fahey et al. (1997). Broccoli sprouts: An exceptionally rich source of inducers of enzymes that protect against chemical carcinogens. PNAS, 94, 10366-10372.
Egner, P. A., et al. (2014). Rapid and sustainable detoxication of airborne pollutants by broccoli sprout beverage: Results of a randomized clinical trial in China. Cancer Prevention Research, 7(8).
Kensler, T. W., et al. (2012). Modulation of the metabolism of airborne pollutants by glucoraphanin-rich and sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprout beverages in Qidong, China. Carcinogenesis, 33(1).
Yoshida K, et al. (2015). Broccoli sprout extract induces detoxification-related gene expression and attenuates acute liver injury. World J Gastroenterol, 21(35): 10091-10103.
Talalay P & Fahey J (2001). Phytochemicals from cruciferous plants protect against cancer by modulating carcinogen metabolism. Amer Soc Nutr Sci, 131(11), 30275-30335.
Finley JW, et al. (2001). Cancer protective properties of high-selenium broccoli. J Agric Food Chem, 49(5). 2679-2683.
Munday R, et al., (2008). Inhibition of urinary bladder carcinogenesis by broccoli sprouts. Cancer Research, 68(5), 1593-1600.
Shapiro TA, et al. (2001). Chemoprotective glucosinolates and isothiocyanates of broccoli sprouts. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev, 10(5).
Rodríguez-Cantú, LN, et al. (2011). Broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica) Sprouts and Extracts Rich in Glucosinolates and Isothiocyanates Affect Cholesterol Metabolism and Genes Involved in Lipid Homeostasis in Hamsters. Agric Food Chem, 59(4), 1095-1103.
Abd-Mishani M, et al. (2016). Protective effect of broccoli sprouts powder against metabolic fructose-induced metabolic disorders in rats. Pajoohandeh J, 20(6). 308-314.
Dinkova-Kostova AT, et al. (2006). Protection against UV-light-induced skin carcinogenesis in SKH-1 high-risk mice by sulforaphane-containing broccoli sprout extracts. Cancer Letters, 240(2), 243-252.
Dinkova-Kostova AT, et al. (2007). Induction of the phase 2 response in mouse and human skin by sulforaphane-containing broccoli sprout extracts. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev, 16(4), 847-851.
Talalay P, et al. (2007). Sulforaphane mobilizes cellular defenses that protect skin against damage by UV radiation. PNAS, 104(44), 17500-17505.
Dinkova-Kostova AT, et al. (2010). Dietary glucoraphanin-rich broccoli sprout extracts protect agains UV radiation-induced skin carcinogenesis in SKH-1 hairless mice. Photochem. Photobiol. Sci., 9, 597-600.
Noah TL, et al. (2014). Effect of broccoli sprouts on nasal response to live attenuated influenza virus in smokers: A randomized, double-blind study. PLoS ONE, 9(6): e98671.
Müller L, et al. (2016). Effect of broccoli sprouts and live attenuated influenza virus on peripheral blood natural killer cells: A randomized, double-blind study. PLoS ONE, 11(1): e0147742.
Nguyen et al. (2016). Consumption of broccoli sprouts during late gestation and lactation confers protection against developmental delay induced by maternal inflammation. Behav. Brain Res., 307: 239-249.
Black AM, et al. (2015). Broccoli sprout supplementation during pregnancy prevents brain injury in the newborn rat following placental insufficiency. Behavioural Brain Research, 291: 289-298.