Cauliflower is a member of the Brassica family of plants – which includes other cruciferous, non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, and kale. Grown all over the world, cauliflower has a wide variety of uses including soups, salads, and sides given its relatively neutral flavour profile. While the health benefits of green and leafy vegetables is fairly well known, cauliflower has often been overlooked for its nutritional value. Despite the notion to ‘eat the rainbow’, this white-colored cruciferous has recently received more attention for its cancer fighting properties and key nutrients to support higher order brain function, including learning, memory, and decision making.
A 2013 study published in the journal BioMed Research International has reported that Brassica vegetables are a notable source of antimutagens. Mutagenesis refers to the induction of permanent changes within our genetic material, or DNA, and is a critical step in the development of cancerous changes. As our DNA is constantly subject to damage through both internal and external factors, compounds with activity that can inhibit or restore this damage represent an evolving area of cancer research.
The study, conducted by Dr. Rehab Ali, notes that cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, can act to inhibit this DNA damage by inducing the action of detoxifying proteins within the body. Similarly, the medical journal Oncotarget published an article about a team of French researchers who recently found that a compound isolated from cauliflower called phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) can both reduce the risk and help those already fighting a diagnosis of cancer. Unlike chemotherapeutic agents that can be toxic to healthy cells, PEITC was found to restrict tumor development while still being completely safe to healthy cells. But taken together, chemotherapeutics and PEITC made for an even more powerful cancer-fighting pair.
Cauliflower is rich in another essential nutrient called choline. Choline has complex roles in the body, including metabolic functions, maintaining the integrity of our cells, and creating neurotransmitters that allow us to engage in complex brain processes like learning, reading, and memory. This is vital for proper brain development during pregnancy; both the hippocampus, or the memory center of the brain, and frontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and complex thinking, require ample amounts of choline.
Deficiencies in choline have been linked to both nervous system defects in the fetus as well as deficits in mental function for years to come. In a study published in Brain Research, researchers investigated the effect of choline supplementation among pregnant mice. Compared to the mice fed a normal diet, the offspring of those birthed to mice who had been fed supplemental choline performed better on memory and learning tasks. In addition, the actual size of brain cells tended to be larger amongst those supplemented with choline.
While our bodies can make choline from scratch, this not sufficient to meet our human requirements. Notably, choline is a precursor required to make the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Our brain cells, or neurons, use acetylcholine to help store memories, stay alert, and learn. Published in the Archives of Neurology, researchers out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out to test the effect of choline supplementation on memory retention in older adults. The team identified 32 participants with mild cognitive decline and randomized participants to receive either choline supplementation or a placebo for a two-month period. After 60 days, participants who received the choline therapy had improved short and long-term information recall when compared to the placebo group. Based on these findings, the clinicians hypothesize that choline supplements may be an effective strategy to mitigate age-related memory loss that may be the precursor to dementia.
While the research is ongoing, cauliflower has proven itself to be a cancer-fighting and brain-boosting vegetable. In both animal and human studies, this cruciferous vegetable has compounds to sustain brain function in those young and old.