Whenever scientists find evidence that some new plant molecule (or phytochemical) is healthy, a ‘superfood’, that it prevents cancer, or helps you lose weight, what’s the first thing we do? We make a pill out of it.
Red wine might prevent heart disease? Resveratrol pills! Fatty fish prevents cancer? Fish oil pills! Green tea? Catechin pills! Turmeric? Curcumin pills! And on, and on, and on.
Broccoli is one of the most recent foods to receive this treatment. Researchers found that a sulfur compound in broccoli, sulforaphane, has anti-microbial properties and kills cancer stem cells. It also increases liver enzymes that are known to be helpful against cancer.
So, what happens? A pharmaceutical company makes a pill, called Sulforadex, chalk full of sulforaphane. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not even the first ‘broccoli pill’ on the market.
Now you might say, so what? My grandma told me to eat my broccoli when I was five years old. She knew this, why do we even need this research? Well, as people of science, we know that data are better than anecdotes. We also know that although our ancestors’ oral traditions often contain a great deal of wisdom, other times they are nonsense. So, I think it’s great that this research is being done.
The part that bugs me is that compounds that appear curative from research that is often funded by taxpayers must immediately be broken down into pill form and monetized. Many times in the past such pills have failed to fulfill the incredible promises made by their creators. Whether this was because the compound easily oxidized outside the plant (for example, catechins in green tea) or because it required a combination of other micronutrients present in the actual plant is interesting, but not super relevant. So, why does this keep happening? The answer is basically this: broccoli does not have lobbyists, red wine cannot be patented, whole blueberries can’t be crammed into a massively overpriced pill that everyone will buy and nobody will take.
I’m not saying the pills are bad for you. Some of them are smoke and mirrors, but some are likely effective supplements. But I know people taking a number of different supplements made from plant compounds like catechins, anthocyanins, curcumin, fiber, and many others. So, if you find yourself taking more than one pill that cost you a lot of money at GNC, and cost the company almost nothing to make, why aren’t you just eating vegetables? I get it, it’s hard, it’s expensive. But is it really harder than driving to a totally different store? Is it really more expensive than supplements at a specialized health food store, MANY of which are over 50 dollars for a month’s supply for one pill? And are you even considering the fact that there are likely thousands of other phytochemicals in the vegetables that might be healthy too?
In other words, if there are enough healthy compounds in broccoli to make multiple different supplement pills, maybe even hundreds, why not just listen to your grandmother? Or if your grandmother didn’t tell you to eat your vegetables you can listen to mine.
Remember to eat your broccoli!
- Kim, BG, Fujita, T, Stankovic, KM, et al. 2016. Sulforaphane, a natural component of broccoli, inhibits vestibular schwannoma growth in vitroand in vivo. Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/srep36215
- Mahn, A., Reyes, A. 2012. An overview of health-promoting compounds of broccoli (Brassica oleracea) and the effects of processing. Food Science and Technology International 18 (6).
- Doss, JF, Jonassaint, JC, Garrett, ME, et al. 2016. Phase 1 Study of a Sulforaphane-Containing Broccoli Sprout Homogenate for Sickle Cell Disease. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0152895. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152895.