Cauliflower is much more than broccoli's paler cousin — this member of the cruciferous family brings the nutrients. Often maligned for being bland, cauliflower, when prepared properly, can be flavorful as well as healthful.
A common nutrition mantra is that vividly colored fruits and veggies are the healthiest ones, but Heather Mangieri, a Pittsburgh-based registered dietitian and nutritionist, health author and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that cauliflower is an exception.
"Despite its white color, cauliflower is a very versatile and vitamin-rich vegetable. It is a great source of vitamin C and folate and a good source of fiber and vitamin K. It is also rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, two naturally occurring compounds thought to play a role in chronic disease prevention," said Mangieri.
Cauliflower ranks among the top 30 powerhouse vegetables in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), which ranks foods based on nutrient content in relation to calorie amount.
Here are the nutrition facts for cauliflower, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling through the National Labeling and Education Act:
*Percent Daily Values (%DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
|Amt per Serving||%DV*||Amt per Serving||%DV*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%||Total Carbohydrate 5g||2%|
|Cholesterol 0mg||0%||Dietary Fiber 3g||10%|
|Sodium 30mg||1%||Sugars 2g|
Cauliflower is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, which includes cabbage, kale, turnips, mustard greens, radishes, arugula and broccoli. The word cauliflower comes from the Latin caulis (stalk) and floris (flower), meaning "cabbage flower," according to the University of Arizona.
Cauliflower originated in Asia Minor from wild cabbage, which resembled collard greens or kale, according to the George Mateljan Foundation's World’s Healthiest Foods website. Over the millennia, it went through many changes, and appeared in Turkey and Italy around 600 B.C. The Romans grew cauliflower.
After becoming popular in France in the 1500s, it was cultivated in Northern Europe and Britain. Today, most cauliflower is grown in the United States, France, Italy, India and China.
When growing, cauliflower starts out resembling broccoli, according to the University of Arizona. However, while broccoli opens outward to sprout green florets, cauliflower forms a compact head, called a curd, composed of undeveloped flower buds. The buds are protected from sunlight by the heavy green leaves that surround the head. This prevents chlorophyll from developing, so the head remains white.
Through selective breeding, however, several varieties of colored cauliflower are available, such as orange, purple and green. The jury is out on whether they are more nutritionally rich than the white variety.
Cauliflower is not an especially well-studied vegetable on its own, according to World's Healthiest Foods. Studies of diets that contain cauliflower, however, have been linked to cancer prevention.
Cauliflower florets, leaves and stalks are all edible. They can be cooked, eaten raw and added to soup stock, according to World's Healthiest Foods. Mangieri noted that when cooked, cauliflower, like many other cruciferous vegetables, can have a distinct aroma caused by high levels of the glucosinolates, a nutritional compound. Shorter cooking times can minimize the odor.
Vitamins C and K and manganese are antioxidants that can help keep the body healthy. Antioxidants are molecules that safely interact with free radicals to stop the condition of oxidative stress, according to an article in Pharmacognosy Review. Free radicals cause cell damage and disruption that can contribute to diseases. "[Antioxidants such as vitamins K and C] may help prevent conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis," added Mangieri.
A cup of cooked cauliflower provides 73 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C, 19 percent of the daily vitamin K amount and 8 percent of the daily manganese amount.
Mangieri noted cauliflower's high fiber content, which is about 11 percent of recommended daily amount. This can help promote smooth digestion, healthy stool bulk and regularity. Bulkier, softer stools are easier to pass than hard or watery ones, which not only makes life more comfortable but also helps maintain colorectal health. According to the Mayo Clinic, a high-fiber diet may help reduce the risk of hemorrhoids and diverticulitis (small, painful pouches on the colon).
Furthermore, a 2009 study by Johns Hopkins researchers published in Cancer Prevention Research found that sulforaphane, which is derived from glucosinolates in cauliflower, helps keep the stomach bacteria Helicobacter pylori from becoming overgrown or clinging too strongly to the stomach wall. This can help keep your stomach lining healthy.
Consuming folate during pregnancy is essential for helping to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in the fetus, according to the CDC. Choline may also help in this department; studies are inconclusive, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. One cup of cooked cauliflower gives you 11 percent of choline needs for the day.
"Some research suggests that the glucosinolates may help reduce risk of certain cancers, namely prostate cancer," said Mangiari. When glucosinolates break down, through being chopped or chewed, they produce isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates may encourage the elimination of carcinogens from the body, resulting in anti-cancer effects, according to a review published in Current Drug Metabolism. A review published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology looked at several studies examining cruciferous vegetables and cancer and found that "of the case-control studies 64 percent showed an inverse association between consumption of one or more brassica vegetables and risk of cancer at various sites."
Sulforaphane is also associated with cancer reduction. Studies published in Clinical Cancer Research and Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry have found that it inhibits breast and pancreatic cancer stem cells.
Furthermore, glucobrassicin, another compound found in cruciferous vegetables, yields indole-3-carbinol (I3C), which scientists think may reduce the risk of cancer, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
Folate may also play a role in cancer reduction. An article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that folate's possible cancer-reducing properties are likely linked to its role in the production of substances that silence cancer DNA. The study points out, however, that some research has suggested that in some cases high levels of folate could actually encourage cancer cell growth. The authors write, "Folate may provide protection early in carcinogenesis and in individuals with a low folate status, yet it may promote carcinogenesis if administered later and potentially at very high intakes."
Wound healing, skin and hair health
"Vitamin C plays an important role in wound healing," said Mangieri. According to a study published in the British Journal of Community Nursing, it is essential throughout the wound healing process, largely because it contributes toward collagen synthesis and development. Collagen is also essential for healthy skin and hair.
One cup of cooked cauliflower has 9 percent of the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids for the day, which are well-known anti-inflammatories, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. On a cellular level, omega-3 fatty acids inhibit an enzyme that produces hormones called prostaglandins that are brought in by cytokines to trigger inflammation.
Choline helps keep chronic inflammation down, according to a study in Shock medical journal. Indole-3-carbinol, sulforaphaneand vitamin K are also known anti-inflammatories.
Sulforaphane is associated with strong blood vessels and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2015 review published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity found that sulforaphane's anti-inflammatory capabilities may help protect against hypertension, atherosclerosis, stroke and myocardial infarction.
According to the Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University, vitamin K is an essential factor in blood clotting, and lack of it can cause hemorrhages. There are also suggestions that vitamin K might reduce the risk of heart disease because without it, mechanisms that stop the formation of blood vessel calcification might become inactive. Studies are still inconclusive, however, and one review of them, published in Advances in Nutrition journal, suggested that future research focuses specifically on vitamin-K deficient patients.
In the past 20 years, scientists have found that vitamin K plays an important role in bone health. According to a study in Nutrition, vitamin K increases the effectiveness of osteocalcin, a protein involved in bone mineralization, and promotes healthy calcium balance. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who consumed at least 110 micrograms of vitamin K daily were 30 percent less likely to break a hip than women who consumed less than that.
Mangieri noted that the vitamin C in cauliflower is also necessary for proper iron absorption. It helps overcome the effects of phytonutrients that inhibit iron absorption and helps release iron from non-heme sources, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts, which is less easily absorbed than iron from heme sources, such as meats.
A large-scale study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that choline intake was associated with verbal and visual memories. Another large-scale study in the British Journal of Nutrition reported similar results. Participants with higher choline levels in their plasma showed improved performance on cognitive tests of global cognition, executive function, sensory motor speed and perceptual speed.
Sulforaphane's anti-inflammatory properties may help cognitive function, especially after brain injury, according to an article in Neuroscience Letters.
Risks of eating cauliflower
The risks for eating cauliflower are generally minimal. Like other cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower can make you gassy or bloated.
According to the University of Arizona, cabbage and cauliflower interfere with the body's absorption of iodine, which is needed by the thyroid gland. People with thyroid problems should avoid eating large amounts of either vegetable.
Cauliflower contains naturally occurring substances called purines. Purines can be broken down to form uric acid, and excess accumulation of uric acid can cause gout and kidney stones, according to World's Healthiest Foods.
According to The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, people taking blood-thinning medications should watch their cauliflower intake, since the vegetable's vitamin K content may interfere with the medication's effectiveness.
Steaming and broiling are probably the most common ways to cook cauliflower, but they can leave the vegetable mushy and bland. Mangieri suggests roasting, sautéing and eating it raw to retain flavor.
Here are Mangieri's suggestions for incorporating this healthy veggie into your diet:
- Cut it up and eat it raw, plain or with hummus or low-fat ranch dressing.
- Roast it with a small amount of olive oil.
- Make mashed cauliflower as a substitute for mashed potatoes.
- Use cauliflower as the main ingredient to make pizza crust.
- Top it with breadcrumbs and bake in the oven for a wonderful healthy side dish.