boy in white dress shirt holding green vegetable

SCINQ BASICS: Broccoli is the O.G. of genetically modified foods. Deal with it. (Blame the Romans.)

“Eat your broccoli!”

That phrase is almost shorthand for “Vegetables suck.” But they don’t do they. They’re actually pretty fantastic and versatile, especially when you compare them to one-trick ponies like meat.

Broccoli is really underappreciated. Depending on the type of heat it is exposed to — boiled, fried, roasted, etc. — its flavor profile changes accordingly. It’s great and that’s why we’re featuring it here. It’s also a perfect example of a man-made vegetable created by gradually altering the genetics of its ancestor. If anything’s been genetically modified, its every stalk of broccoli that’s ever existed, organic or not.

Descended from: The wild cabbage plant, Brassica oleracea.

Domestication date: Circa 6th century BCE

Distinct Properties: Broccoli can make some people gassy due to its high fiber content and the presence of a complex sugar called raffinose. Here’s how it works-

  • Fiber: Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the human body can’t fully digest. While it’s good for your digestive health overall, aiding in regular bowel movements and contributing to a sense of fullness, it can also cause gas. As fiber moves through your digestive system, it reaches the large intestine largely undigested. Here, your gut bacteria go to work breaking it down through a process called fermentation. This fermentation produces gases like methane, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide, which can lead to feelings of bloating or discomfort and the release of gas.
  • Raffinose: Raffinose is a complex sugar found in broccoli, as well as other vegetables like cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Humans lack the enzyme needed to break down this sugar in the small intestine, so it passes to the large intestine undigested. Again, it’s the gut bacteria that break it down, producing gases in the process.

Health benefits: Broccoli is a nutrient-rich vegetable. Its active ingredients include a variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and bioactive compounds. Here are some of the key ones –

  • Vitamins: Broccoli is high in many vitamins, especially vitamin C and vitamin K. It also contains some amounts of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), folate (vitamin B9), and smaller amounts of other B vitamins.
  • Minerals: Broccoli contains various essential minerals such as potassium, calcium, and iron.
  • Fiber: Dietary fiber is abundant in broccoli, which is beneficial for digestive health.
  • Antioxidants: Broccoli is a rich source of antioxidants, which are beneficial for reducing inflammation and protecting against disease. These include flavonoids like kaempferol and quercetin, and carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin.
  • Sulforaphane: Perhaps one of the most notable compounds in broccoli is sulforaphane, a type of isothiocyanate that has been shown in studies to have powerful anti-cancer properties. It’s formed when broccoli is chopped, chewed, or damaged in any way, triggering an enzymatic reaction that releases sulforaphane from a compound called glucoraphanin.
  • Indole-3-carbinol: This compound is believed to help counteract the effects of estrogen in the body, potentially reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.

Dishes of Note: Broccoli can be used as a main ingredient in many delicious and healthy dishes. Here are some notable examples –

  • Broccoli Soup: This is a classic dish where broccoli is the star. The soup can be creamy, or it can be made lighter without dairy. It can be pureed or left chunky, and often includes onions, garlic, and sometimes potatoes or other vegetables.
  • Broccoli Salad: Raw or lightly steamed broccoli is often used in salads. A classic broccoli salad might include bacon, raisins, sunflower seeds, and a creamy dressing, but there are many variations, including ones with cranberries, nuts, or other vegetables.
  • Broccoli Stir-fry: In a stir-fry, broccoli absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients. It can be paired with a variety of proteins (like tofu, chicken, beef, or shrimp) and other vegetables, and is typically served with a savory sauce and rice.
  • Broccoli Casserole: This is a comforting dish that often includes cheese, rice or pasta, and sometimes a crunchy topping like breadcrumbs.
  • Broccoli Quiche: Broccoli can be the main vegetable in a quiche, typically combined with cheese and encased in a flaky pastry crust.
  • Roasted Broccoli: This simple dish brings out a different, sweeter flavor in broccoli. It can be roasted alone with just some olive oil, salt, and pepper, or it can be mixed with other vegetables or spices.
  • Broccoli Pasta: Broccoli can be used in pasta dishes, either as part of the sauce (like in pasta primavera or pasta alfredo), or as a main ingredient alongside other components.
  • Broccoli Pizza: Broccoli can be used as a topping on pizza, sometimes paired with other ingredients like chicken, garlic, or different types of cheese.
  • Broccoli and Cheese Stuffed Potatoes: In this dish, baked potatoes are loaded with broccoli and cheese, making a filling meal where broccoli is one of the key ingredients.

History: Broccoli has a long history that dates back to the Roman Empire, where it was initially cultivated from its wild ancestor, Brassica oleracea. The wild cabbage plant, native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines of Europe, was the starting point for breeding not only broccoli but also many other popular vegetables like cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and collard greens.

Broccoli’s name is derived from the Italian word “broccolo,” which means “cabbage sprout” or “flowering crest of a cabbage.” The vegetable gained popularity in Italy during the Roman Empire, where it was highly valued for its taste and nutritional qualities. The famous Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder mentioned broccoli in his writings, and it was cultivated and consumed by the Romans in various dishes.

Broccoli made its way to England in the 18th century, where it became known as “Italian asparagus.” It was introduced to the United States by Italian immigrants during the early 20th century, and it gained popularity in the U.S. as a vegetable in the 1920s and 1930s.

Over the years, selective breeding has resulted in the development of several broccoli cultivars with different characteristics, such as larger heads, different colors, and tender stems. Today, broccoli is grown worldwide and is a staple vegetable in many countries, appreciated for its taste, versatility, and numerous health benefits.

WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.

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