In a nutshell, highly regarded scientists at The University of Illinois have shown for the first time (in rats) that sulforaphane, a potent cancer-fighting molecule in broccoli, can be released from within the food matrix by bacteria in the lower gut and then absorbed into the body in quantities large enough to have anti-cancer benefits.
That is great news, to actually demonstrate what had been hoped for but not perfectly clear in the past. We have millions, billions, maybe trillions of good bacteria in our large intestine (colon) that are doing a myriad of jobs as they munch away on remnants and components of our food that have not been absorbed by the small intestine. I have heard a scientist stand up from the audience at a National Cancer Institute-sponsored conference to say that without starting to study the actions of these bacteria in the colon, all other research involving food and nutrients' potential role in cancer prevention/survivorship is vastly incomplete and essentially uninterpretable.
How to increase the number of good bacteria in your gut? Please don't wait for (or pay for) the dietary supplement industry to develop a pill that combines a single molecule like sulphoraphane and some friendly bacteria (probiotics) or some "bioactive food constituent" to feed these friendly bacteria (prebiotics). Eat more foods that contain live and active probiotics (examples being cultured dairy foods, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchee) or prebiotics (foods containing digestive-resistant fiber, inulin, some examples being onions, leeks, apples, oats, barley). This is easy and delicious to do with foods without adding expensive dietary supplements.
The other important point from this research was the comment by the scientist that eating broccoli (or other brassica vegetables like kale) at a frequency of 3-5 times per week is enough to achieve a level of sulphoraphane in the body that has anti-cancer effects. However, remember that these vegetables have many other molecules that are helping to optimize health and wellness, including an anti-inflammation effect which is important at reducing risk of many of the debilitating chronic diseases. So again, the message is food food food - find different foods to eat, different ways to prepare them, and enjoy cooking and eating them!
The study is the cover story of the November 2010 issue of the new journal Food & Function (Vol. 1, pp. 162-167) and is available online pre-publication at http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Journals/JournalIssues/FO . The research was funded by the USDA.
(Photo: Pasta with dried cherry tomatoes and broccolini)
Where kale is more than decoration on my plate!
Diana Dyer, MS, RD