For centuries, cauliflower has been overshadowed by its more colorful cousin, broccoli. While it may be white, rest assured that cauliflower—unlike the potato—is a non-starchy vegetable that you can feel guilt-free about eating. Loaded with healthful vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients and containing very few calories, eating a diet rich in cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, can actually reduce your cancer risk. The nutrient properties in cauliflower seek out harmful free radicals in your body and neutralize them before they cause cell damage.
So how did this underrated vegetable get its funny name? Well, as you might have guessed, cauliflower is indeed a flower. Formed from underdeveloped white flower heads that form a compact head (known as the curd), the cauliflower is protected by a thick layer of hearty leaves. These leaves block the curd from getting sunlight, which explains its atypical white coloring. The curd is the part of the cauliflower that most people use in cooking.
Historians believe cauliflower originated in Asia and the Mediterranean. Although this cancer-fighting friend made its agricultural debut in Europe as early as the 1500s, it was not cultivated in the United States until the 20th century. With its steady rise in popularity and availability, cauliflower has been warmly embraced by health enthusiasts around the world. In addition to new research being done on this potent plant, foodies are figuring out all the different ways cauliflower can be incorporated into a healthy diet.
Nutrient Profile of Cauliflower
There are many beneficial nutrients in cauliflower. Here’s a look at some of the nutrients you’ll want to remember by name:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B6
- Glucosinolates (sulfur compounds that activate your body’s detoxification processes)
The potassium found in cauliflower is an essential mineral for routine body functions like keeping your heart pumping and your body hydrated. Too little potassium can lead to fluid and electrolyte imbalances. While you may know that bananas are a natural source of potassium, you might not have known about good old cauliflower (after all, this veggie is easily the Eeyore of the produce world). Next time you need a punch of potassium, opt for cauliflower over a banana. One whole cup of chopped, raw cauliflower has a whopping 320 mg of this essential mineral in just 27 calories. Compare this to 422 mg of potassium in a 105-calorie banana. As you can see, both types of produce provide a generous amount of potassium but you’ll get fewer calories choosing cauliflower.
Vitamin C plays a role in boosting brain health and promoting clear, younger-looking skin. If you’re looking to get more of this age-busting vitamin into your diet, the cruciferous cauliflower may be your new best friend. Sure, lemons and oranges might be your go-to (these are the sources everyone talks about), but consider cutting up a cauliflower next time you need a vitamin C fix. One cup of raw cauliflower contains 52 mg of vitamin C—that’s almost as much as a medium orange, which contains 64 mg. It might be a surprising source of vitamin C, but with comparable levels as your average citrus fruit, it sure is a good one to keep in mind.
Read more about the nutrients in specific fruits and vegetables: Spotlight on Kiwis: Why It’s Okay to Indulge in Your Kiwi Cravings
Health Benefits of Cauliflower
One study published in the British Journal of Nutrition looked at the biological activities of the cruciferous species, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts in cancer prevention. Researchers assessed the antioxidant and anti-cancer potential of these veggies in their raw form, extract form, and using various cooking methods. Although fresh vegetable extracts were found to have the highest protective properties, researchers found that eating cauliflower raw, microwaved, boiled, or steamed also protected participants from cancer. Brussels sprouts and broccoli were also found to be effective in reducing cancer risk.
In a separate study, a thorough meta-analysis was conducted of 13 epidemiological studies. Researchers determined that eating a diet rich in cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower had a significant effect on breast health, greatly reducing the likelihood of women developing breast cancer. These days, it seems as if everyone knows somebody who is affected by breast cancer. So share this tidbit with anyone who may benefit from the news.
In addition to protecting you from various forms of cancer, cauliflower is one of the best foods you can eat when you’re watching your waistline. That’s because they’re low in calories, full of fiber, and made up mostly of water. High-fiber foods keep you feeling fuller for longer, and staying well-hydrated can ward off food cravings. This winning combination can help you feel full without overeating. Because not everyone likes the idea of munching on raw cauliflower, we’ve included some tips below to help you get more of this nutrient-dense veggie in your day-to-day diet.
Tips for Adding More Cauliflower to Your Diet
It might not be obvious, but there are several ways to eat and prepare cauliflower. These fancy flower buds can be boiled, steamed, roasted, mashed—and even pickled. Follow these tips for some fun, flavorful ways to add this overlooked cruciferous to your diet:
- Prepare a roast: Instead of roasting meat, try roasting cauliflower. Cut a floret into halves or quarters, place them on a baking pan, and drizzle with oil, garlic, and herbs. Then place in the oven until tender.
- Mash cauliflower for a healthy, homemade pizza crust: Swap out high-carb, gluten-filled store-bought crust for a healthy, low-carb alternative.
- Whip up some cauliflower tots. They’re tots without the taters. And you only need five ingredients—cauliflower, onion, Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and one egg. These baked, not fried, veggie tots are a great way to sneak more cauliflower into your family’s diet, especially if you have fussy little eaters at home.
As you experiment with these ideas and others, keep in mind steaming cauliflower is the best cooking method to retain its abundance of nutrients.
Mayo Clinic Health System. Cauliflower: A powerhouse of nutrients. https://mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/cauliflower-a-powerhouse-of-nutrients. Updated May 2017. Accessed January 30, 2018.
Berkeley Wellness. Cauliflower: Nutrition best served raw. http://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/food/article/cauliflower-nutrition-best-served-raw. Updated September 2015. Accessed January 30, 2018.
Ferrarini L, Pellegrini N, Mazzeo T, Miglio C, Galati S, Milano F, Rossi C, Buschini A. Anti-proliferative activity and chemoprotective effects towards DNA oxidative damage of fresh and cooked Brassicaceae [abstract]. Br J Nutr. 2012;107(9):1324-1332.
Liu X, Lv K. Cruciferous vegetables intake is inversely associated with risk of breast cancer: A meta-analysis. Breast. 2013;22(3):309-313. doi:10.1016/j.breast.2012.07.013.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The beginner’s guide to cruciferous vegetables. http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/the-beginners-guide-to-cruciferous-vegetables. Updated November 2014. Accessed January 30, 2018.