Welcome to the wonderful world of broccoli!
This vivid green vegetable is an easy way to pack a nutrient-rich punch. With a distinct flavor that is liked by many, it’s a veggie that many of us grew up hating, but now can’t get enough of.
So, why is it such a popular choice when it comes to prepping a plate? What kind of nutrients does a serving of broccoli hold, and how can we get more of it into our diets? What about making it tasty even if you don’t like the taste?
Read on for our comprehensive guide to broccoli and get yourself clued-up on this powerhouse of a plant.
What is broccoli?
Broccoli is actually part of the cabbage family – making it one of the many cruciferous veggies out there – and it’s usually the large, flowering head that is eaten as a vegetable across the globe (although the stalk, too, is revered in many Asian dishes).
Part of the species Brassica Oleracea, and resembling a cauliflower (which is a different cultivar of the same species), broccoli has large florets branching out from the aforementioned thick, fibrous stalk.
This veggie is usually, but not always, green in color and the flower heads are commonly surrounded by leaves.
A Mediterranean native, present day broccoli varieties have been mainly developed from forms grown in Italy over the past 2,000 years. The Greeks, however, were ahead of the game, as the cultivation of vegetables belonging to the “Brassica” family began with the Hellenic culture, 25 centuries ago.
Later, when the Roman armies conquered new lands, they spread the popularity of many edible plants, including early variations of the veggie we now know and love. Broccoli was thought to hit English shores in around 1720 and, as you’ll see in our “quick facts” below, Thomas Jefferson was an advocate in the late 1700s.
It took, however, the rest of the US a little while to catch on, as the plant wasn’t grown commercially until the 1920s.
In 2016, China and India accounted for the vast majority of world broccoli and cauliflower production, with almost 17 million tonnes between them – accounting for around 79% of the total global production. Other producing countries include Spain, Mexico, Italy, and the USA. (1)
The US produced 288,740 tonnes of broccoli and cauliflower in 2016 – nearly all of which was grown in California.
Oddly, however, broccoli is actually a cool weather crop that lends itself to temperatures between 63 and 74 degrees fahrenheit and does poorly in hot summer weather – which may be why the crop performs so well in the varied climate of China.
Quick Facts about Broccoli
- Tom “Broccoli” Landers holds the current world record for eating 1 pound of broccoli in, wait for it…92 seconds!
- One of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was a huge fan of broccoli and early importer of seeds from Italy to plant at Monticello. Records show that he planted broccoli there as early as 1767.
- The heaviest broccoli was grown by John and Mary Evans of Palmer, Alaska, USA in 1993 weighed 15.87 kg (35 lbs). That would have slowed Tom Landers down some!
- The head of the broccoli is made up of tiny flower buds. If you do not harvest a broccoli on time, the head will become full of yellow flowers.
- The average American eats over 4 pounds of the cruciferous vegetable per year.
- Another president, George H.W. Bush, was not a fan. He used his distaste for broccoli as a punch line in dozens of speeches. He once said, “I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid, and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”
- In 2013, President Barack Obama announced that broccoli was his favorite food.
- According to a survey in 2009, broccoli is the sixth most commonly misspelt word in the whole of the English language.
- In 1724, Philip Miller’s “Gardener’s Dictionary” referred to broccoli as “Italian asparagus”
- A cup of broccoli has more Vitamin C than an orange!
Are there different types of broccoli?
There are indeed lots of different types of this wonder veg, many of which are varieties you’ll be hard-pushed to find in the produce aisle of your local grocery store.
Heritage varieties can be grown at home but, for the regular shopper, the ones listed below will be more familiar:
There are, in fact, three types of broccoli commonly grown for sale. The first is “Calabrese”, and it’s the one most of us would refer to simply as “broccoli”.
This is the most common type that you’ll spot in grocery stores – the one with a thick stem and large, green heads. Calabrese is a cool season annual crop.
Sprouting broccoli has a large number of heads, but unlike Calabrese, sprouting broccoli has many long, thin stalks.
The leaves tend to be darker in color – similar to kale – whilst the heads are a rich, deep purple-green color.
Yep, despite the rather confusing name, purple cauliflower is in fact considered a type of broccoli.
It has a head shaped like a cauliflower, but it’s made up of tiny flower buds. It often has a purple hue to its buds – hence the name.
Okay, we said three main types but there’s a sneaky fourth that you may spot with the others when on your weekly shop. This one is the tenderstem.
Tenderstem broccoli was cultivated by crossing broccoli with Chinese broccoli – resulting in long stemmed plants not dissimilar to sprouting broccoli, though the purple color is absent in the tenderstem variety.
In a 100g serving, broccoli has just 34 calories.
6.6g is carbohydrate (2.6g of that is fiber), 2.82g is protein, 0.37g is fat, and a whopping 89.3g is made up of water. No need to chug liters of water when you’re chowing down on this hydration hero!
In terms of vitamins and minerals, broccoli has excellent levels of vitamins C and K – 107% of the RDA for vitamin C and 97% of the RDA for vitamin K. It also has moderate levels of b2 (riboflavin), b5 (pantothenic acid), b6 and b9 (folate). It has minimal amounts of vitamin A, b1, b3 and vitamin E.
As for minerals, broccoli has a decent amount of manganese (10% of the RDA) and small amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, and zinc.
Health benefits of broccoli
There’s a reason your mom always told you to eat your greens when you turned your nose up at the plate of broccoli in front of you – because it’s got some brilliant health benefits!
For individuals struggling with type 2 diabetes, researchers are uncovering some interesting findings.
In a 2017 study, a compound called sulforaphane found in broccoli (and other cruciferous vegetables) was found to turn down the activity of 50 genes associated with type 2 diabetes symptoms. (2)
Scientists gave 97 obese patients a dose of the compound over 12 weeks and found that their fasting blood glucose levels went down by 10 percent.
There have been numerous research papers released over the years espousing the power of cruciferous vegetables in preventing certain stomach and intestinal cancers.
Multiple small studies have suggested that eating cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, can help prevent cancers of the breast, prostate, colorectal, stomach, kidney, and bladder:
- Thirteen studies included in an analysis of the effect of cruciferous vegetables in preventing breast cancer indicated that a high intake of these vegetables was positively linked to prevention of breast cancer. (3)
- Another study conducted a meta-analysis of several small studies concluded that intake of these veggies also had a significant positive effect in prevention of prostate cancers. (4)
- Several meta analysis studies of smaller experiments were carried out and found similar results relating to colorectal, stomach, kidney and bladder cancers. (5, 6, 7, 8)
Though no large studies have been carried out, the data is encouraging. We should, however, wait for significant studies to be carried out for further evidence – though it surely can’t hurt to add lots of these veggies into your diet!
There are a number of ways in which broccoli may help aid in keeping the heart healthy.
High levels of LDL, or “bad”, cholesterol have been shown to be a major risk in heart disease. One study noted significantly lower LDL as well as increased HDL (the good kind) in people treated with a broccoli sprout supplement. (9)
Another study that considered several of the compounds present in broccoli – sulforaphane and glucoraphanin – noted that these specific antioxidants may reduce the overall risk of heart disease and heart attack.
The amount of fiber present in cruciferous vegetables is also of significance when looking at heart health, with roughage known to be an excellent dietary preventer of heart disease. This review of 22 cohort studies found significant links between increased fiber intake and reduced risk of heart disease and cardiovascular disease. (10)
With broccoli containing decent amounts of dietary fiber, it pays to add some of the green stuff to your diet.
Broccoli is rich in both fiber and antioxidants – both of which have a positive effect on digestive function and gut health.
This study, carried out by Poznań University of Life Sciences’ Department of Biotechnology and Food Microbiology in Poland, considered the antioxidant capacity of broccoli sprouts subjected to gastrointestinal digestion. Their conclusion was that the antioxidants found in broccoli sprouts “improve the defensive system against oxidative stress in the human colon mucosa.” (11)
Fiber is also well known to be great for gut health. Soluble fiber bulks up our stools and improves how often we go (sorry!), slowing transit time through the bowels whilst soaking up water like a sponge. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, speeds things up and gives the gut healthy balance.
A properly balanced fiber intake can help prevent certain colorectal cancers, but it also means food isn’t left in the stomach for extended periods of time, too, thus reducing risk of gas, bloating, and discomfort (though too much fiber can actually do the opposite, as we discovered in our vegan poo post!).
Healthy Brain Function
There have been a few studies that suggest certain compounds present in broccoli, and other dark leafy greens, may contribute to brain health and the slowing of mental decay.
A study of 960 older adults revealed that just one serving a day of dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli may help resist mental decline usually associated with aging. (12)
The aforementioned sulforaphane is a compound of particular interest to scientists in this field, with studies showing that it may promote greater healing after suffering a brain injury such as a stroke. Though early in the testing phases, some studies show significant tissue recovery and a reduction in neural inflammation when treated with this compound. (13)
While some of these studies are still in their infancy, early results are showing positive effects from these antioxidants – so adding a heap of steamed broccoli to your plate is a great idea if you’re keen to protect your brain.
Broccoli buyer’s guide
Buying broccoli should be straightforward enough, but there are a few things to keep in mind:
What to look for
- When selecting broccoli at the grocery store, be sure to select specimens with compact clusters and no bruising.
- The plant should be uniform in color – either dark green, sage colored, or slightly purple depending on variety. Avoid any broccoli that is yellowed or patchy in appearance.
- In addition to this, ensure the head doesn’t have any signs of yellow flowers as this is a sign that the vegetable is over mature.
- The stalk should be firm, not spongy, with no slimy spots.
- Any leaves left on the vegetable should be vibrant and not wilted.
Different ways to buy
Although you can buy canned broccoli, too, two more common ways of purchasing prevail:
Fresh broccoli is normally very easy to buy from most grocery stores – and most of them will stock a variety of types, from the common Calabrese to the sprouting kind.
Fresh normally affords you the most choice and you can select plants based on the criteria mentioned above. You may also struggle to find varieties like purple sprouting or its sister tenderstem in any other way than fresh.
Frozen broccoli can be a great way to get the green into your diet when at a push, or simply when out of season.
Though freezing retains a lot of nutrients, a couple of antioxidants are lost in the freezing and reheating process, so if you do consume lots of broccoli we’d recommend sticking to fresh as much as possible.
Keeping a stock of frozen broccoli in your freezer for when you want a quick and healthy addition to any meal is always handy, though.
What season is it at its best?
Due to worldwide production of the crop, you’ll usually be able to get your hands on Calabrese year round. The sprouting and purple kind are generally more seasonal if buying local, but you’ll still see these on the shelves in the height of summer in certain stores, too.
Broccoli tends to be at its best from October through to April, due to the plants preference for cooler climates. Despite this, broccoli is easy to get get hold of throughout the year – so there’s no excuse not to add some to your plate!
Should you buy organic?
Normally, we’re faced with loads of reasons why you should consider organic – so imagine our surprise when we found out that broccoli is one of those that you really shouldn’t bother overspending for!
Broccoli has few pest threats and as such needs fewer pesticide treatments than other veggies. In fact, when tested, broccoli actually had one of the lowest pesticide residues of any tested fruit or veggies.
This is a perfect opportunity to save some extra pennies and opt for the non-organic version instead without worrying about ingesting any nasties. Spend what you save on the “dirty dozen”! (14)
How to prepare broccoli
If all this talk of health has inspired you to give the humble broccoli another shot but you don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered…
When cooking Calabrese, simply chop the florets from the stem and cook away. Sprouting broccoli often needs little preparation and can be cooked “as is” – however, older plants may have started to go “woody” and may need the ends of the stems removed.
Broccoli is best when cooking for a short amount of time and quickly – and different preparation methods have different nutrient values.
Five minutes of boiling is good for retaining the flavonoids kaempferol and quercetin as well as the carotenoids lutein and beta-carotene. Microwaving and pressure cooking both happen to be the best methods for retaining vitamin C levels in broccoli. For total antioxidant capacity, however, steaming seems to be the best method.
- If boiling, bring a pot to the boil and add the broccoli for around 4 minutes.
- For steaming add two inches of water to a steamer pan, bring to the boil and steam for 4 minutes.
- For microwaving, add the florets to a dish with a little water and microwave for 4-6 minutes.
Stir frying can also be a handy way to get more broccoli into your diet, as long as it’s only cooked for short periods of time. Usually around 3 minutes in a good quality wok is all you need.
This method is especially good if you enjoy your broccoli with a little crunch, as it tends to stay firmer through this method compared to others.
Raw vs Cooked
Eating raw broccoli avoids the nutrient depletion that can occur during cooking and it can also have a more satiating effect due to the extra chewing it requires. Bonus if you’re trying to drop a pound or two!
Though raw broccoli has the higher nutrient profile, it’s not always considered as enjoyable to eat. The best way to eat broccoli is the one you enjoy, so just pick a method that means you’ll end up eating lots of the green stuff, whether that be raw, steamed, microwaved or stir fried.
If you’re not a fan of eating raw broccoli, but still want the boost of helpful nutrients it brings, you could always try broccoli sprouts as an easier way to include some raw goodness in your diet (see below for more on these nutrient powerhouses).
A lot of broccoli comes shrink-wrapped. While it’s not exactly environmentally-friendly to buy your veggies this way, if that’s all you can get your hands on you can simply place it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use.
When buying loose broccoli, simply pop it into a reusable ziplock bag, trying to remove as much air as possible before placing in the refrigerator. An airtight tupperware container can also be used but, thanks to its awkward shape, you may have to chop it into florets before storing in this way.
If stored correctly, broccoli should last for around 7 days. Some nutrients – such as vitamin C – can be lost once the broccoli is cut. For this reason, we suggest using up cut broccoli within a couple of days wherever possible.
It’s not advisable to wash broccoli before storing, as moisture can lead to spoilage.
If buying frozen broccoli, the bags can simply be placed into the freezer. The contents will last 6 months to a year, though the longer the plant remains frozen the more the texture and flavor can deteriorate over time.
If freezing your own broccoli, blanch the cut florets quickly before adding to a reusable and sealable plastic bag. Put the date on the bag and pop it into the freezer. Your florets are best eaten within 6 months when stored this way.
Cooked broccoli can be reheated and reused, though the texture is often very soft when reheated. If storing cooked broccoli, add it to a tupperware container and store in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.
Reheat for a short amount of time – around 1 minute or so – either by microwaving, steaming or boiling. Despite wanting to keep reheating time to a minimum, it’s important to remember to check that the veggie has been thoroughly reheated before consuming.
What about sprouting broccoli? What are broccoli sprouts?
Broccoli sprouts are 3-4 day old broccoli plants that look like alfalfa sprouts – though most would agree they taste similar to radishes.
But, why bother with the fuss of sprouting?
Well, those fantastic antioxidants and compounds found in full grown broccoli – sulforaphane and glucoraphanin – are found in levels 20 times the concentration of fully grown broccoli.
From a health perspective these little sprouts pack a nutritional punch!
You can pop to some health stores and buy these sprouts ready-grown, but a much cheaper option is to grow your own. The bonus is, it’s super easy to do!
How to sprout broccoli seeds
Just pop some broccoli seeds into a jar and top with water. Cover with a muslin cloth and an elastic band and leave somewhere warm and dry overnight or for at least 8 hours.
After this, drain and rinse the seeds and place back into the jar. Tilt the jar at an angle so any water can drain off.
Keep draining and rinsing 2-3 times a day for around 3-4 days until you notice dark green leaves starting to form.
Need a visual? We found just the video for you:
So, we’ve covered everything from buying to basic preparation of this brilliant Brassica, but how about some fancy vegan-friendly broccoli recipes to really get the most from this veggie?
Here are some of my favorites:
Vegan Bang Bang Broccoli
Spicy. Decadent. Indulgent.
Three things you’d never consider when thinking about humble broccoli!
This recipe from the wonderful Rabbit and Wolves takes our greatest green to the next level with a crispy batter paired with a sauce that offers a spicy kick – perfect for a weekend treat.
Vegan Broccoli Balls
Move over meatballs, there’s a healthier, animal-friendly ball set to kick you off your pedestal!
These crispy, nutty broccoli balls from Vegan Richa are a brilliant way to use up broccoli that might be edging towards going bad, which makes it a great option if you’re trying to reduce waste while also whipping up a dish that’ll delight the taste buds.
Vegan Cheesy Broccoli Soup
Sometimes, when the weather’s cold, all you fancy is a rich, comforting bowl of soup.
This recipe from Love and Lemons features broccoli in abundance for a healthy kick, while cashews and potato appear to add creaminess.
Though it’s in the suggestions rather than the recipe, we wholeheartedly agree with adding a healthy spoon of nutritional yeast to the mix for more of that cheesy tang.
Crunchy Fresh Broccoli Quinoa Salad
When the weather starts to get warmer, cravings for something healthy, vibrant, and fresh normally set in.
This recipe is the perfect way to add in a healthy dose of broccoli to your diet, pairing it with protein packed quinoa and a beautiful creamy and tasty dressing.
Vegan Broccoli Casserole
Midweek evening meals just got a whole lot easier (and healthier!) thanks to this recipe from Pass the Plants for a vegan broccoli casserole.
Pairing broccoli with a creamy sauce and a crispy, crunchy topping makes for a real crowd pleaser that’s sure to get even the pickiest eaters munching on their veggies.
Are there any downsides?
As with any plant based form of nutrition, fiber can be both friend and foe dependant on quantity. Should you eat too much, you might find yourself bloated and gassy.
Vegan diets to tend to be very fiber heavy, and if you’re in the process of transitioning you may find yourself initially in a little discomfort. Don’t worry though, bodies generally adapt quickly and the fiber foe will once again become friend.
The best way to avoid any gastric issues? Just watch your portions!
Can it interfere with any medications?
If you’re on a blood thinning medication such as warfarin, it may be better to limit your consumption of broccoli. This is because the vitamin K in broccoli can interfere with the medications effectiveness.
Broccoli is also a veggie you’re advised to limit if you suffer with hypothyroidism.
Can you grow broccoli at home?
The simple answer is, yes you can!
Broccoli is a cool season crop, so fall planting is suggested if you live in a warmer climate.
This veggie requires full sun and rich, fertile soil that is slightly acidic – so a good quality compost is suggested.
Plant seeds ½ inch deep and 12-24 inches apart then water gently.
The seeds should be fertilized three weeks after planting.
Some varieties of broccoli are heat tolerant, but all kinds need adequate moisture so ensure that all of your crops are kept well watered. Avoid getting the broccoli heads wet when watering, though, and disturb the plant as little as possible – roots are shallow and plants can easily be uprooted.
Harvesting occurs when the buds of the head are firm and tight – right before the plant begins to flower. If you do see the odd flower, harvest immediately. To harvest, cut the heads from the plant, aiming for at least 6 inches of stem.
Most varieties have side-shoots that will continue to grow even after the main head is harvested – giving you access to veggies all season long!
We hope this has been an informative guide to one of the world’s most-eaten, but much maligned, veggies and we hope it’s given you some inspiration for whipping up some broccoli based feasts in your own kitchen.
Do you have a favorite recipe you’d like to share? Or a cruciferous based fact that we skipped? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
About The Author:
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.
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