Why Broccoli Sprouts May Be a True Disease-Fighting Super Food

A concentrated form of the veggie may fight cancer, osteoarthritis and autism.

ByABC News
April 27, 2015, 12:32 PM

— -- Broccoli has long been considered a “super food” but it’s sulforaphane -- a concentrated form of the phytochemicals found in broccoli sprouts -- that’s shaping up to be the true disease fighter.

A new British study found the compound might be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis, a debilitating condition characterized by inflamed, painful joints. Mice given an artificial version of the compound showed significantly improved bone architecture, gait balance and movement, researchers from the Royal Veterinary College in London reported at an International Bone and Mineral Society meeting in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, this week.

Meanwhile, studies looking at the supplement for treating and preventing cancer are also promising, said Duxin Sun, a pharmaceutical researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“We have shown that it may stop the growth of cancer stem cells to inhibit the growth of onco genes and may also induce the production of detox enzymes to prevent cancer,” Sun told ABC News.

Sun stressed that virtually all the trials looking at sulforaphane’s role in fighting cancer have been done on animals. It’s too soon to say whether humans will get the same benefits, though preliminary results are exciting, he said.

Studies are also looking at using sulforaphane to treat autism, a spectrum of disorders that now affects one in 68 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In one small study last year, a group of autistic boys given a sulforaphane supplements showed dramatic improvements in behavior, said Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, one of the study’s lead researchers and a pediatric neurologist with the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland.

“Out of the 44 given the compound, 26 were calmer and more socially relateable while receiving the sulforaphane,” he said, adding that the benefits disappeared once the subjects stopped taking the pill.

The chemical might mimic some of the symptoms of fever by stimulating a heat shock response in cells, Zimmerman said. This might push the oxygen-producing parts of the cells called mitochondria to perform at a higher level.

Parents of autistic children frequently report their behavior improves when they are sick with fever, Zimmerman said.

However, Zimmerman said he cautioned parents not to rush out and buy sulforaphane supplements, which are unregulated by any governmental agency. The osteoarthritis study found the compound too unstable, at this point, to be turned into a viable medication.

As for consuming the tree-like veggie to get a full dose of the chemical, the arthritis study found it would take about 5.5 pounds of broccoli to get the same amount of the compound contained in a pill.

Sun said it would take a lot of broccoli sprouts to offer some protection against cancer, as well, but consumers might be able to maximize the compound with cooking methods.

Steaming broccoli sprouts and then dicing in fresh radish has been shown to produce the highest levels of sulforaphane, he noted.

“It’s something I eat, myself, all the time,” he said.