Can a Pill Offer the Same Benefits as Broccoli?

Broccoli Pills

Story at-a-glance -

  • The so-called “broccoli pill” (Sulforadex) consists of a stabilized, synthetic form of sulforaphane
  • Sulforaphane may help to lower the risk of cancer, slow cancer growth and stop its spread
  • One of the best ways to maximize sulforaphane in broccoli is to steam it lightly for three to four minutes until it’s tough-tender
  • Broccoli sprouts also offer a particularly concentrated source of phytochemicals, including sulforaphane

By Dr. Mercola

One of broccoli's claims to fame is sulforaphane, an organic sulfur compound found in cruciferous vegetables, including not only broccoli but also Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, and arugula. Broccoli sprouts are actually the richest source.

Sulforaphane has been shown to have antimicrobial properties, and it also kills cancer stem cells, which slows tumor growth. This sulfur compound also normalizes DNA methylation, which plays a role in a number of diseases, including hypertension, kidney function, gut health, and cancer.

Sulforaphane also increases enzymes in your liver that help destroy cancer-causing chemicals you may consume or be exposed to in your environment. This compound has even been called "one of the most powerful anticarcinogens found in food."1

Hoping to cash in on some of these valuable properties, researchers have succeeded in putting sulforaphane into a pill… but is it as good for you as eating real broccoli?

Sulforaphane Pill a 'Game Changer' in the War Against Cancer?

Drug company Evgen has developed the so-called "broccoli pill" (Sulforadex), which consists of a stabilized form of sulforaphane. Ordinarily, sulforaphane is highly unstable and must be kept at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Evgen reportedly stabilized the compound in a way that protects its efficacy, and says to get the benefits that the pill provides you'd need to eat about 5.5 pounds of broccoli a day.

Sulforadex has already found to lower the risk of cancer, slow cancer growth, and stop its spread in animal studies, and it has been tested on 47 volunteers with promising results.2 Additional clinical trials are in the works with the hope the pill will work to treat brain hemorrhage and breast and prostate cancers. Tech Times reported:3

"Results of the clinical trials will be reported in 2016. Should the brain hemorrhage clinical trial be successful, Evgen can acquire early approval from regulators because it tackles reducing cognitive impairment, classified as a rare disease in the US and the European Union, allowing for some rules to be bypassed."

Dr. Stephen Franklin, chief executive of Evgen, told the Express:4

"I think it [Sulforadex] could be a game changer. The big step forward in cancer treatment will be when we can stop metastatic disease and stop the disease coming back… Because sulforaphane kills both cancer cells and cancer stem cells which drive that metastatic disease, we believe it represents the next major step in cancer therapy."

In addition to its cancer potential, Evgen is also testing the drug, which is essentially a synthetic version of sulforaphane, for joint pain, including arthritis, as sulforaphane is known to block inflammation and damage to joint cartilage.5

Is It Possible to Get High Levels of Sulforaphane from Eating Broccoli?

Sulforaphane is formed when you chop or chew broccoli (this combines its precursor glucoraphanin and the enzyme myrosinase). Once swallowed, your gut bacteria may then help to release some of broccoli's sulforaphane so your body can benefit, but it's a tricky proposition because sulforaphane is attached to a sugar molecule with a sulfur bond. As reported by Science Daily:6

"When the broccoli enzyme breaks off the sugar to release the sulforaphane, a sulfur-grabbing protein can remove the newly exposed sulfur on the sulforaphane and inactivate it."

Researchers have found that one of the best ways to maximize sulforaphane your body can use is to heat the broccoli for 10 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (or steam it lightly for three to four minutes until it's tough-tender).7

This was just enough heat to kill the epithiospecifier protein, which was "grabbing the sulfur" and "greatly depleting the amount of sulforaphane in a serving of broccoli."8

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Frozen Broccoli May Not Contain Sulforaphane

Adding to the complexity, while frozen vegetables are often touted as nutritionally similar to fresh, when researchers tested frozen broccoli, they found it notably lacking in the ability to produce sulforaphane. They wrote in the Journal of Food Science:9

"…several commercially available frozen broccoli products do not retain the ability to generate the cancer-preventative agent sulforaphane. We hypothesized that this was because the necessary hydrolyzing enzyme myrosinase was destroyed during blanching, as part of the processing that frozen broccoli undergoes."

A follow-up study revealed that if food processors lowered the blanching temperature to 76 degrees Celsius instead of 86 degrees Celsius, the enzyme myrosinase was preserved, along with the broccoli's ability to produce beneficial sulforaphane.10

Another option was to combine the broccoli with 0.25 percent daikon radish, which is another natural source of myrosinase. Using this trick, the frozen broccoli formed sulforaphane and there was no distinguishable change to taste or appearance. Edward B. Dosz, a graduate student who worked on the study, told Science Daily:11

"That means that companies can blanch and freeze broccoli, sprinkle it with a minute amount of radish, and sell a product that has the cancer-fighting component that it lacked before."

It's unclear at this time how many companies have put this advice into practice. If you purchase frozen broccoli often, it'd be worth a call to the manufacturer to find out.

The 'Other' Broccoli Pill: Diindolylmethane (DIM)

Another notable phytochemical in broccoli is diindolylmethane, or DIM. Your body produces DIM when it breaks down cruciferous vegetables. Like many other broccoli compounds, DIM has shown multiple potential benefits, including boosting your immune system and helping to prevent or treat cancer. As SF Gate reported:12

"The compound causes normal cells to increase their production of enzymes that help your body eliminate toxins and potential carcinogenic compounds, potentially lowering your risk of disease.

The [Linus Pauling] Institute also says that DIM might stop growth of cancer cells by stimulating them to undergo a process that leads to their death. It may also inhibit cancer cells from invading normal tissue and could halt the growth of new blood vessels needed by cancerous tumors.

In addition, experts at the University of California at Berkeley report that DIM stimulates your immune system to destroy bacteria and viruses, and to detect and destroy malignant cells."

The research on DIM is promising. One study of postmenopausal women with a history of breast cancer found taking a DIM supplement for 30 days resulted in changes in estrogen metabolism that suggest a decreased risk of cancer recurrence.13 Further, as noted in the Journal of Biomedical Research:14

"In vitro studies have found that DIM has anti-proliferative and anti-cancer activities in various cancer cells including prostate, breast, endometrial, colorectal and pancreatic cancers, and leukemic cells."

Is it possible to get DIM via your diet? Yes, as mentioned DIM is found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. However, you'd need to eat a lot of them – at least two pounds a day – to get the recommended amount.15

Broccoli Sprouts Offer a More Concentrated Source of Nutrients

It's virtually always better to get your nutrients from foods as opposed to supplements, but there are cases when it's impractical, or nearly impossible, to achieve therapeutic doses from food alone.

In the case of sulforaphane and DIM, you can get meaningful amounts from eating broccoli, which will also provide you with synergistic phytochemicals. However, it may be difficult to eat enough broccoli to consistently reach therapeutic doses.

One alternative is to eat broccoli sprouts. Fresh broccoli sprouts are FAR more potent than whole broccoli, allowing you to eat far less in terms of quantity. For example, tests have revealed that three-day-old broccoli sprouts consistently contain anywhere from 10-100 times the amount of glucoraphanin -- the precursor to sulforaphane -- found in mature broccoli.16

Perhaps better still, research showed that broccoli sprouts enhanced the absorption of sulforaphane when consumed along with a broccoli powder, and broccoli sprouts alone had the highest absorption rate of all (74 percent).17 Although broccoli sprouts contain the highest amounts of broccoli phytochemicals like isothiocyanates, other cruciferous vegetables also contain this anti-cancer compound, including watercress. This often-overlooked leafy green is a close cousin to mustard greens, cabbage, and arugula.

When phytochemicals like sulforaphane are excluded from the equation, watercress may actually be the most nutrient-dense vegetable out there—scoring higher on nutrient density scores than both broccoli and sunflower sprouts.

Previous studies have also found that a compound called phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) in watercress may suppress breast cancer cell development and prevent DNA damage in cells—just like broccoli sprouts. So it’s a good idea to include a variety of sprouts in your diet, and, if you don’t enjoy the flavor of one, swap it out for one that you do.

Sprouts Are Incredibly Easy to Grow at Home

If you want to have your own ready supply of cancer-fighting nutrients, learn to grow sprouts. Growing your own sprouts is quite easy, and you don't need a whole lot of space either; they can even be grown indoors. Sprouts may be small, but they are packed with nutrition, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes that help protect against free radical damage.

Two of my personal favorites are sunflower seed and pea shoots—both of which are typically about 30 times more nutritious than organic vegetables. They're also among the highest in protein.

In addition, sunflower seeds contain healthy fats, essential fatty acids, and fiber—all of which are important for optimal health. Of course, you can also grow broccoli sprouts, as these are phenomenal too. I used Ball jars when I first started sprouting seeds about 25 years ago, but I've since switched over to growing them in potting soil. With Ball jars you need to rinse them several times a day to prevent mold growth and it is a hassle to have them draining in the sink, taking up space.

Moreover, you need dozens of jars to produce the same amount of sprouts as just one flat tray. I didn't have the time or patience for that, and you may not either. The choice is yours though. You can easily grow sprouts  with or without soil. My Sprout Doctor Starter Kit comes with what I consider to be three of the best sprouts to grow – sunflower, broccoli  and pea shoots. When grown in soil, you can harvest your sprouts in about a week, and a pound of seeds will probably produce over 10 pounds of sprouts.

Sunflower sprouts will give you the most volume for your effort and, in my opinion, have the best taste. In one 10x10 tray, you can harvest between one and two pounds of sunflower sprouts, which will last you about three days. You can store them in the fridge for about a week. Broccoli sprouts look and taste similar to alfalfa sprouts, which most people like. They're perfect for adding to salads, either in addition to or in lieu of salad greens, and sandwiches and are especially tasty in combination with fresh avocado.

You can also add them to your vegetable juice or smoothies. I've partnered with a company in a small town in Vermont that develops, breeds, and grows their own seeds, and is an industry leader in seed safety for sprouts and shoots. All of my seeds are non-GMO, certified organic, and packed with nutrition. My starter kit makes it easy to grow your own sprouts in the comfort of your home, whenever you want. It provides everything you need, so all you have to do is grow and enjoy your sprouts.

The sulforaphane pill sounds promising, but as a synthetic version it may succumb to the pitfalls of other synthetic nutrient reproductions, which tend to not quite match up to the original (and sometimes have unintended side effects). For now, the best way to flood your body with the cancer-fighting and immune-boosting powers of broccoli is to eat it fresh as often as you like – both in mature form and, even better, sprouted.