Cabbage is the “king” of the cruciferous family of vegetables, which also includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliﬂower, collards, kale, mustard greens, radishes, swedes, turnips, and other common vegetables. The members of this family of vegetables are currently receiving much attention for their impressive anticancer properties. The three major types of cabbage are green, red, and Savoy. The color of green cabbage ranges from pale to dark green, while red cabbage has leaves that are either crimson or purple with white veins running through. Both green and red cabbage have smooth-textured leaves, while the leaves of Savoy cabbage are more rufﬂed and yellowish green in color.
The ﬂavor of Savoy cabbage is more delicate and mild than the characteristic deﬁnite taste and crunchy texture of red or green. Because cabbage’s inner leaves are protected from the sunlight by the surrounding leaves, they are often lighter in color.
The modern-day cabbage developed from wild cabbage brought to Europe from Asia by roving bands of Celtic people around 600 B.C.E. Because cabbage is well adapted to growing in cooler climates, has high yields per acre, and can be stored over the winter in cold cellars, it quickly spread as a food crop throughout northern Europe. The Russian Federation, Poland, China, and Japan are a few of the leading producers of cabbage today.
Cabbage and sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage, were introduced into the United States by early German settlers. As a result of this afﬁliation, people of German descent are often referred to as “krauts.”
Nutritional Highlights of Cabbage
Cabbage is a nutrient-dense, low-calorie food providing an excellent source of many nutrients, especially vitamin C, potassium, folic acid, vitamin B 6, biotin, calcium, magnesium, and manganese. But perhaps more important than the nutrient content of cabbage is its phytochemical content. In particular, cabbage contains powerful anticancer compounds known as glucosinolates. A 100 gram serving of cooked cabbage provides 35 calories, 2.3 grams of protein, no cholesterol, 0.4 grams of fat, 7.2 grams of carbohydrate, and 3.3 grams of ﬁber.
Health Benefits of Cabbage
One of the American Cancer Society’s key dietary recommendations to reduce the risk of cancer is to include cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliﬂower, in the diet on a regular basis. The reason for this recommendation? The cabbage family of vegetables contains more phytochemicals with demonstrable anticancer properties than any other vegetable family. Most of these compounds are glucosinolates. Those receiving the most attention are indole-3-carbinol, sulphoraphane, di-indolmethane, and isothio- cyanates.
The anticancer effects of cabbage-family vegetables have been noted in population studies. Consistently, the higher the intake of cabbage family vegetables, the lower the rates of cancer, particularly colon, prostate, lung, and breast cancer. The glucosinolates in cabbage work primarily by increasing antioxidant defense mechanisms, as well as improving the body’s ability to detoxify and eliminate harmful chemicals and hormones.
Speciﬁcally, indole-3-carbinole (I3C), has been shown to increase the rate at which oestrogen is broken down through the liver’s detoxiﬁcation pathway by nearly 50 percent. Cabbage has also been shown to be extremely effective in the treatment of peptic ulcers.
Dr. Garnett Cheney from the Stanford University School of Medicine and other researchers in the 1950’s clearly demonstrated that fresh cabbage juice is extremely effective in the treatment of peptic ulcers, showing measurable effect usually in less than seven days. The anti-ulcer component of cabbage was initially referred to as “vitamin U” but later identiﬁed as the amino acid glutamine, a critical factor in the growth and regeneration of the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract.
How to Select and Store Cabbage
Cabbage should be fresh and crisp with no evidence of decay or worm injury. Choose cabbage heads that are ﬁrm and dense with shiny, crisp, colorful leaves free of cracks, bruises, and blemishes. There should be only a few outer loose leaves attached to the stem. If not, it may be an indication of undesirable texture and taste. Avoid buying pre-cut cabbage, either halved or shredded, since once cabbage is cut, it begins to lose its valuable vitamin C content.
Keeping cabbage cold will keep it fresh and help it retain its vitamin C content. Put the whole head in a perforated plastic bag in the crisper of your refrigerator. Red and green cabbage will keep this way for about two weeks, while Savoy cabbage will keep for about one week. If you need to store a partial head of cabbage, cover it tightly with cling ﬁlm and refrigerate. Since the vitamin C content of cabbage degrades quickly once it has been cut, you should use the remainder within a couple of days.
Tips for Preparing Cabbage
Even though the inside of a cabbage is usually clean because the outer leaves protect it, you must still wash it before eating. Remove the thick ﬁbrous outer leaves, cut the cabbage into pieces, and then wash under cold running water.
If the cabbage is not organically grown, soak it in cold water with a mild solution of additive- free soap or use a produce wash and rinse thoroughly.
To cut cabbage into smaller pieces, ﬁrst quarter it and remove the core. Cabbage can be cut into slices of varying thickness, grated by hand, or shredded in a food processor. To preserve its vitamin C content, cut and wash the cabbage right before cooking or eating it. Since phytochemicals in the cabbage react with carbon steel and turn the leaves black, use a stainless-steel knife to cut it.
If you notice any signs of worms or insects, which sometimes appear in organically grown cabbage, soak the head in salt water or vinegar water for 15 to 20 minutes ﬁrst.
Quick Serving Ideas for Cabbage
• Raw cabbage can be juiced, or shredded and made into coleslaw or added to salads.
• Use 1/4 cup shredded raw cabbage as a garnish for sandwiches.
• Combine 1 cup each shredded red and white cabbage with 3 to 4 tablespoons soy or rape- seed mayonnaise and seasonings, such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and black pep- per, to make coleslaw with an Indian twist.
• Braise 2 cups sliced red cabbage with 1 chopped apple, 1/2 cup red wine, salt, and pepper. This is a child-friendly dish, since the alcohol, but not the ﬂavor or the ﬂavonoids, will evaporate.
• Sauté equal amounts of cabbage and onions in olive oil and serve over cooked buckwheat for a hardy side dish.
• For a twist on the traditional Reuben sandwich (corned beef, sauerkraut, swiss cheese, dressing on rye), place grilled tempeh on a slice of whole-grain bread, layer with sauerkraut, top with cheese or “meltable” soy cheese, and then grill for a few minutes until the sandwich is hot and toasty. Top with Russian dressing (mayonnaise-based, with chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup) and enjoy.
Cabbage-family vegetables contain goitrogens, compounds that can interfere with thyroid hormone action in certain situations, primarily when iodine levels are low. The goitrogens are largely isothiocyanates, which block the utilization of iodine; however, despite our warning here, there is no evidence that these compounds in cruciferous vegetables interfere with thyroid function to any signiﬁcant degree when dietary iodine levels are adequate.
Furthermore, cooking may help inactivate the goitrogenic compounds found in cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables. If large quantities of raw cruciferous vegetables—more than four servings per week——are being consumed, it is a good idea that the diet also contain adequate amounts of iodine. Iodine is found in kelp and other sea- weeds, vegetables grown near the sea, seafood, iodized salt, and food supplements.