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New research suggests eating broccoli may have even more health benefits than previously believed. Cameron Whitman/Stocksy
  • Researchers say broccoli may be considered to be a superfood.
  • Superfoods are rich in nutrients and beneficial for health.
  • It is already known that sulfur compounds in broccoli may help prevent disease.
  • Now, a new study indicates that broccoli may help intestinal barrier function in mice.
  • A healthy small intestine helps to ensure that only the right things can pass through its wall.

Broccoli is one of those foods that most people know is good for them and everyone should probably be eating a lot more of it.

In fact, according to Sharon Palmer — registered dietitian, author, and blogger at The Plant-Powered Dietitian — it contains sulfur compounds that act as anti-inflammatory agents and have been associated with lowering the risk for cancer and heart disease.

And, now, researchers at Penn State are saying it might just qualify to be a superfood. According to them, it has the potential ability to protect the gut lining, which, in turn, may help prevent disease.

The authors note that the wall of the small intestine serves the important function of controlling what passes into the body, allowing water and nutrients to pass, but keeping undigested food and bacteria out.

Broccoli might aid this process because it contains certain molecules which are able to bind to receptor sites in the small intestine, helping to enhance the barrier function of the intestinal wall.

The authors say that it appears that all cruciferous vegetables could be a beneficial addition to our diet.

A wide variety of vegetables fall under this category, including:

The new study, which appears in the journal Laboratory Investigation, specifically looked at molecules called aryl hydrocarbon receptor ligands, finding that they were capable of binding to aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) sites in the small intestine of mice.

Once bound to the receptor, they can affect the functioning of cells in the intestinal wall.

To investigate the effects of these molecules, the team of scientists fed a group of mice a 15% broccoli diet. They note that this is about the same as a human intake of 3.5 cups of broccoli per day.

The control animals were fed their normal diet.

Analysis was then performed on their tissues to see how well the AHR was activated. They also looked at the numbers of various intestinal cell types and the mucus concentrations.

Mice who did not consume broccoli did not have any AHR activity. This changed their intestinal barrier function, caused food to travel through the small intestine more quickly, and reduced the number of goblet cells (cells that secrete mucus), and mucus.

There were also fewer Paneth cells (cells that help maintain balance in the microbiome), lysosomes (cells that break down worn-out cells and bacteria), and enterocytes (cells that aid the absorption of nutrients).

Per the authors, those mice who were not fed broccoli had gut health that was compromised in ways that are known to be linked to disease.

As a result, they feel that broccoli and other similar foods are natural sources of AHR ligands that can help keep the small intestine functioning in a healthy way.

Nutritionist Shereen Jegtvig, who co-authored “Superfoods for Dummies” and teaches at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, said that superfoods are nutrient-rich foods that are considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.

“They are typically high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are important for maintaining good health and preventing disease,” she explained, noting that several examples of superfoods include berries, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fish, and legumes.

Jegtvig said that broccoli is considered to be a superfood because it is packed with nutrients that are essential for good health.

“It is a great source of vitamins C and K, fiber, and folate. It also contains phytonutrients, such as sulforaphane, which have been shown to have anti-cancer properties,” she explained.

“Additionally, broccoli is low in calories and high in water content, making it a great choice for those looking to maintain a healthy weight,” said Jegtvig.

Palmer said she advises eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli at least a few times per week.

“Broccoli also fits well into many cultural diets … from Mediterranean to Asian eating patterns,” she added, “and these veggies are budget-friendly, versatile, and delicious for all ages.”

Finally, Palmer noted that, for those who are consuming a more plant-based diet, broccoli can be a great source of plant-based calcium.