Broccoli: Your body knows best

“Eat your broccoli. It’s good for you.”

Has this been said to you? Perhaps you were scrunching up your face in disgust as your parent or caretaker used the health angle to get you to eat something green already. Appealing to a person’s desire to be healthy isn’t just a tactic employed at the home dining table; it’s used by food companies and media all the time.

But first, a history lesson.

While most common vegetables have been eaten by humans since before recorded history, broccoli is pretty new. It got its start in Italy, spread to the rest of Europe by the 16th century, and then to North America later in the 18th century.

Upon initial introduction in England, it was called ‘sprout colli-flower’ or ‘Italian asparagus’ (which makes me giggle). In Italian, the word ‘broccoli’ comes from the singular ‘broccolo’ which means ‘sprouts’ or ‘shoots.’ That’s fitting, considering the florets are made up of small, round buds that didn’t quite make it to the flower stage.

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It belongs to the brassica family (aka the cabbage family or crucifers), alongside cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radishes, kohlrabi, kale, bok choy, arugula, and mustard greens. There are three categories of broccoli: sprouting broccoli, which you see in the spring after overwintering; calabrese, the main type that’s ready in summer and named for the Italian province of Calabria; and romanesco, the mesmerizing, light green geometric broccoli.  

Broccoli and its siblings “stockpile two kinds of defensive chemicals in their tissues...when the plant’s cells are damaged, the two stockpiles are mixed, and the enzymes start a chain of reactions that generate bitter, pungent, and strong-smelling compounds,” writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. When broccoli is cooked for too long, the cell walls break down, releasing sulfur compounds (read: an unpleasant smell).

Boiling broccoli past the point of cooked seemed to be a standard North American method for quite some time. Now, it seems like we’re catching onto cooking techniques like roasting or sautéing that caramelize the veggies and leave them pleasantly crunchy (and sans bad smell). This could explain why many parents who had such a hard time getting kids to eat broccoli or Brussels sprouts are watching those same kids now drool over brassicas.

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Our broccoli beliefs

When I chose to write about broccoli this month, I wanted to know why the phrase “broccoli is good for you” was playing on repeat in my head. Why do we believe what we do about foods? Who and what shapes those beliefs?

In his book The Tastemakers: why we’re crazy about cupcakes but fed up with fondue author David Sax starts with these same questions. He found answers in food trends and the tastemakers who start them. (A tastemaker is “anyone with the economic or cultural power to create and influence food trends.”) Of the types of food trends—culture, agriculture, chefs, and health—health trends are extra potent because they appeal to our innate human drive to stay alive. Sax satirically lays out our current food rules:

“Drink three glasses of milk a day, so long as you avoid lactose and dairy. Beef is filled with much-needed iron and protein, but you should steer clear of red meat entirely. Eat fish, unless it (almost certainly) contains mercury. Margarine is the evolutionary replacement for butter, although it turns out margarine should be avoided like the plague, so how about some more butter? Eat whatever you want. But don’t finish it. And make sure it contains no gluten, because gluten is certain death. Be sure to read the labels on your food, but do not for one second trust the information printed there.”

It’s no wonder feeding ourselves can be so. freaking. confusing. It’s as if Isaac Newton returned from the dead to offer a new law: for every food study, there is an equal and opposite food study. We’re tugged in all directions by these powerful forces (not unlike our old friend Stretch Armstrong), and the pressure builds as each decision feels like life or death.

But as much as this feels like a modern problem, it’s actually not. For as long as we’ve had choices about what to eat, we’ve also had anxiety about eating the ‘right’ thing. That makes us susceptible to questionable science. According to Sax, in the second century B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang died after eating mercury pills given to him by his alchemist with the promise they would make him immortal.

Oops.

What is modern, though, is our focus on eating foods for weight loss and vitality. Broccoli fits right into all of this buzz. It packs a big nutritional punch, and, hey—it’s low in calories!

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How foods become ‘super’

A “superfood” is marketing speak for a single ingredient that is readily available, contains nutrients that enhance longevity, and has benefits backed by scientific studies, to paraphrase SuperFoodsRX.com. On that website, broccoli is one of the “24 Foods That Will Change Your Life.”

I admit, I’m a skeptic. Yes, broccoli and its fellow superfoods are unarguably nutritious—I will not dispute that. What I wonder is why some foods rise to super-dom while many equally nutritious foods go unnoticed.

With similar wonderings, David Sax investigated the modern food studies that fuel trends. In one example, the company Unilever spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study to determine if their margarine brand Becel lowered cholesterol. If Unilever could convince eaters that their product would make them healthier, they’d surely pay a premium. This type of profit-driven science is common. It’s how many (most?) food studies come to be.

The typical process, according to Sax is this: “submit a food to a study, and the results of that study would be distilled down to a press-friendly message, which newspapers, magazines, blogs, and morning news shows would deliver verbatim. Studies show that pomegranates contain X and other studies show that X can possible help with Y, therefore, pomegranates/açaí/blueberries/chia could help—hey, maybe even cure—Y.”

“Healthy.”

These food studies aid our pursuit to eat “healthy” foods and avoid “unhealthy” foods. What does “healthy” mean? What if the same “healthy” walnuts nourish my body but land you in the hospital with a severe allergic reaction?

We wield the word around as if it’s an absolute, universal truth. But this word is being stretched and pulled in all different directions by the latest studies, just like we are. If the word “healthy” were a person, perhaps it would have as much anxiety about what to crown as the next perfect food as we do when staring at margarine and butter, trying to remember which one we’re supposed to want.

“‘Healthy’ is a bankrupt word. Our food isn’t healthy. We are healthy. Our food is nutritious,” says Roxanne Sukol, preventative medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in an article Michael Ruhlman wrote for the Washington Post jarringly titled “No food is healthy. Not even kale.”

We are healthy or not. Food is nutritious or not. This distinction makes a lot of sense to me. How does it feel for you?

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Your body knows best

There’s a lot of noise out there. I know. I’m not above it. We’re all doing our best to find solid answers to our questions about what to eat.

It’s my firm belief that we already have the answers. If we quiet the noise of fad diets and latest studies, and instead tune in to the connections with time-tested food traditions and the signals of our own bodies, we know exactly what we need to eat.

For now and probably for the foreseeable future, the high winds of food studies will keep blowing. Anchor yourself in your own knowing. Our bodies knows what we need to eat. All we have to do is listen.

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Practice this in your kitchen: give your body what it wants

  • something spicy: add crushed red pepper flakes and garlic to infuse in the cooking oil before sautéing broccoli (turn this into a picnic-friendly pasta frittata)

  • something crunchy: peel away the fibrous outer layer on the broccoli stalk and cut it into matchsticks for salads or slaws

  • something salty: make a stir fry with soy sauce where broccoli is the star

  • something creamy: try broccoli dipped in labneh. I’m currently doing a work exchange with Leila and Anthony of the Recipe Hunters, and they shared their favorite broccoli preparation method with me (and it’s soooo good!):

    • Bring a pot of water to boil with a tablespoon of salt and 2-3 tbsp olive oil. Wash broccoli and break off into large, easy-to-grab pieces. Par-boil the broccoli for 2-3 minutes. Strain; keep the water if your broccoli’s organic—it’s good to drink or cook with. Sprinkle salt and more olive oil onto the florets. On the side, mix 1 cup of labneh with a sprinkle of sea salt and drizzle of olive oil. Grab a piece of broccoli by the stalk, dip in labneh, and enjoy.
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As you cook and eat, it might be helpful to borrow a sentiment from another language to fill in where our word “healthy” does not quite reach. In Danish, when you thank the cook for your food, they respond with “velbekommen” which means “may it do you good.” In Spanish, if a food sits with you well, you say “me cae bien” which loosely translated means “it fits me.”

Let’s move past “healthy” food and find out what our bodies want and need. Food is personal. It’s situational. It’s biological. It’s cultural.

I hope you find foods that fit you well. Velbekommen.


Heirloom Food Stories aim to connect you to beauty, wisdom, and intuition in your kitchen. Each month we’ll deeply explore one fruit or vegetable, so we can know the whole stories — the joys, hardships, and curiosities — behind the foods on our plates.