Sulforaphane is a plant-derived chemical that is found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower (all members of the genus Brassica). More specifically, it is a sulfur-containing isothiocyanate derivative and is of great interest to medical researchers.

About a quarter of the human population can taste this chemical; for these genetically-endowed "supertasters", it is bitter, sometimes quite unpleasantly so. This accounts for broccoli and Brussels sprouts being unpopular vegetables with young children and former U.S. presidents alike.

Sulphoraphane has been extensively studied since its discovery in 1992 because it has potent anticancer, antioxidant, and antibacterial activity.

Researchers have known for years that, when the chemical is absorbed into the bloodstream, it stimulates detoxifying Phase 2 enzymes that mop up carcinogenic molecules in the body before they cause DNA damage. Other studies indicated that the chemical may stop the growth of and stimulate the death of cancer cells (apoptosis). Many researchers believe that this chemical (and the aforementioned vegetables that contain it) can provide at least some protection against a variety of common cancers, such as breast, lung, prostate, and colon tumors.

Recent research done at Johns Hopkins indicates that sulforaphane may be especially useful for preventing stomach cancer. Laboratory tests show that the chemical kills off most strains of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori; it even killed off bacteria that were hiding in cells. These bacteria cause stomach inflammation and ulcers, and are thought to be responsible for many cases of stomach cancer around the world. Furthermore, mice that were dosed with sulforaphane developed many fewer stomach tumors than did control mice after they were all poisoned with a powerful stomach-specific carcinogen (benzo[a]pyrene).

Broccoli sprouts are particularly rich in this chemical; they contain up to 50 times the amount mature broccoli plants contain.

Some health-food manufacturers have started selling sulforaphane-rich supplements; scientists do not yet know how much of the chemical a person needs to consume to gain a beneficial effect. Furthermore, since the chemical is not fully understood, the long-term effects of consuming it are unknown. However, so far the only bad side effect that has apparently surfaced is its taste.


  • Science News June 1, 2002.

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