Cabbage: nutrition facts and health benefits


The cabbage, a winter vegetable belonging to the family of the Brassica oleracea, is one of the oldest vegetables in Europe that grows in the wild and for thousands of years on the shores of the Mediterranean. Cultivated and selected, this maritime cabbage has given birth to different varieties over the centuries. Behind this vernacular name are therefore: green cabbage, white cabbage, cauliflower, cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage or Brussels cabbage.

History of cabbage

The Brussels cabbage, which is, in sum, a little apple cabbage growing in the armpit of the leaves, takes its name from the fact it would have been created in this city towards 1650 in order to make it profitable for the arable land, which was becoming rare under the increasing of the urban population.

The Latin name of the Brassica species would be derived from a Celtic word, bresic, which meant “Chou”, while oleracea means vegetable garden. A Brassica oleracea is a cabbage from the vegetable garden.

The types of cabbage commonly consumed in the Western world all came from a unique wild ancestor, Brassica oleracea var. oleracea, some of which retrace domestication to 2 000 years in the eastern Mediterranean or Anatolia, south of the Black Sea; others believe there might have been a much older ancestor, now extinct, already cultivated 8 000 years ago on the shores of northern Europe. This wild ancestor might have been introduced to the countries of the Mediterranean basin, Eastern Europe, and even the Middle East. One thing was found: the wild species Brassica oleracea oleracea still grows today on the rocky shores of the Mediterranean, northern Spain, southwestern France, south and southwest of Great Britain.

Over the centuries, Brassica oleracea has given rise to subspecies with extremely diverse characteristics depending on the development of the leaves (kale, green cabbage or collard greens cabbage, cabbage with large ribs), the leaves forming the apple (cabbage of Milan or Savoy cabbage, white cabbage, red cabbage, Brussels sprouts), the flowers (broccoli, cauliflower) or the stalk (cabbage-rave).

The first cultivated cabbages were probably kale, green collards or large-rib cabbage (Portugal cabbage), which were selected over the centuries for their leaves, much larger than those of their wild ancestor. These cabbages were not edible, as evidenced by the Latin name of kale, Brassica oleracea var. acephala, which literally means “headless cabbage of the vegetable garden”. It would be around the 5th century B.C. when this first variant of the wild cabbage might have taken its definitive form. Then, with the changing tastes, people took interest in the bunch of young tender leaves found in the heart of the cabbage plant and began to choose preferably the plants in which this characteristic was well developed. This helping selection, the headed cabbage appeared around the 1st century A.D., and it was given the name Brassica oleracea var. capitata, or, literally, “cabbage with the head of the vegetable garden”.

Over time, a variety of sharp, conical, flat or round apples, the color of which will go from cream white to purple red, was developed each giving rise to the appearance of local culinary specialties.

A few words about cabbage

Cabbages belong to the vast family of Brassicaceae, which includes a few hundred botanical genera and a few thousand species. There are many edible plants of commercial importance in this family: radish, turnip, rutabaga, mustard, watercress, canola, arugula and multiple greens typical of Chinese cuisine (Pac Choi, Tatsoi, Hon Tsai Tai, etc.).

All these plants are characterized by the presence of a flower with four petals arranged in the form of a cross (hence the name “crucifers” first used to designate this family) and, according to the vegetable, by a more or less pungent flavor which is attributable to a sulphur substance commonly known as “mustard essence”. Despite their apparent diversity, headed cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts all come from a common ancestor.

Health profile

Easy to grow because of its great ability to adapt to the cold, the cabbage garden is one of the illustrious members of the family of the crucifers. Very versatile, the cabbage is eaten as well grated in salad as stewed, not forgetting the famous sauerkraut prepared from fermented cabbage.

Active principles and properties

For vegetables in general and the Brassicas

Several epidemiological studies have shown that high consumption of vegetables and fruit decreases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other chronic diseases. Some mechanisms of action have been proposed to explain this protective effect. The presence of antioxidants in vegetables and fruits could play a role in it.

As for the vegetables of the family of the Cruciferae such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, epidemiological studies suggest that their regular consumption may help prevent certain cancers such as lung, ovaries and kidneys (in the latter case among women). In addition, a study showed frequent consumption of brassicas (more than 30 times per month) was associated with a lower blood concentration of homocysteine in the blood, an amino acid that is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease when its concentration is too high. Finally, a study exploring cognitive function (for example, various aspects of memory) in older women showed those who consumed the most often of the Cruciferae had a lower cognitive decline than those who consumed the least often, a result for the time being still preliminary.

For cabbage

A review of scientific literature and a human observational study show an association between regular cabbage consumption (at least one serving per week) and a decrease in overall cancer risk, all types, as well as a lower risk of cancer of lung and the pancreas cancer. Other researchers have looked at specific cabbage compounds, described below, which could help explain the potential health benefits of this vegetable.

Antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds protecting the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals. The latter are highly reactive molecules that would be involved in the development of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other diseases related to aging. Researchers have studied in vitro the phenolic compounds effect (a large family of antioxidants) of ten vegetables on the growth of human cancer cells. The mixture of phenolic compounds extracted from cabbage showed one of the strongest capacities to decrease the growth of these cancer cells. This effect was surpassed only by the phenolic compounds of spinach. Other researchers compared the total content in phenolic compounds of several varieties of cabbage. Red cabbage was found to be the one that contained the most, at least twice as compared to other varieties of cabbage. Among animals, a red cabbage extract has also been shown to be effective in protecting the brain from oxidative stress, which is an antioxidant effect.

Cyanidin. Among the different varieties of cabbage, red cabbage is distinguished by its higher content in flavonoïds, a category of antioxidants. The main flavonoid of red cabbage is cyanidin, an anthocyanin pigment which contributes to its pronounced color. A review of the scientific literature on anthocyanins demonstrates beneficial properties for the prevention of cancer (decreased tumor formation among animals, decreased growth of in vitro cancer cells). However, more studies need to be done before these results are applied to humans.

Glucosinolates. This term consists of a set of compounds mainly found in the brassica vegetables, including cabbage. Glucosinolates are biologically inactive. However, when the food undergoes physical transformations (e.g., chopped or chewed), the glucosinolates come into contact with an enzyme present in the food, called myrosinase. The glucosinolates are then transformed into active molecules called isothiocyanates; many of these molecules would help to limit cancer development. Cabbage cooking reduces the activity of myrosinase, reducing the ability to transform glucosinolates into active compounds in the body. However, intestinal bacterial flora can also transform the glucosinolates into isothiocyanates, which could partially compensate for the loss of activity of the myrosinase of cooked foods. Boiling cabbage can also result in a significant loss of glucosinolates through cooking water. The ideal would be to consume it raw or lightly cooked, in little water. The cabbage contains several glucosinolates, the main one being the glucobrassicine and the sinigrine.

Indole-3-carbinol and 3,3′-diindolylmethane. Cabbage contains a glucosinolate called glucobrassicine, which, under the action of myrosinase, is transformed into an active isothiocyanate called indole-3-carbinol. In the organism, carbinol can turn into a 3,3′-diindolylmethane. In vitro and animal research suggests these two compounds could prevent tumor formation, decrease the growth of cancer cells and promote their self-destruction. These studies focus mainly on cancers related to the hormonal system (breast, prostate), but other results in the animal also demonstrate a beneficial effect against cervical cancer. While these compounds appear to be promising, some researchers agree it is necessary to know more before undertaking studies among humans. Indeed, these substances would not always be beneficial among animals already infected with cancer.

Allyl isothiocyanate (tiac). Cabbage is one of the main sources of a glucosinolate called sinigrin, which the myrosinase then transforms into an active compound called allyl isothiocyanate (tiac). Tiac has demonstrated in vitro and among animals a capacity to limit the growth of cancer cells. However, since the results of other research on these compounds are controversial, more studies will be needed to clarify these properties and check whether they apply among humans.

Is there a link between cabbage and thyroid cancer?

The cabbage naturally contains thioglucosides, substances believed to be related to the onset of thyroid gland cancer among animals. For this reason, scientists questioned the possibility that these vegetables could be associated with thyroid cancer among humans. These researchers carried out a meta-analysis of studies from many countries and comprising more than 5 000 people. They showed a high consumption of brassicas was not associated with a greater risk of thyroid cancer.


Vitamin K and anticoagulants

Cabbage, especially green cabbage, contains a high amount of vitamin K. This vitamin, necessary among other things for blood coagulation, can be manufactured by the organism in addition to be found in certain foods. Persons taking anticoagulant medications, such as those marketed under the names Coumadin, Warfilone and Sintrom, must adopt a diet in which vitamin K content is relatively stable from one day to the next. Green cabbage is part of a list of foods that must be consumed at most once a day and in a maximum quantity of 1 cup (250 ml) each time. It is highly recommended for people under anticoagulation to consult a dietitian/nutritionist or physician to learn about vitamin K food sources and to ensure that the most stable daily intake is possible.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Some people with irritable bowel syndrome may feel, in varying degrees, intolerance towards certain foods. There are times when the intolerance concerns the brassica vegetables such as cabbage. By limiting or avoiding fermentable foods such as those in the brassica family, people with this syndrome can alleviate certain symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating or diarrhea. When symptoms are mild, or during periods of “remission”, it is sometimes possible to gradually reintegrate these foods, always respecting individual tolerance.

The interaction between the cabbage and certain medications

Indoles, naturally occurring compounds among the brassica vegetables, may reduce the action of certain analgesics such as products containing acetaminophen (Tylenol, Atasol, Tempur, etc.) and other medications combining a mixture of active ingredients (Benylin, Contac, Robaxacet, etc.). People who consume a large amount of brassica vegetables must take this aspect into consideration.

Ornamental cabbages to eat

Ornamental cabbages are, in fact, Borecoles. They are consumed in fine parts, in a salad, boiled, braised or stuffed. One of the most interesting ways to prepare them is to gently detach the leaves, to scald them quickly, and then to give them roughly their shape by placing them in a bowl. It is possible to put between the leaves shrimp, crabs, chicken, eggs, herbs. Season with a vinegar sauce when serving.

Some helpful tips

-To prevent discoloration of red cabbage, use a stainless steel knife to cut it. To keep the color during cooking, put only a little water in the pan with a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice.

-If the cabbage you cook starts to release a sulfurous odor, it is that it has already been cooked too long. Decrease the cooking time. One can also add to the cooking water a walnut oil with its hull, a sprig of celery or a piece of bread wrapped in muslin (to prevent it from undoing), which would alleviate the odor.


In the refrigerator, the headed cabbage can be stored for a few weeks in the vegetable drawer. Preferably choose headed cabbages well firm and heavy for their size. In the cellar, you can keep the so-called conservation varieties all winter.

The cabbage of Milan or Savoy cabbage can only be kept shorter. It is therefore preferable to prepare it as soon as possible. The same goes for the Brussels sprouts which, because of their small size, dry up and wither quickly. The place of borecoles and cabbage riders is certainly in the garden where they can survive harsh colds. In the refrigerator, they can be kept a week.

Organic Gardening

Very demanding for the soil, the cabbage needs a good fertilization. In addition, to reduce the incidence of certain diseases, a four-year rotation is required. Remember that radishes, turnips and mustard are part of the same family and should not be part of the rotation.

Between the early plants in the middle of April until the harvest of the Brussels sprouts at the end of November, early December, gardeners have access to an unbelievable number of cultivars. By counting the so-called conservation cabbages and the borecoles which bravely face the cold in the garden, they will be able to eat fresh cabbage practically all year round.

The main problem under temperate climates is the white of cabbage, an innocent little white butterfly, with wings spotted with a black eye, which continually fly around brassicas to deposit its tiny eggs on their appetizing fleshy leaves. There are three natural ways to get rid of it. Here they are, starting with the most ecological:

– turning momentarily into a butterfly hunter. By catching the adults before they lay their eggs, the damage is severely limited;

– by spraying, at the time of larval appearance, a natural insecticide based on Bacillus thuringiensis; it will probably take a few times during the season;

– by sprinkling the larvae with rotenone. Although natural, this solution is the last one to consider, because while being safe for humans, mammals and amphibians, rotenone is not selective and attacks all insects, desirable or not, whose trajectory passes through the cabbage square.


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