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Cauliflower, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis, is an herbaceous annual or biennial vegetable plant in the family Brassicaceae grown for its edible head.

Typically, only the head is eaten – the edible white flesh. The cauliflower head is composed of a white inflorescence meristem. Cauliflower heads resemble those in broccoli, which differs in having flower buds as the edible portion. Brassica oleracea also includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, and kale, collectively called “cole” crops, though they are of different cultivar groups.

The head is actually a mass of abortive flowers (flowers which are unable to produce fruit or seed as they possess only female reproductive organs; the male organs are either underdeveloped or totally lacking). Cauliflower plants are shallow rooted with a small, thickened stem.

Cauliflower is a cool season crop and grows best in well draining, organic soil at a pH of 6.5 or above. A high amount of organic matter in the soil will help to hold moisture. The plant requires consistent cool temperatures to prevent ‘buttoning’ – the formation of several small heads instead of one large one. Cauliflower is less cold hardy than its relatives and it should be planted after the last frost as sub-freezing temperatures are likely to damage the plant.

Glucosinolates in Cauliflower

The phytonutrients provided by cauliflower are headed off by its glucosinolates. These sulfur-containing compounds are well studied and known to provide a variety of health benefits. The glucosinolates best studied in cauliflower include:

  • glucobrassicin
  • glucoiberin
  • glucoerucin
  • glucoraphanin
  • neo-glucobrassicin
  • progoitrin
  • sinigrin
  • 4-hydroxyglucobrassicin
  • 4-methoxyglucobrassicin

Glucosinolates are the subject of increasing health research, and the more that is learned about glucosinolates, the broader scientists see their role in supporting our body systems.

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Antioxidants in Cauliflower

Beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, caffeic acid, cinnamic acid, ferulic acid, quercetin, rutin, and kaempferol are among cauliflower’s key antioxidant phytonutrients. An emphatic addition to this list would be vitamin C since cauliflower is our 10th best source of vitamin C among all 100 WHFoods. Like most of its fellow cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower is also a very good source of manganese—a mineral antioxidant that is especially important in oxygen-related metabolism.

Recent research has begun to investigate the relationship between cauliflower’s overall antioxidant capacity and its sulfur-containing glucosinolates. The glucosinolates in cauliflower appear to have an important relationship with its antioxidant capacity, although scientists are not yet sure about the exact role that glucosinolates play in this regard.

Cauliflower and Risk of Specific Health Conditions

Intake of cauliflower has been analyzed in relationship to a variety of different disease risks. When consumed at least once per week, cauliflower has been associated with decreased risk of colorectal cancer and has been shown to be associated with a greater decrease of risk than broccoli (when consumed in a comparable amount). In terms of prostate cancer risk, cauliflower and broccoli have shown a similar ability to decrease risk.

Because of its ability to bind bile acids, intake of cooked cauliflower has also been linked to better regulation of blood cholesterol.