President Obama loves broccoli. It’s his favorite food, he confirmed to a highly skeptical Jay Leno this week. And you can bet that his broccoli is fresh and tasty. Yet not everyone has this luxury, as First Lady Michelle–who has taken on the problem of “food deserts” in urban areas–surely knows.
The difficulty and cost of buying fresh veggies is why many people turn to the frozen variety. But, according to a study in the Journal of Food Science, that frozen broccoli lacks the same cancer-fighting health benefits. “Whenever I’ve told people that frozen broccoli may not be as nutritious as fresh broccoli, they look so downcast,” says Elizabeth Jeffery, a University of Illinois nutrition professor who co-authored the study.
Luckily, she and her colleagues have figured out a way to solve the problem and restore these health benefits to the freezer aisle.
In fresh broccoli, when a person is chewing or chopping the veggie, two compounds inside–glucoraphanin and an enzyme called myrosinase–combine to form the cancer warrior sulforaphane, which is ingested. In frozen broccoli, on the other hand, the myrosinase enzyme is destroyed by the heating process that occurs prior to freezing and packaging. And so the cancer combative properties are gone.
The researchers found there are ways to avoid destroying the enzyme simply by heating the broccoli to 76 degrees Celsius rather than 86 degrees–a change that wouldn’t compromise food safety, they say.
But there may be an even better option. Food companies could add trace amounts of similar foods that contain the enzyme into the frozen packaging, such as 0.25 percent daikon radish. When tried out in the lab, this method produces sulforaphane, even after putting the vegetables in the microwave.
The authors imagine that manufacturers might decide to jump through these hoops so they could market their health-boosted frozen veggies. However, this is also a recipe people can try at home: The superfood status of frozen broccoli can be restored if it is paired with foods like raw radishes, cabbage, arugula, watercress, horseradish, and wasabi.
Wherever the broccoli comes from, people will still need to eat three to five servings a week to get the maximum cancer-fighting benefit. So for President Obama’s sake, here’s hoping he’s telling the truth about his favorite food.