As a member of the Brassicaceae family,1 cauliflower is related to broccoli, cabbage, turnips and rutabaga.2 Plants in this family may be annuals, biennials or perennials. In the most common form, cauliflower is white. However, it's a versatile vegetable that also comes in green, purple and orange varieties.3
White cauliflower will turn yellow when exposed to the sun, so farmers sometimes use the large outer leaves to cover the plant. The purple variety is called Sicilian Violet, Graffiti or Violet Queen. Anthocyanin is the phytochemical responsible for the beautiful purple color. This phytochemical is also responsible for the red or purple color in berries.4
The orange varieties are called Cheddar or Orange Bouquet Cauliflower. They’re formed by a genetic mutation and hold more beta-carotene in the plant. Green cauliflower is a hybrid of cauliflower and broccoli. While the green variety has more beta carotene than the white variety, broccoli contains more than either.5
So, with a variety of color choices for cauliflower, you aren’t limited to just white on your menu. But, as you consider your choices, which has more health benefits, better flavor and is easiest to grow?
Health Benefits of Cauliflower
On the whole, cauliflower packs a punch for your health. In one evaluation by the CDC,6 researchers defined what might constitute a powerhouse fruit and vegetable, in other words, foods strongly associated with a reduction in disease.
They considered 47 foods and chose 41 nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables to propose a classification system for education and dietary guidance. They gave each a nutrient density score associated with nutrients protective against chronic disease.
The scores were capped at 100, but because it wasn’t possible to include all data on phytonutrients, the researchers wrote the scores “do not reflect all of the constituents” related to health benefits.7
The median score for this powerhouse list was 32.23, with cauliflower ranking 24th out of 41 with a score of 25.13. To put this in perspective, scientists estimate there are more than 300,000 edible plants, of which we eat approximately 200.8
Specifically, 1 cup of cooked white cauliflower contains 73% of your daily value of vitamin C, 19% of vitamin K and 14% of folate.9 In addition, it’s also a good source of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and phosphorus, as well as dietary fiber. As a raw vegetable it has a low estimated glycemic load of 2 on a scale of zero to 250.10
As a powerhouse vegetable, cauliflower has been at the center of several research studies to identify how consuming it affects your health, and how to best retain the antioxidant levels. Some of the more prominent findings include:
- Boosting antioxidant levels — Cauliflower is noted for its high antioxidant activity. However, if you choose to cook it, be sure to stir-fry it if you want to make the most of the nutrients.11
- Eliminating harmful bacteria in the gut — A 2017 study notes brassica vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower may help eliminate sulphate-reducing bacteria, which may help boost gut health.12
- Protecting cognitive health — In research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, it’s noted that cauliflower may have neuroprotective properties thanks to its sulforaphane content.13
Purple Cauliflower Offers Additional Benefits
While white cauliflower has many health benefits, the purple variety has one flavonoid not found in others — anthocyanins. This water-soluble compound belongs to the family of flavonoids. Major sources of anthocyanins include purple grapes, cherries, strawberries and blueberries.14
In the past, the pigments have been used as a natural food coloring and are now being considered as potential pharmaceutical ingredients for their health benefits.15 Studies in cell culture, animal models and clinical trials demonstrate the antioxidant capacity of the antimicrobial activities of anthocyanin.
These properties have been shown to help neuronal diseases, cardiovascular disease and cancer. They also have an impact on diabetes and inflammation.16 Scientists have identified a variety of effects anthocyanins have on platelets, blood vessels and lipoproteins.17 Peer-reviewed studies have published data noting in vitro activity regulating pathways involved in cardiovascular disease development.18
Human Interventional studies have demonstrated improvements in lipid peroxidation, dyslipidemia and total plasma antioxidant capacity.19 In one meta-analysis of 19 studies, researchers found that those who had the highest level of anthocyanin consumption were 9% less likely to have heart disease and 8% less likely to succumb to health conditions associated with it.20
Researchers have also noted the potential antitumor effects of anthocyanin and its ability to inhibit proliferation by changing signal pathways and stimulating apoptosis.21,22 Pharmaceutical companies are also interested in taking advantage of the anticancer properties of anthocyanins.
Researchers from the Department of Pharmacy at the Himalayan Institute of Pharmacy and research write that new anticancer agents may be developed using anthocyanins as a basic structure.23
Researchers are looking into the use of anthocyanins for their neuroprotective capacity to mitigate the oxidative stress that leads to neurodegeneration. In cell studies, anthocyanin has been shown to have both neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties; this indicates it may address neurodegeneration.24,25,26
Cancer Researchers Interested in Cauliflower Glucosinolates
The various types of cauliflower are classified as cruciferous vegetables which contain a group of compounds known as glucosinolates. As you are preparing, chewing and digesting cauliflower, this compound breaks down and forms other biological compounds such as thiocyanate, isothiocyanates and indoles. Indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane are two of the most frequently analyzed compounds for the effects they have on cancer cells.27
In several animal studies researchers found these two compounds were able to stop the development of cancer cells in the bladder, colon, stomach and liver. In studies done on cells in the lab, scientists have identified some of the ways they may help prevent the formation of cancer, including:28
- Protecting cells from DNA damage
- Inactivating carcinogens
- Having antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects
- Initiating apoptosis
- Inhibiting angiogenesis and tumor cell migration
Scientists believe the presence of glucosinolates in vegetables in the Brassica family is so important that there are those who are investigating breeding programs to potentially increase the bioavailability of isothiocyanates and other functional glucosinolates.29 Bioavailability of the compounds is affected by preparation of the vegetable.30
After eating, the compounds may be partially absorbed through your stomach mucosa but the majority are metabolized in your gut. When eaten raw, the plant contains an enzyme called myrosinase, which is used to hydrolyze the glucosinolate in the upper part of the gut. It increases bioavailability of the metabolites, including indole-3-carbinol.
When the vegetable is cooked, the myrosinase gets inactivated and hydrolysis occurs using your intestinal microbiota.31 Researchers from Rutgers University have also demonstrated the sulforaphane found in cauliflower has chemoprotective properties that may prevent the expression of cancer-related genes.32
Although they could not identify how the compounds accomplished the protective benefits, the researchers demonstrated results using an animal study and found sulforaphane induced apoptosis and inhibited the proliferation of tumors.33
Which Has the Better Flavor?
While healthy and beneficial, you must first eat cauliflower to enjoy the benefits. If you don’t enjoy the taste this isn’t likely to happen. However, unlike many other cruciferous vegetables with a somewhat bitter flavor,34 cauliflower has a relatively mild taste.
In fact, cauliflower has such a unique ability to take on the flavor of the foods and spices that it’s used with that it may be used as a substitute for rice, mashed potatoes and even pizza crust when you’re trying to lower your carbohydrate intake. If you're using cauliflower this way for the first time, it's important to remember the texture will be different since you’re substituting a vegetable for a grain.
While it doesn’t have the same texture, its freshness has proven it to be a versatile alternative. Purple and orange cauliflower have the similar, subtle taste as the common white variety.
Although it’s called Cheddar Cauliflower, the orange vegetable tastes nothing like cheese. The purple cauliflower is mild and slightly sweet with a somewhat nutty flavor, while the orange variety has a creamier texture.35
History of Your Homegrown Cauliflower
Cauliflower is believed to have come from the Mediterranean region in what is now Turkey. Varieties were not usually selected for large compact heads as in the U.S., but rather according to which heads were loose. China and India, where it’s more popular than in the U.S., now produce 74% of the cauliflower world’s.36
The purple variety has been available for decades and gets its color from anthocyanin. Unfortunately, with cooking the purple color is lost.37
The orange variety was bred from a mutation discovered in 1970 and was then hybridized.38 A Canadian farmer found one orange cauliflower in a field of white that was less flavorful and smaller than the rest of the crop. Then, a New York horticulture professor crossed the mutant with standard cauliflower and the first orange cauliflower made its way to grocery stores in the fall of 2003.39
Cauliflower is challenging to grow as it's sensitive to temperature changes and prefers a cool season. In the U.S., nearly 75% of commercially grown cauliflower is found in the valleys of California.40 Although tricky, you can grow it at home if you watch your temperatures closely, use rich soil and provide it with a steady supply of water.
The size of a mature plant will depend on the variety. Most are ready for harvest in two months, although some varieties mature a little quicker. They will not form a head in warm weather and can’t handle frost, so it's important to choose a variety that will mature in your climate zone.41
Cooking With Cauliflower
If you're substituting cauliflower for rice for the first time, there are a couple mistakes you're going to want to avoid.42 Unlike rice, it doesn’t need to be cooked in water because this makes it mushy. If you're using it as a base, quickly sauté it for a minute or two over medium heat to soften it without losing some of the texture. Don't leave it on too long; three minutes should do the trick.
You'll need to change your flavor expectations as it doesn't have the same neutral taste that rice has. It also doesn't soak up moisture so if you top your dish with too much sauce it just sits on the bottom. You can use colored cauliflower in the same way — rice it, mash it, roast it or use it in soup.
While it’s loaded with antioxidants, the length of time it's exposed to heat can impact its health benefits. Using hot water, such as with steaming and boiling, causes the greatest loss of antioxidants, while dry cooking methods are usually the best, such as with stir-frying and roasting.43
Since cauliflower is high in fiber, eating it in excess may cause bloating and flatulence. It's a good idea to slowly increase your intake of high fiber foods to reduce this risk. Cauliflower is also high in vitamin K, so anyone who is taking a blood thinner shouldn’t suddenly start eating large amounts of it.44
If you’re new to cauliflower, consider this zesty roasted dish flavored with jalapeno pepper and lemon, adapted from Epicurious.45 When made with purple cauliflower you’ll enjoy a slightly nutty addition to the flavor combination. It is delicious served hot and is an excellent snack that can be enjoyed in its raw form.
Roasted Cauliflower with Lemon zest, Parsley, Capers and Jalapeño
- 1 head cauliflower cut in bite-sized florets
- 3 to 4 tablespoons coconut oil, plus extra for drizzling
- Fresh ground Himalayan sea salt and black pepper
- 1 lemon
- 1 large handful parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced
- Himalayan sea salt
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Spread the cauliflower florets on a baking sheet, drizzle with the coconut oil and season generously with salt and pepper.
- Toss the vegetables to coat evenly with the oil and seasoning.
- Roast in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, tossing halfway through, until they are a deep golden color and crispy.
- While the cauliflower is roasting, peel three strips from the lemon.
- Cut each strip in thin crosswise pieces.
- Slice the lemon in half.
- Once roasted, transfer the cauliflower to a bowl and top with parsley, capers, jalapeños and the sliced lemon zest.
- Squeeze the mixture with half the lemon and drizzle more oil.
- Toss to coat all ingredients.
- Sprinkle with salt as desired.