Cabbage: How to Get all the Health Benefits that Most People Miss

4 Mins
October 31, 2016

Hello! I am Bezalel Adainoo, the author of Stay Well Now. My friends call me Bez. As a professional food scientist, I have been asked many questions by people from different walks of life seeking the right information on what food to eat and how that will affect their health.

Cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable which comes in different forms and colours like green, red, purple and white (the most common type). The vegetable is rich in nutrients as well as other health promoting chemicals but do you get all these nutrient and health factors when you eat the vegetable?

Getting the health benefits in some foods goes beyond including that food in your diet. Every aspect of the handling of food could either accentuate or reduce the potency of the healthful benefits of the food. For a vegetable like cabbage, some of the components which offer great health benefits may be affected right from the way the cabbage is washed down through to how it is cooked. This article shines a light on the underbelly of the practices that drain cabbage of its health benefits and describes how you can harness the wealth of nutritional and health benefits of this vegetable.

Nutritional composition of cabbage

Cabbage is very low in calories and rich in dietary fibre making it suitable for diabetics and individuals who want to lose weight. Also, the vegetable contains vitamin K, magnesium and folic acid. In addition to folic acid, cabbage contains other water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, vitamin B6 and thiamine. About 82% of the weight of cabbage is water. Cabbage, especially the red type, is a good source of antioxidants like choline, quercetin, beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, keampferol and apigenin, all of which play diverse roles to ensure the body is well-nourished, improve heart health and prevent certain cancers.

Washing cabbage

From washing to the cooking of cabbage, every step is a critical point for either loss of nutrients or contamination by microorganisms. If the handling is not done properly, you may deny yourself of valuable nutrients and natural components which have positive effects on your health or you may end up in the hospital for food poisoning.

To wash cabbage effectively, cut the thick outer leaves off, cut the cabbage into four quarters (ideally with a stainless steel knife because some of the components of cabbage react with carbon steel knives turning the cut ends of the leaves black) and soak the head in salt solution or vinegar water for about 15 minutes especially if you see signs of worm or insect infestation then wash the whole cabbage under running water. Though the inside of the cabbage is usually clean it is necessary to cut the vegetable and wash to ensure the dirt and/or microorganisms probably lurking in between the leaves of the cabbage are washed off to help prevent contamination of the vegetable which may lead to food poisoning. However, there’s the chance of losing some of the water-soluble vitamins as you wash the vegetable, especially because you have to cut it into quarters before washing, so it is advised that you wash and shred when you’re ready to eat it or use it.

Another concern for many people is the pesticide residues which are often present in cabbage and several other vegetables in varying quantities due to their use in the cultivation of vegetables. In a study that assessed different washing methods on pesticide residues in cabbage, it was found that washing cabbage with either salt solution or vinegar solution is effective at removing pesticide residues on cabbage. Washing the vegetable with just tap water removes some of the pesticide residues, however, it is not as effective as washing with salt solution or vinegar solution.

 Cooking cabbage

How you cook cabbage also has a significant effect on the nutritional value of the vegetable. In our fast-moving world, it makes sense to use microwave to quickly warm your coleslaw which may contain some cabbage or use the microwave to steam cabbage within a very short time. But have you considered what that means for the health benefits you’ll derive from eating cabbage? Well, in a  research conducted in the UK, in which the effect of microwave cooking and steaming on the natural components of cabbage were studied, it was observed that steaming cabbage for 7 minutes or more destroys certain enzymes (myronsinase) in the cabbage which is needed to convert another natural component (glucosinolates) of cabbage into an anti-carcinogenic compound (isothiocyanates) when you eat it since the human body doesn’t make this enzyme. Nonetheless, it was observed that microwaving cabbage for only 2 minutes has the same effect on this enzyme; doing it for longer makes it even worse. This means that you will eat this naturally-occurring compound without getting its cancer-preventing properties. So it is best to steam raw cabbage for less than 7 minutes to preserve these natural enzymes in the cabbage in order to have the cancer-preventive benefit of the glucosinolates also present in the cabbage. This is very important because the isothiocynates formed from the conversion of the glucosinolates help prevent breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer among others.

Now, you know how to effectively wash cabbage to rid it of dust, insects and even the pesticide residues which may be on the cabbage without significantly reducing the amount of water-soluble vitamins in the cabbage your body needs. Also, it is better to steam cabbage for less than 7 minutes to preserve the enzyme needed to unleash the cancer-preventive compounds that help protect your body against breast, colon and prostate cancers to mention a few.

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