St. Patrick’s Day is nearly upon us, when many Americans become Irish for a day and embrace the wearing—and eating and drinking— of the green. On this day, many people consume a meal of corned beef and cabbage, believing that this is what the Irish are eating to celebrate their patron saint.
However, it’s much more likely that people in Ireland will be sitting down to a meal of pork, fish, or chicken and a plate full of vegetables. Historically, beef was enjoyed only by kings or the very wealthy. Cattle were kept for their milk, and sheep for their wool. For the average person, it was hens that were too old to lay or pigs that provided meat for meals. Most of the food came from the garden and frequently included not just potatoes, but another staple favorite: cabbage. This cold-hardy vegetable is an excellent source of vitamin C and likely helped to prevent scurvy during the winter months. But it’s the impressive content of cancer-fighting phytonutrients that make cabbage worthy of a deeper look.
In fact, cancer prevention tops the list of the numerous health benefits provided by this often overlooked cruciferous vegetable. Researchers have published nearly 500 studies about the impact of cabbage on cancer. These studies have identified three main categories of phytonutrients that are responsible for cabbage’s cancer-fighting properties: antioxidants, inflammation inhibitors, and a versatile group of substances called glucosinolates.
Glucosinolates: Just the abundance of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in cabbage would be enough to make it an anti-cancer star. But cabbage contains another extremely potent anti-cancer substance–glucosinolates. After cabbage has been broken down–through slicing, shredding, chopping, or chewing–an enzyme called myrosinase becomes active and converts glucosinolates into isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates help prevent a variety of cancers, including bladder, breast, colon, and prostate cancer. They work by regulating inflammation and by the potent induction of Phase II enzymes, which enhance how the body’s detoxification system works. In addition, isothiocyanates have been shown to reduce cell proliferation as well as stimulate apoptosis (cell death) in human tumor cells.
Antioxidants and Inflammation Inhibitors: The wealth of antioxidant compounds in cabbage is partly responsible for its cancer-prevention benefits. Antioxidants clean up the unavoidable byproducts of normal oxygen metabolism. Without this clean up, oxidants can build up and create a metabolic problem called oxidative stress. Chronic oxidative stress is an independent risk factor for cancer. While the vitamin C in cabbage acts as an antioxidant, the majority of the antioxidant clout of cabbage comes from a family of phytonutrients called polyphenols. Even white cabbage, a very lightly colored form of green cabbage, provides about 50 milligrams of polyphenols in a half-cup serving.
Red cabbage, also known as purple cabbage, is even more powerful. Its deep rich color signals the presence of red pigment polyphenols called anthocyanins. These act not only as antioxidants, but have powerful anti-inflammatory effects as well, making red cabbage an outstanding cancer-phyting food. A recent study showed that a three-ounce serving of raw red cabbage delivers 196.5 mg of polyphenols versus only 45 mg in the same amount of green cabbage. That three ounces of red cabbage yielded over 28.3 mg of anthocyanins compared with a tiny .01 mg in green cabbage. The total antioxidant capacity of red cabbage is up to eight times higher than that of green cabbage. So this St. Patrick’s Day, consider the wearing of the red as well as the green by using red cabbage as part of your celebration meal!
Proper preparation and cooking are essential to getting the most out of cabbage. Preservation of myrosinase activity is the goal, as it’s needed to convert glucosinolates to cancer-protective isothiocyanates. For maximum preservation slice, shred, or chop raw cabbage and let it sit for 5-10 minutes before cooking; this will allow myrosinase to perform its magic. Don’t microwave cabbage as it can deactivate a significant amount of myrosinase. Short steaming, light braising or stir frying is a much better method for preserving myrosinase..
The following St. Patrick’s Day menu is not only an authentic Irish meal but is much healthier than the familiar but calorie, fat and salt-laden corned beef centered meal. The Irish bacon called for is nothing like American bacon: It is a lean, smoked pork loin more like Canadian bacon. Be sure to check with your local butcher, and if you’re unable to find Irish bacon, then use a two or three pound slab of corned beef instead—just be sure to cut off all visible fat before cooking. You can also order Irish bacon online from specialty retailers such as Tommy Moloney’s.
Irish Bacon, Carrots, and Cabbage with Mustard Sauce
- 2 pounds Irish boiling bacon
- 12 cups water, divided
- 12 ounces small red potatoes
- 4 medium carrots cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2/3 cup dry white wine (nonalcoholic or regular)
- 2 teaspoons whole-grain Dijon mustard
- 1 1/4 cups 1% or 2% milk
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 (3-pound) red cabbage, trimmed, cored, and cut into 8 wedges (let sit for 10 minutes before cooking)
- Place bacon in a large, heavy pot; cover with 8 cups water. (If using corned beef, trim all visible fat before cooking.) Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 2 hours, skimming foam from liquid as necessary.
- Remove bacon from pan; wrap well in foil, cover and keep warm. Remove 1 1/4 cups cooking liquid from pan; reserve for mustard sauce. Discard the remaining cooking liquid.
- Add red potatoes and carrots to pot; cover with the remaining 4 cups water. Bring to a boil.
- Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender; remove from liquid with slotted spoon keep warm.
- Bring water back to a simmer. Place cabbage wedges in a steamer basket or colander and place in pot. Cover and steam for 3 to 4 minutes, or until cabbage is tender.
- Prepare the mustard sauce while potatoes and carrots are cooking: Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook 3 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in wine and mustard; cook 2 minutes. Add reserved 1 1/4 cups bacon cooking liquid and milk. Bring to a boil; cook 20 minutes or until reduced to 2 cups, stirring frequently. Stir in black pepper and salt.
- To serve: Cut bacon into 8 slices; serve with vegetables and mustard sauce.
Kim Jordan is the Manager of Medical Nutrition Therapy Services at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.