Don’t believe the headline – broccoli is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. But as a case-study into how we can become needlessly fearful of eating many foods, I will show how by selectively citing some scientific research and blowing it all out of context, you can build a case for any food being ‘toxic’. Even wholesome broccoli. Yes, broccoli is bad for you.
If you have a small amount of scientific nous, it is super easy to mount a case for any food or nutrient being harmful and toxic by selectively quoting scientific research. Grains, soy, gluten and even sugar are the current faves here.
The Internet proliferates with opinion pieces quick to vilify particular foods and nutrients as being ‘the cause’ of many of our health problems by over-cooking (see what I did there?) one side of the research evidence. To show you how this is done, I present for you a masterclass on this art form on how you can turn perfectly healthy broccoli into one of the most toxic foods a person can eat. After I do that, I’ll give you some practical tips on how to spot when it is being done and what you should really be concentrating on for best health.
So read on as I lift the lid on the toxic chemical soup that is broccoli, and explain why every mouthful you eat is pushing you ever faster to an early grave.
**Commence parody of creating fear of a food**
You’ve been told since you were a child that eating broccoli is good for you. Sorry to break it to you, but your parents lied to you. Have you ever stopped and questioned on what basis this advice comes from? Broccoli certainly gets the health-halo for being a green vegetable. But when you start to dig a bit deeper, an alarming picture emerges for just how bad broccoli is for you.
To start with, broccoli is a well-described goitrogen. Goitrogens are chemicals that suppress the function of the thyroid gland by interfering with iodine uptake, a key mineral needed to make thyroid hormone. This blocking of iodine uptake causes the thyroid gland to enlarge; a goitre is the end result.
Broccoli is loaded with goitrogens, particularly one group called thiocyanates. The consequence of eating these thiocyanates is the potential to develop the very serious condition of hypothyroidism. What is hypothyroidism? Well, do you or have you ever experienced any of these symptoms?
- Fatigue and low energy levels
- Unexplained weight gain
- Slow heart rate
- Intolerance to cold temperatures
- Fatigued and aching muscles
- Dry, coarse skin
- Puffy face
- Hair loss
- Problems with concentration
If you said yes to any of these, then you’re a candidate for being hypothyroid and I would be looking at broccoli as the prime candidate for causing this.
And it is not just goitrogens you need to be worrying about. Broccoli is loaded with formaldehyde, a natural by-product of oxidation and which is known to cause cancer in rats. Formaldehyde is used in the manufacturing of plastics, foam insulation, fungicides, mirrors, insecticides, petroleum, resins and industrial chemicals. No one in their right mind would eat any of these things so when you see this list, just add broccoli to it as well.
But the biggest thing you need to know about is what I like to call the ‘dirty little secret’ of the organic food industry. Organic food is good for you right because it doesn’t contain any pesticides? Wrong. Broccoli is overloaded with natural pesticides which are part of the plant’s natural defence system against harm. And what you’re not being told by Big Organic is that half of those pesticides when tested on laboratory animals have been shown to cause cancer.
Well at least organic broccoli doesn’t contain any human-made pesticides I hear you say? Sorry, but organic growers are able to use if they wish ‘natural’ pesticides and they are not required to tell you about it. Many of these natural pesticides are actually more toxic than synthetic pesticides. To make things even worse, there is no national monitoring system for these natural pesticides as is the case for the system in place for synthetic ones. Organic broccoli: you may as well be using Round-up for your salad dressing and get your toxic cancer-causing pesticide hit in one go rather than eat it.
And remember those thiocyanates I mentioned earlier? Well those too can cause bladder cancer in rats. We have graphic warning signs about cancer on cigarette packets, so why do health authorities continue to sit on their hands and take no action against broccoli?
**End of parody – the rest of this blog post is legit**
Time for a reality check
Okay, so back to our normal programming. Broccoli is awesome and is super healthy for you and I rate it (along with other cruciferous vegetables) as one of the best foods you could be eating. It contains a host of nutrients linked to reducing cancer risk. On top of that, it is high in fibre, low in kilojoules and is packed with lots of nutrients such as vitamins C and K, and is a good source of vitamin A, folate and potassium.
So, what about all those alarming health concerns I wrote about? Ignore them. Most of them are theoretical as lack any context of dose. Just about anything will cause cancer of the everything in rats if you give it in high enough doses. Although if you have low iodine levels and were at risk of hypothyroidism, you would be wise not to be eating several kilograms of raw broccoli each day.
Organic broccoli is good for you. Conventional broccoli is good for you. There are thousands of other things you could worry about to do with your health rather than tiny doses of natural or synthetic pesticides.
Even though there are some hypothetical risks from eating too much broccoli, they are more than outweighed by the health benefits. That is what matters here: the overall balance for what it means to your health and broccoli breaks the scales here for health benefits.
By selectively quoting research, you can build a case for or against any food if that was your agenda. Throw in some emotive language, and you’ve got yourself a winner for getting the public’s attention. You can then make quite a bit of money out of doing this too from book sales and building up a large social media following.
Take soy for example. You’ll find opinion on the Internet vilifying it for its endocrine disrupting ability. Yet the research to support these claims are overplayed compared to the many health benefits linked to its consumption. In some cases, too much soy could be a problem such as for women with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer undergoing active cancer treatment. But eating it as part of a varied diet is a health win. Just like for broccoli. And grains. And fruit. And legumes. And…you get the picture.
Let’s hate on nutritionists
Cars were once designed to be big and heavy like a tank to stand the impact in the event of a crash. We now know that the safest way to design a car is to make it able to crumple to better absorb an accident impact. Yet nowhere are there loud social media voices calling out the credibility of car designers because they ‘got it wrong’ some decades ago. Would you really want the safety design of your car left to Google University experts?
Same in medicine. Medical treatments are always advancing as new research emerges. Yet we don’t trash the whole profession because some decades ago treatment of stomach ulcers was done by diet and stress management when it was a bacterium that was the culprit and antibiotics are the effective cure here.
Yet here we have it in the field of nutrition that credible nutritionists and dietitians are routinely lambasted. All because some aspect of dietary advice given in the past is different to today. And worse still, current advice is not instantly changed the minute a new publication on the benefit of Fad Diet X comes out.
The voices of experts are just as credible and just as valid to listen to today, and they get it right far more than they get it wrong. Expertise is not the ability of someone to repeat blog post opinions and quote a few sentences from scientific papers that agree with their point of view. Expertise is not proportional to the number of someone’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram followers.
Learning from the people who have nailed it
So how do you know if what you’re hearing or reading is going to be credible information rather than a biased con job like the one I pulled on broccoli? Well, you could undertake a PhD in nutrition and learn how to do it like the pros (not to be recommended) or you could take the easy option and just see if it passes the following test.
- Is the advice you’re reading also repeated consistently by the voices of credible nutrition professionals, researchers and peak health bodies? If yes, go to 2. If no, raise the sceptical flag.
- Is the end result of following this advice pointing you in the direction of eating more plant-based foods and less highly processed foods and sugar without banning any foods or food groups or labelling certain foods as toxic? If yes, go to 3. If no, then strongly consider doing it anyway.
- Eat foods that you like eating and you know that agree with you and that fit within the themes of the advice.
If advice passes this basic test, then you’re on the path to following in the steps of the dietary patterns of some of the healthiest and longest-lived people on the planet. They eat a mostly plant-based diet, and incorporate daily, natural physical activity into their lives. They also do not overeat and learn to stop eating before they feel full.
Long-lived people don’t avoid dairy foods, or soy or gluten. They don’t calculate the glycaemic index of their meals. They don’t ruminate on if the grains they are eating are stopping the absorption of other nutrients. They don’t take supplements. They eat. They move. They enjoy. They socially engage with their community in person. They live.
Yet even between the different long-lived communities, there is diversity in the foods they eat. Showing there is no one single ‘right’ way to eat, only flexible guidelines. Choosing mostly seasonal fruits and vegetables, and a variety of beans, nuts, seeds and grains is the cornerstone of their dietary pattern.
Get the basics right and you can hit the snooze button on needing to ever again pay attention to anything you ever read or hear in the media or from populist nutrition gurus again. And you also get to enjoy eating broccoli too.