Thomas Jefferson grew broccoli on his Virginia estate. Since then broccoli and related veggies have seen their ups and downs.
But a new wave of popularity may arise. Science is showing how they stop cancer and chefs are showing us how to make them tasty.
Tastes Good and is Good for You
The first President George Bush actually banned broccoli from Air Force One in 1990. Apparently he considered the vegetable an axis of evil.
However, he seems to be the odd man out - presidentially speaking - as his son does like broccoli.
Chef Ellie Krieger is one of a rare breed. Not only is she a nutrionist, she has a Food Network cooking show called Healthy Appetite. She says broccoli and its cousin, cauliflower, are indeed good eats.
"There are dozens of ways to prepare broccoli and cauliflower that make them especially delectable," she said.
Krieger agrees with the Dole Foods song that says the former president was so wrong, "It's a real cool vegetable and comes to you in dark, leafy green."
Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are all cool because of a range of health benefits.They're called cruciferous vegetables and also include, broccoli sprouts, collards, kale, radishes, turnips and more.
Among the many healthy substances, or phytonutrients, common to the cruciferous family is is indole-3-carbinol, or I3C.
Air Pollution and Cancer
Dr. David Williams at the Linus Pauling Institute housed at Oregon State says I3C is making a name for itself.
"Researchers in our group have been using indole-3-carbinol as a cancer prevention agent for a number of years," he said.
Williams and his graduate student David Castro have been giving mother mice I3C in an attempt to prevent cancers in their offspring. The cancers they're studying come from air pollution.
Williams describes the process, "Well, when anybody burns organic material you generate these polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are carcinogens."
In other words, burning fossil fuels like gasoline and especially coal can cause certain cancers. That burning produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, that spread through the air.
Here's what happens: Burning produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, that spread through the air. Then we breathe breathe them in -- or actually eat them.
"They get deposited on plants and then those plants get eaten by animals. Actually when you look at the source of PAHs, the major source is dietary for us," Williams said.
PAHs are believed to be a major cause of childhood cancers, including leukemia. The mothers are exposed to the substances - which then reach the babies in the womb.
The World's Biggest Air Polluter
So where are the increasing levels of these carbon particles coming from?
Williams said, "China is burning more coal than the U.S., the entire European Union and Japan put together and one new coal plant comes on line every week large enough to light up the the city of Dallas," Williams said.
China is hardly the sole culprut; PAHs are produced all over the world. There's some in cigarette smoke, for instance. However China is a major reason that PAHs are on the increase at a time when other pollutants like PCBs and dioxins are diminishing.
And because of the way atmospheric winds work, those PAHs released in China eventually drift over to the U.S., and then across the country. In Los Angeles, a third of their particle pollution comes from China.
Knowing all this, Williams and his group began researching the effect of I3C given to mother mice exposed to PAHs. The results were encouraging.
He found that the I3C provided a very high level of protection against lymphoma and leukemia in the young animals. It even protected against lung cancer during the rodent's equivalent of middle age.
The benefits of cancer protection may pass even from mother to child to grandchild. Williams was encouraged.
"Even if they don't consume the cruciferous vegetables or the indole-3-carbinol themselves," he said. "But we don't know that for sure yet. But if I was a betting man, that's what I'd bet on."
That means human moms eating broccoli could provide cancer prevention to their grandkids even if those kids didn't eat cruciferous vegetables.
Being practical, Castro wants to see if the I3C and broccoli from the grocery store get the same results. He jokes that he's not so sure they can get mice to eat broccoli unless they blend it into some kind of broccoli smoothie.
Of course, researchers like Castro can always manage to find a way to test such useful distinctions.
Getting the Little Ones to Eat Their Veggies
Naturally one of the larger questions is whether or not you can get a child to eat broccoli and other healthy vegetables.
Krieger thinks you can, "Maybe at the market you can have your child pick the vegetable for the meal that day, have them help you prepare the meal."
She also suggests making the process fun.
"Maybe at the market you can have your child pick the vegetable for the meal that day," Krieger suggested. "Have them help you prepare the meal. My daughter loves broccoli. We call it 'little trees in my house and she kind of pretends she's a giraffe and she absolutely loves it."
Krieger is author of a new cookbook, The Food You Crave. The book has many recipes with cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower.
As to her simple strategies, cooked cauliflower can be tucked into potatoes.
"Sometimes I will puree some cauliflower in with my mashed potatoes and it's barely detectable. Actually - it sort of lightens the mashed potato and makes it so much healthier," Krieger said.
Warning: Don't Over Cook Them
Another basic strategy is simply not overcooking cruciferous vegetables. Krieger says it's about chemistry.
"When you cook these vegetables too long, they can develop these kind of sulfurous compounds -- that makes them slightly bitter."
Another issue in the U.S. is that vegetables aren't seen as a priority.
"They don't really gussy up the vegetable because they think, 'Okay that's the vegetable.'
She says give the vegetables culinary attention "by adding some garlic for example to the broccoli or by roasting the cauliflower and sprinkling a little nutmeg on it."
Meanwhile Williams, Castro, and other members of their team are working to discover how to get one of the biggest health benefits possible from cruciferous vegetables. That's by figuring out how these vegetables can turn off the genes that contribute to cancer and turn on the genes that protect against it.
In fact, Williams is looking forward to other researchers around the globe collaborating in the hunt and figuring out how to influence those genes.
He said, "If we can do that, that's going to be really cool."