Brussels sprouts are for life, not just for Christmas!

Brussels sprout closeup

Here is an article I wrote for the December edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Rather like dodgy politicians, you either love or you hate Brussels sprouts and everyone has their opinion. So, I was amused to see that Riverford, the Devon-based supplier of organic vegetables has produced an ironic Advent Calendar featuring pictures of Brussels sprouts. Don’t despair though, behind the pictures of these controversial vegetables there are little doors which open to yield a mouth watering chunk of chocolate.

What is it about Brussels sprouts that so divides opinion? For some, the experience of overcooked, boiled sprouts, sulphurous, bitter, sludgy and barely green is irreversibly damaging. For others the unfortunate windy side effects of the miniature cabbages mean they are to be avoided at all costs. A growing army of sprout-evangelists, however, recognise the health giving properties of the vegetable especially when cooked properly.

Brussels sprouts are members of the brassica family along with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Sprouts are descendents of wild cabbage and although it is not known how they originated, by the 16th century they were popular in Belgium and their popularity spread to other temperate parts of Europe. Despite our love-hate relationship with sprouts, 40,000 tons of the vegetable are sold each year in the UK, a quarter of those sales occurring in December. That’s a lot of sprouts so where do the problems arise? In my experience, it’s how they are cooked that matters. Your Granny may have told you to trim them, cut a cross in the bottom and boil in water containing a little baking soda to maintain the green colour but I subscribe to Nigel Slater’s view that “The trick is to keep them well away from boiling water”. I suggest choosing small, fresh sprouts; clean, trim and shred them before stir frying in olive oil with garlic and chilli and a dash of soy sauce. But of course it’s all personal preference.

Let’s now take a closer look at the good and the bad sides of Brussels sprouts. Leafy green vegetables such as brassicas are good for us because they contain plenty of vitamins and fibre and sprouts are particularly good sources of vitamin C and vitamin K. We are all urged to eat fruit for its vitamin C content, the vitamin being a well known essential nutrient. Did you know, however, that weight for weight Brussels sprouts contain more than twice as much vitamin C as oranges?

Vitamin K has an essential role in blood clotting, facilitating wound healing; it may also help build strong bones. For most people, the high vitamin K content of sprouts is a healthy bonus but it can cause problems if you are taking anticoagulant drugs. An extreme example of this effect occurred to an Ayrshire man with a mechanical heart who was taking anticoagulants to prevent blood clots. In December 2011, he was rushed to hospital because his anticoagulants had stopped working. Apparently he had eaten a large plate of Brussels sprouts and the pro-coagulant vitamin K had counteracted the effects of his drugs.

That’s the healthy side of sprouts; now let’s look at their darker side. Part of this is the “windiness” that some people experience after eating Brussels sprouts. You probably didn’t want to know this but Sainsbury’s has compiled a “Top of the Pops” of windy vegetables: sprouts made third place beaten only by Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips. The “windiness” of sprouts arises because our stomach and small intestine lack the molecular machinery to digest them fully so they arrive in the colon only partially digested. Bacteria in the colon do contain the correct chemical scissors so they set to work on the sprout remains and produce gas. To add to the problem, sprouts contain sulphurous compounds and when these are broken down they lend the gas an unpleasant odour. I leave the rest to your imagination or experience.

As if that weren’t enough, sprouts are also renowned for their bitter taste. Brassicas and particularly Brussels sprouts contain bitter tasting compounds called glucosinolates. These sulphurous compounds are thought to act as natural pesticides protecting the plant from insects. Humans find the glucosinolates bitter and this contributes to the bad reputation of sprouts. Worse still, when sprouts are boiled, glucosinolates are released in to the cooking water where some break down to smelly sulphurous compounds and that’s the odour we all remember.

I need to add in their defence that not everyone finds sprouts bitter and this seems to be, at least in part, down to genetics. As long ago as 1930, it was realised that the ability of humans to taste bitter substances had a heritable component. People who could detect bitter substances were very likely to have other family members with the same ability. The family link was so strong that it was used as a paternity test before DNA testing was available. Now we know that detection of bitter taste depends on the number of taste buds on our tongues and the presence of receptors on the taste buds that detect the bitter substances. As a result some people taste the bitterness of Brussels sprouts more than others, accounting in part for the differences in opinion about the vegetable. Children also seem to have a greater ability to detect bitter taste compared to adults so perhaps they are not so fussy after all. The bitterness of sprouts may, however, be a thing of the past as the agrochemical companies have been working hard to breed new sweeter varieties.

Lastly, as you tuck in to your Christmas Brussels sprouts, spare a thought for Linus Urbanec of Sweden who holds the current Guinness World Record for eating the vegetable. To win the record, he ate 31 sprouts in one minute!

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