From cauliflower rice to cauliflower pizza, this cruciferous veggie practically skyrocketed to supermarket stardom overnight. But is it really all that special? Spoiler alert: yes.

By Kirsten Nunez
November 10, 2020
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Thanks to its rich nutrient profile and versatility in the kitchen, cauliflower has become *insanely* popular over the last few years — and it's not stopping any time soon. Case in point: Cauliflower rice and cauliflower pizza aren't just trendy anymore, but have become part of the norm. But is cauliflower as healthy as everyone makes it out to be?

Here's a deep dive into what makes this cruciferous veggie worthy of supermarket stardom, followed by expert-approved ways to enjoy.

Cauliflower 101

Cauliflower is a cruciferous veggie with a dense, off-white head known as the "curd" that's made up of hundreds of tiny underdeveloped flowers, according to the Iowa Department of Health. (Thus the "flower" in its name. Mind = blown.) While the off-white variety is most common, there are also orange, green, and purple cauliflowers, according to registered dietitian Alyssa Northrop, M.P.H., R.D., L.M.T. As a cruciferous veggie, cauliflower is related to cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnips, collard greens, kale, and broccoli — all of which are part of the Brassicaceae family, according to the Mayo Clinic Health System.

Cauliflower Nutrition Facts

There's a reason cauliflower became a supermarket sensation practically overnight: it's nutritious AF. Seriously, it's bursting with nutrients, minerals, and vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C. It's also high in antioxidants, thanks to its vitamin C and carotenoids (aka plant pigments that turn into vitamin A in the body).

But here's what makes cauliflower and its Brassicaceae fam so unique: They're rich in glucosinolates, sulfur-containing compounds with potent antioxidant properties, according to research published in Preventive Nutrition and Food Science. The compounds, which are primarily found in cruciferous vegetables, also support detoxification and decrease inflammation in the body, says Aryn Doll R.D.N., registered dietitian and Nutrition Education Specialist at Natural Grocers. (BTW, "detoxification" in this context refers to making potentially harmful compounds, such as carcinogens, less toxic. Glucosinolates play a role by triggering the detoxifying enzymes needed to make this happen, according to a 2015 review.)

Here's the nutritional profile of one cup of raw cauliflower (~107 grams), according to the United States Department of Agriculture:

  • 27 calories
  • 2 grams protein
  • <1 gram fat
  • 5 grams carbohydrates
  • 2 grams fiber
  • 2 grams sugar

Health Benefits of Cauliflower

With its wide range of essential nutrients, cauliflower is a crazy healthy vegetable. Ahead, the health benefits of cauliflower, according to dietitians and scientific research.

Promotes Healthy Digestion

Veggies are some of the best sources of fiber, and with 2 grams per cup, cauliflower is no different. This is great news for your gastrointestinal tract, as "fiber supports digestive health by keeping bowels regular," says Bansari Acharya R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist at Food Love. Cauliflower contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, adds Doll, though it's particularly rich in insoluble fiber, which doesn't dissolve in water. "You can think of insoluble fiber as a broom that sweeps through your digestive tract to keep food and waste moving," she explains. "It adds bulk to stools, which supports motility and regularity." On the flip side, soluble fiber does dissolve in water, creating a gel-like substance that slows digestion and keeps you full. (Related: These Benefits of Fiber Make It the Most Important Nutrient In Your Diet)

May Reduce Cancer Risk

Because they're full of good-for-you nutrients, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables are currently being studied for their potential anti-cancer properties, according to the National Cancer Institute. Cauliflower, in particular, has a "rich concentration of antioxidant compounds, including vitamin C, beta-carotene, and phytonutrients such as quercetin and kaempferol," says Doll. (Quick reminder: antioxidants neutralize free radicals, aka harmful molecules that can increase oxidative stress — and thus, increase risk of chronic conditions and cancer — when they accumulate and get out of control.)

All the glucosinolates in cruciferous veggies may also lend a hand. When you prepare (i.e. cut, heat), chew, and ultimately digest cauliflower, for example, the glucosinolates are broken down into compounds such as indoles and isothiocyanates — both of which have been found to inhibit the development of cancer in rats and mice, according to the NCI. What's more, one type of isothiocyanate (sulforaphane) has been shown to thwart the multiplication of ovarian cancer cells in a 2018 lab study and of colon cancer cells in a 2020 lab study. However, more studies on humans are necessary. (Fun fact: broccoli sprouts are also rich in sulforaphane.)

Promotes Nerve Health

When it comes to the health benefits of cauliflower, you can't forget about its high levels of choline, an essential nutrient that helps your brain and nervous system regulate memory, mood, and muscle control, among other functions, according to the National Institutes of Health. Choline is also considered an "essential building block of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger nerve cells use to communicate with each other," explains Northrop. Acetylcholine is crucial for memory and cognition — so much, in fact, that "low levels have been associated with Alzheimer's disease," says Northrop (and the NIH, for that matter).

Sulforaphane has your back in this department, too. The cancer-battling compound's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects can slow down the development of neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis, according to a 2019 review in the European Journal of Pharmacology. What's more, a 2019 article in Brain Circulation also suggests that sulforaphane can promote neurogenesis or nerve cell growth, further protecting your nervous system.

Help Weight Loss and Management

When used in place of high-calorie foods — such as, say, pie crust in a quiche — cauliflower may help you lose and/or manage weight. ICYMI above, one cup of raw cauliflower has only 27 calories, thereby making it a stellar "substitute for higher calorie, higher carbohydrate foods such as rice or mashed potatoes," says Doll. And when you sub it for a simple carb (think: cauliflower rice instead of white rice), you can reduce the total number of cals you consume throughout the day while still staying satisfied, explains Acharya. The fiber in cauliflower can "increase the feeling of satiety and fullness for longer periods of time," she adds, which can control your appetite throughout the day. (See also: 12 Healthy Snacks for Weight Loss, According to Dietitians)

And then there's cauliflower's impressive water content. In fact, about 92 percent of the cruciferous veggie is H2O. As you probably know, an important part of successful weight management is maintaining ample water intake — and being that most of its weight is water, cauliflower can help with meeting goals.

Potential Risks of Cauliflower

The popular vegetable may not be for everyone. Cruciferous veggies have a complex sugar called raffinose that's hard for some folks to digest, according to Harvard Health Publishing. This can cause "excessive gas and bloating, so people who have sensitive digestive systems or are prone to gas should limit the amount of cauliflower they eat, especially in its raw form and close to bedtime," explains Acharya. Cruciferous vegetables also contain goitrogenic compounds "or substances that interfere with thyroid function," says Doll. The goitrogen content is higher in raw cauliflower, so if you have a thyroid disorder, Doll suggests boiling or steaming the veggie to reduce these compounds. No stomach or thyroid concerns? Go ahead and chow down. 

How to Pick, Prep, and Eat Cauliflower

"The most common way to buy cauliflower is fresh in the produce section or as frozen florets in the freezer section," says Northrop. When buying the fresh kind, look for a firm, off-white head with tightly-packed florets; the leaves should be study and bright green, according to the Mayo Clinic Health System. Loose florets, brown mushy spots, and yellowing leaves are all signs you should pick another cauliflower head.

Cauliflower is continuing to have a ~moment~, so your grocery store is likely overflowing with prepared cauliflower products. You can find "mashed cauliflower that resembles mashed potatoes and riced cauliflower that's used as a substitute for rice," says Northrop. There's also cauliflower pizza crust, cauliflower pancakes, and gluten-free flours made with dried cauliflower, she adds — and that's just scratching the surface. And then there's canned and pickled cauliflower, aka escabeche, notes Northrop. "The most nutritious choice, however, is fresh or frozen cauliflower," she says. But if you'd like to try packaged cauliflower products, "beware of unnecessary additives or preservatives, and watch out for excess sodium," warns Northrop.

At home, cutting fresh cauliflower is easy: Place it on a cutting board, florets facing up. Cut straight down the middle (lengthwise), then place the flat side of each half on the board. Slice down the center of each one to create four pieces. Next, cut off the stems at an angle — focusing on the spots where the florets meet the stem — then snap apart the cauliflower florets with your hands. Magic. (Related: Caulilini Is About to Be Your Favorite New Vegetable)

The separated florets will last about four days in the refrigerator, according to the Mayo Clinic Health System, but you'll want to toss them after that. (Whole heads should last four to seven days.) You can eat cauliflower raw or cooked via steaming, boiling, roasting, or sautéing; you'll know it's cooked when it's crispy yet tender. (Looking to preserve the most nutrients? Steaming is the best choice, says Doll.)

If you're ready to join the cauliflower craze, try these delicious ideas for eating cauliflower:

As a roasted dish. "Try roasting a whole head of cauliflower for a delicious vegetarian meal," suggests Northrop. Slice off the leaves and tough stem, making sure to keep the florets intact. Brush with olive oil, add spices, and roast (cut side facing down) for 30 to 40 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. For a finger-friendly version, roast cauliflower florets at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes and pair with your favorite dipping sauce.

In a curry. "Commonly eaten in Indian cuisine, cauliflower curry can be paired with other vegetables such as peas and potatoes," says Acharya. It's often served with bread (i.e. roti or naan) and/or rice, she adds.

In a soup. Cauliflower florets become incredibly creamy when cooked and blended, making them perfect for plant-based "cream" soup. This light baked potato cauliflower soup, for example, is incredibly rich and satisfying.

As rice. To keep it simple, buy riced cauliflower — i.e. Nature's Earthly Choice Cauliflower Rice, $20 for 6 pouches, instacart.com — at the store. "You can also use a food processor to pulse the cauliflower until it looks like grains of rice," says Northrop. Pair it with an entrée, use it in place or rice in a stir-fry or curry dish, or make a fancy risotto-inspired dish. Here's how: Cook the cauliflower rice with garlic and olive oil in vegetable broth until it's soft and creamy, about 10 minutes, explains Northrop. Mix in Parmesan, season with salt and pepper, and top with chives or parsley for a decadent meal.

As Buffalo wings. This appetizer is so popular that you can find it in the frozen section of most grocery stores. Try: Wholly Veggie! Frozen Buffalo Cauliflower Wings, $6, target.com. Or make it at home by tossing cauliflower florets in Buffalo sauce and roasting for 25 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. "Serve with celery sticks," recommends Northrop, or try it with a cashew-based ranch dressing.

In a smoothie. It may sound strange, but it actually works. Blend frozen cauliflower florets with a sweet fruit such as strawberries or mango, and you won't even be able to taste the veggie. Try this strawberry cauliflower smoothie, complete with almond butter and honey.

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