Is Kale a Superfood or Just a Fad?
January 25th, 2015 by Holly Cornish
Every health food restaurant or store I go to is pushing kale at me this last couple of years. It seems to have come out of nowhere. A few years ago, I don’t recall hearing about kale very much.
Is this just a fad or is there something to it? I asked one of my crack researchers to take a look and report back to me. Here’s what she found. . .
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It turns out that kale really is loaded with good nutrition, in spite of the fact that it took most people a long time to notice.
A study of history shows the importance of kale better than anything else. During World War II, people in the U.K. grew it to supplement their rationed diets. Kale by itself provided a lot of the nutrients they were missing.
That was back when kale was part of the Dig for Victory campaign. Easy to grow, the baby leaf curly variety was cultivated in several of the 1.4 million garden plots that dotted Britain in the early 1940s.
Kale has the advantage of being a winter vegetable, providing fresh green food during the cold months when quite a few things won’t grow. It doesn’t like warm weather much, but it thrives in spring and fall, even under frosty conditions. Apparently temperatures have to get down in the teens to damage this hardy vegetable. These features must have made it a godsend in wartime Britain.
But in the years after the war, it faded from use – partly due to the metallic taste of that particular variety.
But now, over six decades later, kale is enjoying a renaissance. It helps that there’s now a much tastier version of baby leaf curly kale along with other varieties, not to mention a new understanding of the rich mixture of vitamins and minerals kale offers.
Here’s why kale packs such
a cancer-fighting punch
Kale, also known as “borecole,” is a leafy, green, cruciferous vegetable. It’s been around since the Middle Ages, when it was actually one of the most common green vegetables you’d find in Europe. Kale is more like wild cabbage than any of the domesticated vegetables we see in today’s grocery store produce bins. It comes in several varieties, including curly, flat, blue, Tuscan, and baby form.
I often talk about the cancer-fighting benefits of phytonutrients, and that’s half the reason kale is so nutritionally powerful. It packs a hefty level of phytonutrients that work as antioxidants to disarm free radicals. This is important because it’s those free radicals that bring about damage to your DNA and cell membranes, potentially leading to the development of cancer. So you want to eradicate them as often as possible, and kale helps do that.
In fact, research shows that the phytonutrients in kale work at a particularly powerful level. For starters, kale helps with our self-detoxification process. When you eat kale, the nutrients it contains work in tandem with your genes to increase enzyme production. This speeds up the cleansing process that rids your body of harmful compounds – not only free radicals, but other cancer-causing molecules as well.
Another reason kale is such a powerful cancer fighter is its unusual concentration of two specific types of antioxidants: carotenoids and flavonoids. Lutein and beta-carotene are two of the stand-out antioxidants on the carotenoid side. Kale actually raises the levels of both in your blood, further protecting your body against oxidative stress.
Two other standout antioxidants – this time on the flavonoid side – are kaempferol and quercetin. These flavonoids have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. This means kale helps prevent chronic inflammation along with free radical damage.
Here’s another way to look at it: If you’re not getting a decent level of anti-inflammatory nutrients, your inflammatory system can be compromised. That leads to chronic inflammation which, when combined with oxidative (free radical) stress, is a significant risk factor for cancer development.
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Kale also blocks the harmful growth of invading cancer cells and contributes to apoptosis (cell death). This is aided by yet another bonus chemical element of kale, called isothiocyanates (ITCs, made from glucosinolates).
There’s more. Kale is a plentiful source of something called organosulfur compounds, which, studies show, may reduce the risk of several types of cancer – devastating colon cancer in particular. Organosulfur compounds can be found within the Brassica genus of vegetables – maybe more familiar to you as cruciferous vegetables (so you’ll also find these compounds in kale relatives like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts).
Kale is rich in sulforaphane, a chemical with potent anti-cancer properties. And kale is also a terrific source of indole-3-carbinol, a chemical that boosts DNA repair in damaged cells, along with helping to block the growth of cancer cells.
Right now, studies have demonstrated that kale is beneficial in at least five different types of cancer, including bladder, breast, ovary, prostate, and, as mentioned, colon cancer.
There’s even more to this nutritional powerhouse
Like many of the vegetables we’ve covered in Cancer Defeated, the benefits of kale don’t stop at cancer prevention. Kale also offers surprising health advantages to your eyes and heart, among other things.
In fact, kale packs more nutrition into one cup than just about any other whole food. For example:
- One cup provides 14 percent of your daily calcium.
- A single serving gives you over 600 percent of your daily vitamin A.
- More than 900 percent of your daily vitamin K can be found in a single serving.
- Cooked kale gives you more iron per ounce than beef.
- Kale is the source of two carotenoids of special value to your eyes: lutein and zeaxanthin.
- Kale contains bile acid sequestrants. This is a group of resins shown to lower cholesterol and decrease absorption of dietary fat.
- The fibrous components in kale help lower cholesterol levels by prompting your body to excrete bile acids
There’s one tiny catch when it comes to the mega-nutrition levels of kale. Some of the nutrients aren’t easily absorbed by your body. But if you pair your kale intake with fat – like an avocado – you’ll reap more benefit from its many nutrients.
Best tips for eating kale
As to how best to consume kale, you have plenty of choices. Many people I know prefer to blend it in a smoothie. You can also bake it, sauté it, or simply eat it raw. Baby kale has an intense flavor that perks a salad right up. On the flip side, use lemon juice or oil if you need to tone down the flavor. Aim to eat a minimum of one-and-a-half cups two to three times per week to enjoy the health benefits.
One final tip: If you want to enhance the sulforaphane properties of kale (the specifically anti-cancer properties, that is), chop or mince it. From there, either eat it raw, steam it, or put it in your stir fry – there won’t be any significant loss in sulforaphane levels. Don’t boil it, though, or sulforaphane levels will drop quite a bit.
Lee Euler, Publisher