Broccoli is already one of the most popular vegetables in the US, making an appearance within the top ten of the fresh trends surveys each year. Although the likelihood of its purchase dropped by 6% in 2012, we now consume four times as much broccoli as we did thirty years ago; fresh broccoli intake rose from just 1.4 pounds per person in 1980 to 5.6 pounds per person in 2010. While the increased awareness amongst consumers of broccoli’s nutritional value has helped to drive sales upwards, it is widely acknowledged that the health benefits of a product are just one of the factors that influence purchasing decisions.

The Current Situation

Taste and appearance are two of the qualities that are valued highly by shoppers when it comes to purchasing their fruit and vegetables and with regards to this, broccoli can sometimes fall short of the mark; we have all seen broccoli in a grocery store that is starting to turn yellow, not to mention that which has developed a rubbery texture and has an overly bitter taste. As with any fresh item, broccoli is at its best soon after picking, but across most of America, fresh broccoli is only readily available from local producers at either side of the growing season when the temperatures are lower. As a vegetable that doesn’t like the heat, it’s no coincidence that 90% of the broccoli for sale is grown in California, with its temperate climate. However, if you live on the East Coast, after a five-day truck journey, it is usually a week post-picking by the time you purchase broccoli from the supermarket; by that point, it’s not so appealing.

Properties of new varieties

A team of researchers at Cornell University are using cross-breeding to create a type of broccoli that grows well in hot summers, yet is still cost-effective and can be grown in large quantities, helping both growers and consumers alike. Allowing more people to access broccoli grown close to home throughout the growing season means not only fresher produce, but cheaper produce due to the avoidance of transportation over long distance; reduced consumption of fuel and therefore greenhouse gas emission is another bonus. However, not only does this broccoli thrive at higher temperatures, the taste and texture of the florets has also been enhanced, so that they are crisp, tender and have a subtle sweetness. These qualities will encourage its consumption, in line with the advice that we should be eating more cruciferous vegetables; it also means that the interest in using broccoli as a salad item is likely to increase. The scientists are also working to develop disease resistant varieties and increase broccoli’s glucoraphanin content, which has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer; this isn’t its only nutritional benefit though.

Packing a nutritional punch

Broccoli is packed with vitamins. For instance, just half a cup meets your full quota for vitamin K needed for blood clotting and a similar quantity of broccoli provides 84% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C, which plays a role in everything from immune function to maintaining the strength of the skeleton. This vitamin is also a powerful antioxidant, which help to protect the cells of the body from damage and are linked to a reduced risk of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, dementia and macular degeneration. Take circulatory disease. It’s the nation’s biggest killer and significantly impairs quality of life, and while the condition can be successfully managed, ideally we should aim to prevent its development by increasing our intake of cardio-protective foods; besides the antioxidants in broccoli, it is also rich in potassium, magnesium and soluble fiber, which promote heart health. Broccoli also shows promise as part of a nutrient rich diet that can protect against cancer; diindolylmethane, glucoraphanin, indole-3-carbinol and selenium, all present in this green vegetable, have been shown to have anti-cancer properties in the lab, though further research is needed to confirm their benefit in humans.

New varieties on the horizon

Trials have been successful and the broccoli is now ready to be farmed, though it will likely be a number of years before the florets are widely sold. However, scientists at Cornell University haven’t just turned their attention to broccoli, they are looking to enhance the appeal and usefulness of a whole range of fruit and vegetables, whilst ensuring that their nutritional qualities are maintained if not enhanced. Other recent items they have produced include habanero peppers that lack their extreme heat, snap peas minus their strings and apples that don’t brown once they are cut.