Busting Bellatti’s Bad Broccoli Breath

Most of you are familiar with Monsanto the seed giant. All of you are familiar with the cruciferous vegetable, broccoli. Some of you may know that Monsanto released a variety of broccoli last year purported to be better for you, called “Beneforté.” One year later, an article by a newly-registered dietitian named Andy Bellatti appeared on Grist to bust Monsanto’s ‘better’ broccoli, which some of you may have noticed. But none of you who finish reading this post will believe that Bellatti “busted” the Beneforté broccoli at all. The only thing he busted was his own research, journalistic, and dietetic integrity.

Glusosino-What?

There has been considerable interest in investigating the composition of foods to determine what parts of them can contribute to our health. (And what detracts from it too.)  Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables have garnered considerable attention for their effects on the development of cancer. Research has revealed an important class of compounds called Glucosinolates, particularly one known as Glucoraphanin. When this sulfur-containing compound is metabolized by a plant enzyme called Myrosinase, it becomes one of two different compounds: Sulforaphane and Sulforaphane Nitrile. These two Isothiocyanates have been found to have preventative effects against cancer, and Sulforaphane is by far the more potent of the two. And this year, an important paper found that even the precursor, Glucoraphanin, also has important effects.

I apologize for the dizzying array of chemical names. So let me see if I can make them easier to understand. Glucosinolates include many similar kinds of compounds, and Glucoraphanin at the top of the picture here is one example. It gets the Gluco- from having a glucose sugar molecule bonded to it, which is that ring on the right hand side. Isothiocyanates are another class of compounds, and the main example is Sulforaphane. You can distinguish them by that N=C=S group on the Sulforaphane above. There are many Glucosinolates and Isothiocyanates important for this topic, so rather than bring up so many names I’ll only talk about the groups (end in -ates) and the two specific ones I mentioned (Glucoraphanin and Sulforaphane both have -raph- in them).

How do they work? Well, there is a huge amount of research on this topic, and while I could send you on a journey through a google or PubMed search, there are a few clear things that we know. Broadly speaking, cancer is uncontrolled cell growth that usually happens with DNA is damaged, but there are other causes as well (such as cervical cancer being caused by papillomaviruses). Chemicals that damage DNA are known as mutagens, as they can alter the string of letters in the DNA to read differently, and since the mutations they cause can also cause cancer, they are also called carcinogens. We encounter carcinogens in our everyday lives, from artificial chemicals we’ve produced for one reason or another, to the oxidative stress caused by normal cellular respiration, to the UV light naturally emitted by the Sun. Carcinogens are also found in our food.

Yes, our food produces carcinogens. More specifically, there are chemicals naturally present in our food, that when eaten, can become carcinogens. Since plants cannot run away from their predators, they have evolved to defend themselves using chemical and biological weapons, while animals have evolved enzymes and other ways to protect against those defenses. We produce a host of enzymes in our livers that detoxify chemicals that we eat in our food every day, and they are classified as Phase I and Phase II ‘xenobiotic’ metabolizing enzymes (there are also Phase III but we won’t get into that). Phase I enzymes take a foreign chemical and add or expose a functional group that Phase II enzymes can then add a molecule to, which allows the modified chemical to be excreted from the body. However, sometimes the chemicals produced by Phase I enzymes turn out to be carcinogens, which can cause damage before the Phase II enzyme is able to safely destroy it. Some chemicals that are known to have carcinogenic activity are among the Coumarins, Flavonoids, Glucosinolates, Isothiocyanates, and Phenols found in many plants – including broccoli.

Some of these compounds can also affect the activity of Phase I and Phase II xenobiotic enzymes, and often both. A chemical that induces the first class might cause more carcinogens to be produced, while one that induces the second class would more quickly eliminate them from the body before they can cause damage. Sulforaphane was discovered in 1992 to selectively induce the second, and not the first. And the more Sulforaphane you consume, the more it induces this activity. What this means is that consuming Sulforaphane will increase your body’s ability to protect itself against many forms of cancer. Indeed, and although some early research on Glucoraphanin suggested it might be harmful because it induces Phase-I enzymes, the new 2011 paper indicates that it upregulates cytochrome p450 along with Phase-II enzymes and therefore also contributes to the anti-cancer properties of broccoli itself.

You may have noticed that since Sulforaphane is an Isothiocyanate, and Glucoraphanin is a Glucosinolate, that they are members of two of the classes of compounds I mentioned above that have known carcinogens among them. Breeding for enhanced levels of one could affect the levels of others, so there is a great deal more complexity to this issue than I have described here. In addition, some Phase-I enzymes eliminate carcinogens, and some Phase-II enzymes create carcinogens as well. There are other compounds present in cruciferous and other vegetables that contribute in other ways as well. But on the whole it is true that these compounds have a beneficial effect, despite these complexities. And since Sulforaphane is produced from Glucoraphanin in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli – then eating broccoli that is higher in Glucoraphanin will protect against cancer even more.

To top it off, a paper published this year found that Sulforaphane also inhibits the activity of two enzymes in cancer cells, leading to cell death. So its benefits may not be limited to preventing, but perhaps fighting certain kinds of cancers.

Breeding Better Broccoli

Now the question becomes, how can we get broccoli on our dinner plates that has more of these beneficial compounds? There is considerable variation in the amounts of Glucoraphanin and other Glucosinolates in broccoli, and this review paper by E.H. Jeffrey et al discusses what is known about this variation. They show that Glucoraphanin and other Glucosinolates can vary from as little as one tenth to as much as three times the amount found in your average broccoli. Not all broccoli is bred the same.

Differences in the levels of these compounds can be caused by genetics, environment, interactions between the two, and post-harvest storage and processing. It turns out that in one study for Glucoraphanin and other similar aliphatic Glucosinolates, 60% of this variation is genetic, while only 5% is environmental. 10% is due to an interaction between genetics and the environment, which is like saying that one variety makes more in one environment, while another variety makes more in another environment. Genetics comes out as a clear winner if you want to improve the anti-cancer properties of broccoli, and where there is genetic variation for a trait like this, a plant breeder can select for plants that have that trait and improve it over generations.

Plant breeders at the John Innes Center in Norwich, England, and Monsanto’s vegetable seeds division used the genetic variation for Glucoraphanin levels in wild broccoli to breed for higher levels in a modern, commercial broccoli. This is accomplished by crossing cultivated and wild plants, and in successive generations selecting for plants that have higher levels of Glucoraphanin as well as the traits you want in a modern broccoli. They report that by testing in 23 locations against other leading commercial broccoli varieties, that their new Beneforté broccoli variety contains an average of about 2.7 times as much Glucoraphanin as your average broccoli. Since the effects increase with dosage, this means that you would be expected to gain more cancer-protective benefits by eating it. How much benefit, however, is not clear.

The environment it is grown in and what happens to the broccoli after it is harvested still matters, however. As Glucosinolates contain sulfur, fertilizing the soil with sulfur can quite understandably boost their levels. And while organic growing methods can affect some minor Glucosinolates both positively and negatively, Glucoraphanin is unchanged by this practice. How the broccoli is stored and processed also affects what levels remain in the vegetable, and finally, how you prepare it also matters. The enzyme Myrosinase that converts Glucoraphanin into Sulforaphane does this when the broccoli is chopped and chewed, but only if the broccoli is uncooked. Cooking destroys the enzyme’s activity, and also reduces the levels of Glucosinolates. Either eat them raw, or blanch them briefly! And since Myrosinase activity can be affected by the climate and season, there can still be an important environmental factor to this trait.

And one final note about breeding. While Glucoraphanin is the most abundant Glucosinolate in broccoli, it is part of a complex pathway and a complex trait, so breeding for the levels of one compound may affect levels of the others. The best breeding program will look at a broader array of Glucosinolates and other effects that breeding, environment, storage and packaging will have on the final product. Indeed, since some genotypes will do better in particular environments than others, and some may hold onto their chemicals during storage better than others, these downstream effects can inform the breeding process significantly.

Other genetic tools are helping to develop traits such as these, as this paper demonstrates that you can predict levels of Glucosinolates you will get when you made hybrid broccoli.

The Beneforté website indicates that this particular variety of broccoli is grown in a particular location in California, rather than in many places around the country. While you may not like the idea of produce shipped thousands of miles, this does mean that they have essentially fixed the Genotype by Environment interaction. In non-breeder terms, this means that they picked the best environment for the best variety of broccoli to get the highest levels of Glucoraphanin, amongst other traits. This suggests that they also took the environmental contributions into account when developing the Beneforté. The entire process took them about ten years.

While the exact amount of benefit to be had by eating the Beneforté broccoli is unclear, it does appear that it is likely to help in the area of cancer prevention. Keep in mind I am no dietitian, nutrition researcher, nor doctor, however the prevailing scientific literature indicates that it should. It would be nice to see some data published on this and other broccoli varieties, more information about other Glucosinolates in this variety, and perhaps a feeding model as well, but if I saw the Beneforté and I had the cash to get it, I probably would. The story of its breeding is almost reason enough besides the Sulforaphane!

Andy Bellatti

Back to Bellatti

Now that you know all you ever wanted to know about Broccoli and what we know about how its chemical composition prevents cancer, it is time to return to Andy Bellatti’s ill-informed piece purporting to “Bust” the Beneforté Broccoli.

The first point that Bellatti takes issue with is with regard to growing conditions.

“Similar growing conditions” — there’s an interesting tidbit. For all we know, then, Beneforté’s glucopharanin content could pale in comparison to that of organic broccoli.(sic)

Actually, if Bellatti did his research, he would know that organic growing methods do not significantly affect the levels of Glucoraphanin (which he misspells as glucopharanin), as I indicated above. The growing methods described on the Beneforté website appear to be describing climatic factors rather than the organic-conventional dimension. And it is quite odd that he takes issue with a straightforward and scientific manner of studying and reporting differences under similar growing conditions, which is necessary for comparison. But rather than try to find out the facts and report an analysis of them, he goes off the organic health halo to make what is an empty quip.

Next, he criticizes the focus on Glucoraphanin.

Of course, this obsession with glucoraphanin is a silly and myopic distraction. Broccoli, by virtue of being a vegetable, is healthful and does not need to be improved upon. None of the myriad of chronic health issues affecting millions of Americans are due to “faulty broccoli” with low levels of glucoraphanin.

Again, proper research would have prevented him from making a categorical double-error such as this. Being a vegetable does not automatically make something healthy. What is a vegetable but an edible non-reproductive part of a plant? Being healthy is not part of its definition. But more importantly, his ignorance of plant genetics betrays the second error. There is genetic variation for healthful aspects of vegetables, which means that you can have vegetables that are more or less healthy than each other, all on account of genetics. As I put it above, no two broccoli’s are the same. He is enjoying vegetables that are the result of a long plant breeding process of genetic improvement, and his suggestion that ‘This is as good as it gets’ is way off. In the case of broccoli – given that it is the same species as cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts which vary widely in their content of Glucoraphanin, that means that the very broccoli trait in question is likely the result of human improvement already. Plant breeding is a continual process of constant improvement that should not stop.

He has also contradicted himself here – by suggesting that organic may be an improvement over conventional (which it is not in this aspect), he is suggesting that vegetables as most people eat them can and should be improved upon. If the mere virtue of being a vegetable was enough, then conventional non-organic broccoli should be enough for him.

Chia, hemp, flax. "Magic bullets" of Omega-3.

Now I will address the more important point, and that is that focusing on Glucoraphanin “is a silly and myopic distraction.” Granted there are more complexities to the cancer-preventative effects of broccoli compounds as I described above, but Glucoraphanin is still the most important part of it. But, some people have food philosophies that focus more on changing what specific foods people eat rather than changing the composition of those foods. To understand his comment in context of his food philosophy, I took some time to read his blog.

He is a vegan, who in his own words “approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework.” Still, I do not see how improving the genetics of broccoli does not fit into this philosophy. You are still eating a whole plant food. Perhaps, still, the specific composition of those foods does not matter to him?

However, his blog posts reveal a different story. He is in fact quite concerned with the specific composition of foods, ranging from listing the nutrients in each of his posted recipes, to complaining how he had to learn about how food service establishments work instead of the compositional differences of chia, hemp, and flax seeds. As a matter of fact these seeds show up an inordinate number of times in his recipes – and I daresay that “none of the myriad of chronic health issues affecting millions of Americans are due to not eating enough chia, hemp, and flax seeds.” Of course it would be silly to expect these seeds to be magic bullet cure-alls, but that is the standard that he held the broccoli to, so fair’s fair.

So it becomes very clear that Andy Bellatti is highly concerned with specific nutritional compositions of and differences between foods. In fact, the hypocrisy reaches levels that will bust everyone’s irony meters. While Bellatti tries to give enhanced levels of Glucoraphanin in the Beneforté broccoli a bad ‘raph, he is quite delighted to advertise such chemicals as important reasons to eat cruciferous vegetables in the first place!

In this blog post extolling the virtues of broccoli rabe, Bellatti says the following,

For example, it offers high amounts of isothiocyanates, compounds that fiercely battle carcinogens in the body.  High isothiocyanate consumption has been shown to significantly reduce risk of developing breast, esophageal, lung, and prostate cancers.

Compare that to what he said about the Beneforté:

Of course, this obsession with glucoraphanin is a silly and myopic distraction.

Andy Bellati: Eat it for the Glucoraphanin! Err...

Apparently Bellatti is quite familiar with silly and myopic distractions himself. He gives completely opposite opinions of these compounds depending upon the end goal of his argument. It is apparent from his blog that his food philosophy includes focusing in on these nutrients, and so by rejecting the nutrient-focus of this broccoli, he is also rejecting what seems to be his own nutritional philosophy.

Politics, Politics, Politics

He then proceeds to reveal what I think is the real reason for his distaste with the Beneforté, that it is made by Monsanto.

The biggest irony of this product lies in Monsanto’s claim that Beneforté “help[s] maintain your body’s defenses against the damage of environmental pollutants and free radicals.”

Environmental pollutants? As in, the ones that have have increased exponentially as a result of genetic engineering?

He cites The Organic Center’s 13-year report on pesticide use, which we have already discussed here and noted that it compared pesticides of wildly different impacts on human health and the environment as being equivalent by weight. In other words, one pound of a nasty herbicide such as atrazine equals one pound of roundup, which is far less nasty. Genetically engineered herbicide tolerant crops have caused a shift in herbicide use from sprays such as atrazine to safer ones such as glyphosate – which are physically heavier have a lower environmental impact quotient (EIQ) per pound, so The Organic Center reports it as an increase in herbicide by weight even though it is a safer one. The study’s author, Charles Benbrook, is well aware of this problem. The report also demonstrates that GE has reduced insecticide use, but minimizes the actual impact of this by subtracting the pounds from the total. His approach makes math easy, but misleads about the overall picture.

Andy Bellatti also cites the Environmental Working Group page on herbicides, which only reinforces this point. What examples of nasty herbicides do they use to talk about health effects? Why, atrazine! One of the one’s that genetic engineering has replaced with roundup on many farms. While he was trying to catch Monsanto in an irony, he fell into one himself.

And, above all, let’s not allow Monsanto to get away with gimmicky healthwashing.

The real reason that Andy Bellatti set out to criticize this broccoli variety was not because it was a bad idea, but was because it was an idea held by a company that he dislikes. Actually, considering that Monsanto only just bought Seminis Vegetable Seeds in 2005 to form the company’s vegetable seeds division, it was probably an idea already set in motion before Monsanto had anything to do with it.

That’s a ‘Raph

Rather than base an opinion of the Beneforté broccoli variety on a consistent nutritional philosophy, a consideration of the scientific evidence, or even basic research that both his degrees in Journalism and Dietetics should have prepared him for, Bellatti decides to instead base it on his opinion of the company that is marketing it. How much of his dietary advice follows the same pattern, I am left wondering? Are clients hiring a dietitian or a food policy activist?

He completely missed an opportunity to discuss what we know and don’t know about Glucoraphanin and the precise details about how it interacts with our bodies, and then express an opinion about the relative merits of this improvement. But he rejected even the idea of learning anything about it before uttering a cynical burp of bad sulfurous broccoli breath.

There are more things to think about that I haven’t even gotten into. Would the promise of a greater benefit lead to more broccoli consumption, or perhaps less? Are there other interactions that this trait might have for better or for worse with people’s health? What standards ought there to be for health claims based on achievements in plant breeding? There is certainly room for discussion below, but I saw this as an opportunity for everyone to learn more about a health-oriented crop variety which is one of the first in many that are sure to come. The real facts about the biochemistry, genetics, breeding, and marketing are far more interesting to talk about.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.