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Food is in. It seems that now more than ever we like to eat ... and we like to do it well. We go to the gastrobars, we consult healthy eating blogs, we have even begun to read the labels of the supermarket products and we pay attention to the WHO reports that tell us what we should eat ... except when they touch us the ham, of course.
We have become aware that the relationship between health and food is close, something that the Egyptians already sensed, who 3,000 years ago used honey, which they called the "nectar of the gods", as an effective antiseptic. 500 years before Christ, Hippocrates, father of Medicine, recommended "that your medicine be your food, and that your food be your medicine." Centuries later Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote: "the health of the whole body is forged in the office of the stomach".
Modern medical science recognizes the power of food to maintain health, prevent and alleviate disease. In a way, surgery and drugs have ceased to dominate medical treatment alone, and in the 21st century one of the maxims that the Hippocratic Oath already established 2,500 years ago is that of “I will apply dietary measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment ”.
But ... why do foods heal?
Let's look at a very special group: the brassicaceae or also called cruciferous, to which belong vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, watercress, mustard, wasabi and broccoli, which we are going to talk about more details. Until recently it was not common to see a lot of broccoli in supermarkets in Spain but, currently, its consumption has exploded. Maybe they had something to do with the declarations of President Obama in 2012 when he confessed that it was his favorite food.Although this cost him that his gags about it were a worldwide trending topic, the truth is that, surely without being aware of it, the leader made a very good choice.
In 2009, journalist Dan Buettner published his book Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People who've Lived the Longest in which, based on studies carried out by scientists Pes and Poulain, he told us that the secret of a long and comfortable life is hidden in five scattered regions in the world: Okinawa, in Japan; Loma Linda, in California; Sardinia, in Italy; Ikaria, in Greece and Nicoya, in Costa Rica. For years, Buettner toured the places on the planet where people live the longest, which he called "blue zones."
The common point? A stress-free life, constant moderate activity, and a diet rich in vegetables. But what vegetables are present in the diet of so many different cultures? Broccoli or Brussels sprouts in California, cabbage in Costa Rica, watercress, cauliflower or red cabbage in Italy and Greece, and wasabi in Japan. Indeed, they are all brassicas.
Brassicaceae have a high content of isothiocyanates, one of the chemical compounds responsible for the typical taste and aroma of Brassicaceae and which are used by plants as herbivore deterrents (we all know what cauliflower or Brussels sprouts smell like and also have we ever experienced the itchiness of mustard or wasabi).
These isothiocyanates are not produced directly by the plant, but are the result of the action of an enzyme called myrosinase on some derivatives of sugars called glucosinolates. Vegetables store glucosinolates and myrosinase in separate vesicles and when they suffer some damage, such as the bite of a predator, these vesicles break by putting the enzyme and substrate in contact to synthesize the isothiocyanate.
Promising in the fight against cancer
One of the most important isothiocyanates is sulforaphane (SFN), which is found in large quantities in broccoli. Considered by the National Cancer Institute of the United States as one of the forty most promising anticancer agents, SFN is currently the largest naturally-occurring inducer of enzymes that protect our body from free radicals, inhibiting others that after metabolizing certain compounds that we ingest or breathe give rise to carcinogens and it is also one of the epigenetic agents with the greatest projection in the treatment of multiple diseases.
SFN and its analogues are attributed countless preventive and curative properties: in addition to preventing Parkinson's disease, protecting against ultraviolet radiation, asthma, allergic rhinitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, they have antimicrobial and antianemic properties. On the other hand, this molecule and some of its analogues are capable of both preventing and curing different types of cancer such as breast, skin, prostate, colon, gastric cancer and liver cancer, among others. Recently, the SFN has opened the doors of a very hopeful future for the treatment of rare diseases such as autism and Hutchinson Gilford progeria syndrome.
Despite the great benefits that SFN brings to health, one of the biggest drawbacks that we find in its application is that this isothiocyanate is susceptible to being degraded by the action of oxygen, heat and alkaline conditions, which is truly difficult for the pharmaceutical industry to produce and distribute SFN.
Due to this, at the moment there is no drug formulated with this active principle, although it should be noted that recently, researchers from the University of Seville in collaboration with the CSIC have managed to create a stabilization system for SFN as well as synthesize new analogues more assets whose patent has been sold to the British company Evgen Pharma, who are currently working on the development of a drug based on sulforaphane for the treatment of different types of cancer such as breast or prostate.
Rocío Recio Jiménez is a researcher at the Department of Organic and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Seville. Article written in collaboration with the UCC + i of the University of Seville.