This Health Food May Actually Deserve To Be Called 'Detoxifying'

Expect to see this unusual ingredient in your store-bought green juices soon: broccoli sprouts.

You see, unlike all those other spurious claims about vegetable juice's "detoxifying" powers, these sprouts may actually have a role in flushing out harmful chemical pollutants from the body.

A new study, published June 9 in the journal Cancer Prevention Research, demonstrated that broccoli sprouts play a role in helping the body to eliminate common environmental toxicants.

Benzene and acrolein are chemicals that we breathe in from air pollution like cigarette smoke or car smog, as well as household cleaning products like glue, paint or detergent. Overexposure to benzene can make your cells stop functioning correctly, while acrolein can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract.

Researchers from China and the U.S. recruited 291 participants from Qidong, an area in the Yangtze River delta region of China known for its high levels of air pollution, to take part in the 12-week study. Participants were then randomly divided into two groups: those who drank about a half-cup of a "broccoli sprout-derived beverage" daily, and the control group, which drank a placebo beverage: pineapple and lime juice.

Here's the thing: the broccoli-sprout drink actually helped detoxify participants. Urine samples taken both before and during the study showed rapid, sustained and statistically significant increases in the levels of detoxication products for benzene and acrolein for sprout drinkers over the course of 12 weeks. The products of Benzene detoxification in urine increased 61 percent, while the products for acrolein detoxification increased 23 percent.

Participants in the control group showed no such change. Though it's worth noting that the broccoli sprouts drink didn't seem to have any effect on the pollutant crotonaldehyde, which researchers were also measuring.

Researchers became interested in this population due to its troubling lung cancer rates, which have tripled among men in Qidong over the last 40 years, according to the study. The broccoli sprouts discovery could point to a potentially cheap and easy way to help keep carcinogen levels down in the body, though much more research needs to be done before scientists can put a cancer-fighting stamp of approval on the humble vegetable.

Study author Thomas Kensler, a researcher at both Johns Hopkins and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine explained next research steps to NPR:

While the researchers say they have no idea whether superfoods like broccoli can actually prevent cancer or other diseases, this new study lays some important groundwork that will make it easier to answer that question.

"The assumption is that if there's less carcinogen in the body, there's less risk," he says. "But at some point we need to do a definitive trial to find out if you take this approach for months or years whether [rates] of disease are dampened."

Until then, we'll be throwing broccoli sprouts into our green juices!