Science Matters – in defence of the Brussels sprout

Want to read more?

We value our content, so access to our full site is only available on subscription.

Your subscription entitles you to 7-day-a-week access to our website, plus a full digital copy of that week’s paper to read on your pc/mac or mobile device.

And there’s more – your subscription includes access to digital archive copies from 2006 onwards.

Already a subscriber?
Problems logging in and require
technical support? Click here
Subscribe Now

Turkey, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts and gravy constitute the traditional British Christmas dinner.

And while you may prefer a goose to a turkey, and cranberry to bread sauce, when it comes to flavour nothing is more controversial than the humble Brussels sprout.

The vegetable, a member of the cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) and native to the Mediterranean, was first grown in northern Europe in the 13th century in Belgium somewhere near Brussels – hence its name.

On the positive side, sprouts are easy to grow, produce many per plant, mature in winter when fresh veg are scarce, and are labelled a ‘health food’ rich in fibre, protein, carotene and vitamins – what more could we want? But the anti-sprout lobbyists are passionate, mainly because of the sprout’s distinctive flavour.

Sprouts are described as having a bitter taste and a sulphurous smell, and these unfortunate properties are due high levels of compounds called glucosinolates, particularly a chemical named sinigrin and its breakdown products.

But these sprouty chemicals are not there just to annoy us, they are there for a purpose.

In fact, they perform an essential role for the sprout plant by way of chemical warfare.

They have evolved to protect the plants from grazing herbivores be they snails, mice or cattle, who, like some of us, don’t like the taste so leave well alone.

Breeding less bitter sprouts for our delicate palates just means that they will attract more pests, but still, there are many other ideas on how to make sprouts more tolerable.

Suggestions range from eating sprouts along with a glass of red wine, serving them with cream cheese, frying or roasting them to accentuate their nutty flavour or masking the bitterness by combining them with another strong flavour like chestnuts or bacon.

All this is fine, but why not just admire the plants for their ingenuity, grit your teeth and eat the things; at least they’re good for you!

Whatever you decide to do about the problem, have a great festive season and enjoy your Christmas dinner.