WHEN WE talk about health, not much is usually said about the element sulphur. (Sulfur is the American spelling). Although it does not attract the attention nutritional stars like calcium, magnesium, iron or zinc get it is an important mineral for the optimal health of the human body. Despite its low profile, sulphur is the third most abundant mineral element in the body, ranking just after calcium and phosphorus.
Benefits of sulphur
Cardiovascular benefits: German research has shown the importance of dietary sulphur for cardiovascular health. Sulphur compounds found in some foods may increase cardiovascular health by acting as a natural blood thinner and by lowering blood cholesterol. Sulphur is needed for the manufacture of taurine, an amino acid critical for a healthy heart.
Joint and skin benefits
MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is a sulphur compound found naturally in fresh vegetables. Although not proven scientifically, many people who use MSM claim that it relieves symptoms of joint pain and benefits their skin and nails.
Hair and nails consist of a tough protein called keratin that has sulphur bonds that provides its strength and resilience. On the other hand, connective tissues and cartilage contain proteins with flexible sulphur bonds, giving those structures flexibility.
With age, the flexible tissues in your body lose their elasticity, leading to sagging and wrinkled skin, stiff muscles and painful joints.
Anti-cancer and antioxidant benefits
The sulphur compounds found in the high-sulphur foods fight cancer by increasing the body's immune response, and may inhibit the growth of some tumours.
Sulphur containing amino acids are excellent antioxidants and these antioxidants have cancer prevention properties. Sulphur is involved in the synthesis of glutathione, an extremely important antioxidant produced inside your cells. These compounds also increase the liver's ability to flush out toxins from the body.
Sulphur also plays a key role in the function of the mitochondria, the energy factories inside your cells. It is even a part of the vital hormone insulin.
The brassicas or cruciferous vegetables: These are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
Allium vegetables: The Allium group of foods includes onions, garlic, leeks, shallots and chives. This group is an excellent source of sulphur.
Other vegetables: Other sulphur rich vegetables include kale, callaloo, spinach, asparagus, okra, lettuce, sweet corn, and eggplant.
Beans: Beans are high in sulphur, (Edamame - steamed soybeans have the highest sulphur content of all) as are most types of peas.
Fruits: The avocado is the fruit with the highest sulphur content, followed by kiwi, bananas, pineapple, strawberries, melons, grapefruit, grapes, oranges and peaches.
Meats: In most diets, sulphur comes mainly from the meat protein. Turkey, chicken, goat, pork, most fish and beef are very high in sulphur.
Eggs: Eggs are a great source of sulphur. Chicken eggs, particularly the yolks, are rich in sulphur. One quail's egg offers almost as much sulphur as a serving of meat.
Other foods: Other high-sulphur foods include dairy products, chocolate, coffee, tea, grains, sesame seeds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios and other nuts.
Sulphur is present in most meats, but I recommend healthier sources of sulphur. Sulphur-rich vegetables contain extremely potent organosulfur compounds that offer special health benefits. Animal sources contain sulphur-rich amino acids, which we do need, but they don't contain the organosulfur compounds in plant foods.
The Brassicas and the Allium families of vegetables in particular contain special sulphur compounds.
The brassicas: These vegetables contain a special organosulfur compound called Sulforaphane that protects the cells from free radical damage and increase glutathione (antioxidant) levels. These organosulfur compounds can also deactivate the cancer-promoting chemicals produced when meats are cooked at high temperatures.
The Alliums: These all contain several organosulfur compounds that demonstrate anti-cancer properties. Sulphur compounds in garlic protect liver cells and increase their glutathione activity. Sulphur compounds from onions have improved blood sugar control in diabetic rats.
Preparing these vegetables: As they are not the favourite of many, we need to prepare these vegetables, so that they taste good and yet retain their nutritional value.
Broccoli: If you struggle with eating broccoli raw, then steaming is next best. Researchers found that lightly steaming broccoli made the sulforaphane three times more bioavailable than after heavily cooking it. Steam the broccoli until it is bright green and tender enough to pierce easily with a fork. Studies suggest that four minutes of light steaming is ideal. Soggy, dull looking broccoli is the worst.
Cabbage: Again, raw is best and science confirms that lightly steamed cabbage offers more organosulfur compounds than cabbage cooked at high heat. Chop it up to your requirements and let it sit for a few minutes to release the sulphur compounds. Steam for up to five minutes, and then toss with your favourite healthy oil.
Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts: Cut into small segments and allow it to sit for 10 minutes, and then steam or bake. Baking the cauliflower or sprouts tossed with spices like turmeric and curry powder, cayenne, sea salt, and olive oil can win over those who do not love this vegetable.
Try to embrace the slight bitterness and enjoy the crispness of these lightly cooked vegetables. You should experiment with different combinations of flavours to find your favourite. Aim to eat some sulphur-rich vegetables a few times per week at the least. If you do eat meats, try to cook them with these high-sulphur vegetables to reduce your exposure to cancer-causing compounds.
One last tip on getting more sulphur: soak in a warm Epson salts bath. This substance is magnesium sulphate, and you can absorb some of the sulphur through your skin.
You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at firstname.lastname@example.org or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.