The botanical name for cabbage is Brassica oleracea capitata. The English name cabbage comes from the French caboche, meaning “head.” Most of the European and Asiatic names for cabbage can be traced to one of three Celtic or part-Celtic root words. Kopf Kohl (German), cabus and caboche (French), cabbage (English), kappes, kraut, kapost (Tartar), kopi (Hindu), and others, all are related to the Celto-Slavic cap or kap, meaning head.” Kaulion (Greek), caulis (Latin), kale (Scottish), kaal (Norwegian), kohl (Swedish), col (Spanish), are related to the Celto-Germanic-Greek caul, meaning “stem.”
It’s actually a variety (breed or race) of the species Brassica oleracea, to which broccoli, kale, collards, kholrabi, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower also belong. All of these Brassica oleracea vegetables are in the Brassicaceae family, along with along with bok choy, rapini, napa cabbage, turnips, mustard, watercress, arugula, radishes, horseradish, daikon, land cress, rutabaga, and shepherd’s purse.
Although the evidence points to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor as the place of origin of the species, pots containing cabbage that date back to 4,000 B.C. have been found in Shensi province in China.
By 500 BC, cabbage was a common peasant food in Greece, along with garlic, peas, onions, and fava beans.
The Celts of central and western Europe had much to do with the distribution and popularization of cabbage as a food plant. Celtic knowledge of it was so ancient as to have influenced the Latin name, Brassica (from the Celtic word bresic, meaning “cabbage”). The Celts invaded Mediterranean lands repeatedly from about 600 B.C. to the first century AD, reaching into Asia Minor around 278 B.C. They also reached into the British Isles in the fourth century B.C. Shortly before the beginning of the first century AD, the Romans also spread cabbage into northern Europe and Britain. Because cabbage grows well in cool climates, yields large harvests, and stores well during winter, it soon became a major crop in Europe. Taking only three months growing time, one acre of cabbage will yield more edible vegetables than any other plant.
In Rome, Cato (234 BC-149 BC), who lived to be 85, believed that cabbage should be eaten raw with vinegar. Pliny (23 AD-79AD) had much to say about cabbage. In his work, Natural History, he mentions cabbage under the classification Materia Medica, focusing on its medicinal qualities when taken internally and when used as a poultice.
Early cabbage was not the full-bodied head we take for granted today, but rather a more loose-leaf variety. In southern Europe, Mediterranean peoples developed those forms of cabbage that are tolerant to warm climates (not hard-heading); the hard-heading cabbages were developed in the cooler parts of Europe by peoples largely Celtic, Nordic, or of mixed blood and culture involving Celtic or Nordic peoples. Had there been a hard-heading variety in ancient Rome, it certainly would have attracted enough interest for the old Roman writers to have described it.
“White” (hard-heading) cabbages were apparently unknown until after the time of Charlemagne, who died A.D. 814. Albert of Cologne, in the 13th century, referred to a headed cabbage, and in 14th-century England the words cabaches and caboches were used, indicating then a distinction between heading and nonheading cabbages (coleworts).
It was not until 1536 in Europe that unmistakably clear descriptions of hard-heading cabbage were recorded. At that time also a loose-heading form called romanos, and later called chou d’Italie and chou de Savoys, for the Italian province, was described. Savoy cabbage was one of the variety of dishes introduced to the French by Catherine de Medici who arrived from Florence in 1533 to wed the heir to the French throne. This “savoy cabbage,” a crumpled-leaved kind having high quality, was grown in England by the mid-1500’s. Cabbage was introduced to America in 1541-42 by the French navigator Jacques Cartier, who planted it in Canada on his third voyage. “Red” cabbage (magenta to purplish) was first described in England in 1570, all of the early varieties being round-headed. The round-headed form is the oldest of the hard types of cabbage and is the only one described during the 16th century.
Because of its popularity among Europeans, cabbage was likely planted in what is now the United States by some of the earliest colonists, although there is no written record of it until 1669. In the 18th century it was being grown by American Indians as well as by the colonists.
In the 17th century, flat-headed and egg-shaped varieties appeared, and in the 18th century conical or pointed kinds were first described.
Hard-heading cabbage was unknown in Japan as late as 1775. At the end of the 18th century, cabbage was laded onto ships making long voyages. We have record of Captain Cook’s first voyage in which a storm injured many of the crew members. Supposedly they were saved from gangrene when the ship’s doctor made poultices of cabbage to apply to their wounds. Whether this is true or not, those heads of cabbage would have provided the sailors with a great deal of nutrition. Captain Cook was also given to storing choucroute (French sauerkraut) on his ships. Choucroute may have started quite simply as a soup, but is an ancient dish among the early Germanic peoples.
Germany, France, and the Low Countries were by far the most productive of new varieties. Most of the varieties grown in the United States even today originated in Germany and the Low Countries. The Dutch may be the originators of coleslaw: kool means cabbage and sla means salad. The borders of Europe have shifted through the years, but the cabbage is recorded as a popular vegetable in Russia, Germany, Poland and Hungary as we know them today. It is a staple among the Irish.
The world’s largest cabbage is credited to William Collingwood of County Durham, England, whose prized cabbage in 1865 weighed in at 123 pounds.
Cabbage has a round shape and is composed of superimposed leaf layers. Because cabbage’s inner leaves are protected from the sunlight by the surrounding leaves, they are usually lighter in color. There are three major types of cabbage: green, red, and Savoy. The color of green cabbage ranges from pale to dark green. Both green and red cabbage have smooth-textured leaves. Red cabbage has leaves that are either magenta, crimson, or purple. The leaves of Savoy cabbage are more ruffled and yellowish-green in color. Red and green cabbage have a more defined taste and crunchy texture as compared to Savoy cabbage.
- Prevent cancer: More than 475 studies have examined the role of cabbage in cancer prevention (and in some cases, cancer treatment). Cabbage helps prevent cancer with three different types of nutrients:
- Antioxidants: Cabbage is an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of vitamin A (which comes from its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene). But in terms of antioxidants in the phytochemical category, cabbage contains polyphenols as the primary factor in its overall antioxidant capacity, including tannic acids, polyphenols, hydrocinnamic acid, flavonoids, indoles, and oxalic acid. Even white cabbage (a very lightly-colored form of green cabbage and the most commonly eaten variety of cabbage in the U.S.) provides about 50 milligrams of polyphenols in a half-cup serving. Red cabbage provides about 30 milligrams of the red pigment polyphenols called anthocyanins in each half cup. (These anthocyanins qualify not only as antioxidant nutrients, but as anti-inflammatory nutrients as well.) The antioxidant richness of cabbage is partly responsible for its cancer prevention benefits. Without sufficient intake of antioxidants, you can experience oxidative stress, and chronic oxidative stress—in and of itself—can be a risk factor for developing cancer.
- Anti-inflammatory nutrients: Without sufficient intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients, regulation of your inflammatory system can become compromised, and you can experience chronic inflammation. Especially when combined with oxidative stress, chronic inflammation is a risk factor for developing cancer. The anthocyanins in red cabbage are anti-inflammatory compounds, and make red cabbage an excellent anti-inflammatory food. However, all types of cabbage contain significant amounts of polyphenols that provide anti-inflammatory benefits, including caffeinic acid and kaempferol.
- Glucosinolates: The glucosinolates found in cabbage are converted into isothiocyanate and benzopyrrole compounds that can prevent several cancers, including bladder cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. (A benzopyrrole is formed when isothiocyanates made from glucobrassicin are further broken down into non-sulfur containing compounds.) Different types of cabbage have an abundance of different glucosinolates. The isothiocyanates and benzopyrroles made from cabbage’s glucosinolates protect you against cancer through a variety of different mechanisms. In some cases, they help regulate inflammation by altering the activity of messaging molecules within your body’s inflammatory system. In other cases, they improve your body’s detoxification system and leave your cells with a smaller toxic load. One study from Poland showed an impressive reduction of breast cancer risk in women consuming at least four servings of cabbage servings per week.
red cabbage glucoraphanin Sulforaphane (isothiocyanate) savoy cabbage glucobrassicin indole-3-carbinol (benzopyrrole) savoy and green cabbage sinigrin allyl-isothiocyanate green cabbage glucotropaeolin benzyl-isothiocyanate
- Support digestive health: Cabbage juice has long been known to help heal stomach ulcers. Cabbage contains a variety of nutrients of potential benefit to your digestive tract. These nutrients include glucosinolates and the anti-inflammatory isothiocyanates made from them, which regulate bacterial populations of Helicobacter pylori inside your stomach. These bacteria are normal stomach inhabitants, but their populations can become too large and they can latch onto your stomach lining to cause ulcers. The isothiocyanates made from cabbage’s glucosinolates can lower the risk of these stomach ulcers. Cabbage also contains antioxidant polyphenols, and an amino-acid glutamine, which also support digestive health.
- Support cardiovascular health: Cabbage helps reduce cholesterol. Your liver uses cholesterol as a basic building block to produce bile acids. Bile acids are specialized molecules that aid in the digestion and absorption of fat through a process called emulsification. These molecules are typically stored in fluid form in your gall bladder, and when you eat a fat-containing meal, they get released into your intestine, where they help ready the fat for interaction with enzymes and eventual absorption into your blood. Fiber in cabbage binds together with some of the bile acids in the intestine in such a way that they simply stay inside the intestine and pass out of your body in a bowel movement, rather than getting absorbed along with the fat they have emulsified. When this happens, your liver needs to replace the lost bile acids by drawing upon your existing supply of cholesterol, and as a result, your cholesterol level drops. Cabbage provides you with this cholesterol-lowering benefit whether it is raw or cooked; however, the cholesterol-lowering ability of raw cabbage improves significantly when it is steamed.
- Provide other nutritional benefits: Cabbage is an excellent source of vitamin K and vitamin C. It is also a very good source of fiber, manganese, and folate. Cabbage is also a good source of molybdenum, vitamin B6, potassium, thiamine, and calcium. It is also a source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, with 520 milligrams per 100 calories. Among the little bit of fat cabbage contains, there is a surprising amount of one particular omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. As described earlier, cabbage is also a unique source of several types of phytochemicals. Its overall antioxidant activity is most likely due to its unusual polyphenol content. With red cabbage, these polyphenols include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds called anthocyanins. Cabbage is also unique for it rich supply of glucosinolates. These phytonutrients can be converted by the body into isothiocyanates that have special detoxification and anti-cancer properties. Interest in anthocyanin pigments continues to intensify because of their health benefits as dietary antioxidants, as an anti-inflammatory, and their potentially protective, preventative, and therapeutic roles in a number of human diseases. A 100-gram (about 3 ounces) serving of raw red cabbage delivers 196.5 milligrams of polyphenols, of which 28.3 milligrams are anthocyanins. Green cabbages yielded much less per 100 grams: 45 milligrams of polyphenols including 0.01 milligram of anthocyanins. The vitamin C equivalent, a measure of antioxidant capacity, of red cabbage is also six to eight times higher than that of green cabbage.
Nutrients in 1 Cup Raw Cabbage (70 grams)
Cabbage is an inexpensive staple cultivated throughout the world and available throughout the year. However, it is at its best during the late fall and winter months when it is in season. Choose cabbage heads that are firm and dense with shiny, crisp, colorful leaves free of cracks, bruises, and blemishes. Severe damage to the outer leaves suggests worm damage or decay that may reside in the inner core as well. There should be only a few outer loose leaves attached to the stem. If not, it may be an indication of undesirable texture and taste. Avoid buying pre-cut cabbage, either halved or shredded, because once cabbage is cut, it begins to lose its valuable vitamin C content.
Keeping cabbage cold will keep it fresh and help it retain its vitamin C content. Put the whole head in a sealed container in the crisper of your refrigerator. Red and green cabbage will keep this way for about 2 weeks, while Savoy cabbage will keep for about 1 week. If you need to store a partial head of cabbage, cover it tightly and refrigerate. Because the vitamin C content of cabbage starts to quickly degrade after it has been cut, you should use the remainder within a couple of days.
Even though the inside of cabbage is usually clean because the outer leaves protect it, you still may want to clean it. Remove the thick fibrous outer leaves and cut the cabbage into pieces and then wash under running water. If you notice any signs of worms or insects, which sometimes appears in cabbage, soak the head in salt water or vinegar water for 15-20 minutes first. To preserve its vitamin C content, cut and wash the cabbage right before cooking or eating it. Because phytochemicals in the cabbage react with carbon steel and turn the leaves black, use a stainless steel knife to cut.
To cut cabbage into smaller pieces, first quarter it and remove the core. Cabbage can be cut into slices of varying thickness, grated by hand, or shredded in a food processor.
Short steaming (less than 7 minutes) is much better than microwaving for preserving some myrosinase activity in the cabbage. Because you need myrosinase activity to convert the glucosinolates in cabbage to cancer-preventive isothiocyanates, preserving as much myrosinase activity as possible when cooking cabbage seems worthwhile.
A little bit of bitterness in the taste of cabbage is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to your health. One of the bitter-tasting glucosinolates especially plentiful in cabbage, sinigrin, is the source of the anti-cancer substance allyl-isothiocyanate. It’s healthiest to incorporate cabbage into recipes that include differently flavored foods in such a way that the cabbage is allowed to retain a little of its natural and noticeable bitterness but within a blended-flavor context of a delicious dish. For example, many curries, stir-fries, and slaws provide sweet and sour notes to complement the bitter taste.
Finally, it’s important to remember that you can allow myrosinase enzymes in cabbage to do their natural work by slicing, shredding, or chopping raw cabbage and letting it sit for 5-10 minutes before cooking. When the cells in cabbage have been broken apart through slicing, shredding, or chopping, the myrosinase enzymes in those cells can become active in converting the glucosinolates in cabbage into isothiocyanates.
To sauté cabbage, heat 5 tablespoons of vegetable broth or water in a stainless steel skillet. After bubbles begin to form, add shredded cabbage, cover, and sauté for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit for 2 more minutes before transferring to a bowl and tossing with your favorite seasonings or dressing. Ginger is a great addition to sautéed cabbage; you can also add rice vinegar and sesame seeds. Alternatively, you can braise red cabbage with a chopped apple and red wine. The alcohol (but not the flavor or the flavonoids) will evaporate. Combine shredded red and green cabbage with fresh lemon juice, coconut milk, and seasonings such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and black pepper to make coleslaw with an Indian flair.
This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.
This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
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