Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,
Right from a young age, our mums have always told us to eat our greens – and for good reason. Packed with body-building nutrients and vitamins, leafy veggies are the key to growing healthy and strong.
However, clever scientists have just uncovered a new reason for us to pile our plates with sprouts, broccoli, kale and spinach - they’re good for our gut, too. How do we know this? Well, until recently we didn’t!
However, a super sugar molecule found in vibrant, leafy greens has been found to help the good bacteria in our tums flourish and thrive. These delicious foods even shut out bad bacteria, the nasty bugs that lead to everything from stomach problems, aches and pains and even congested skin.
How did they find out all of this? Well, here’s where it gets a bit clever and scientific, but bear with us!
Researchers from Melbourne teamed up with scientists in the UK and discovered a once unheard of enzyme used by bacteria, fungi and other organisms to feed on the sugar sulfoquinovose (or SQ, to you and I) found in those super-charged greens.
Each year, these leafy greens produce almost as much of this sugar as the world's total annual iron ore production – and, thanks to this discovery, it could soon be used to cultivate the growth of good bacteria.
The research, published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, was led by Dr Ethan Goddard-Borger from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. The Dr said: "Every time we eat leafy green vegetables we consume significant amounts of SQ sugars, which are used as an energy source by good gut bacteria.
"Bacteria in the gut, such as crucial protective strains of E. coli, use SQ as a source of energy. E. coli provides a protective barrier that prevents growth and colonisation by bad bacteria, because the good bugs are taking up all the habitable real estate.
"E. coli is a key bacterial coloniser needed by our gut. We speculate that consumption of this specific molecule within leafy greens will prove to be an important factor in improving and maintaining healthy gut bacteria and good digestive health."
So, what happens? Is this sugar so impressive? Well, during the study, the team discovered that good bacteria use the sugar (the only one known to contain sulphur) found in these plants for energy and fuel.
Dr Ethan Goddard-Borger added: "Sulphur is critical for building proteins, the essential components of all living organisms.
“SQ is the only sugar molecule which contains sulfur, and 'digestion' of the molecule by bacteria releases sulphur into the environment, where it re-enters the global 'sulphur cycle' to be reused by other organisms."
Amazingly, until this study, no one knew how organisms could use sulphur – scientists had been trying (and failing) for 50 years to find out more.
While it all sounds fairly straightforward (eat your greens for a happy tum), the findings are even more amazing than just that – they could even be used to develop a new class of antibiotics.
As Dr Goddard-Borger said: "New antimicrobial strategies are desperately needed as more and more bacteria acquire resistance to existing classes of antibiotics.
"We think it will be possible to use these widespread enzymes to enable highly specific delivery of antibiotics to harmful forms of E. coli and other pathogens, such as Salmonella, responsible for food poisoning, while leaving the good gut bacteria untouched."
If you’re anything like us, this news will have you running for the nearest vegetable patch, ready to pile your plate with mountains of beautiful greens.
While we always try to eat the rainbow (a variety of fruit and veg), leafy greens are particularly good for us – and they’ll leave your skin glowing and your body singing! Here are some of our favourites, and why they’re so good for you. Pile ‘em high!
As Popeye’s best friend, spinach is full of dietary calcium, as well as vitamins A and C and folate. We like to add ours to curries, smoothies and salads.
As one of the trendiest foods on the planet, kale is the superhero of leafy greens. It’s full of vitamins (A, C and K) and also helps you to pack in the calcium for healthy teeth and bones, too. Kale is also full of folate and potassium, which is why we toss it into our green smoothies by the bagful!
This tree-like vegetable is rich in immune-boosting vitamin C and also contains potassium and folate. It also has plenty of fibre, which makes it wonderful for digestion. Try adding it to stir fries and Sunday roasts for a huge health boost.
Once the enemy of dieters everywhere (remember the cabbage soup diet?) cabbage is now firmly back on the menu. Packed with the cancer-fighting compound sinigrin and vitamin C, try eating cabbage raw for maximum benefits.
Collard is a superhero in terms of lowering cholesterol as it can help the body to flush out bile acid (bile acids are made from cholesterol). It’s also known to help fight cancer, and contains plenty of vitamin K and A.
Want to add more leafy greens to your diet? After reading this, of course you do! Here are some of our favourite leafy green recipes for you to try:
We have an earlier post that looked at leafy greens and their benefits which you can read here.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.