What is red cabbage?
Red cabbage belongs to the brassica group of vegetables, along with Brussels sprouts and kale. It has a peppery taste and crunch when eaten raw, but becomes sweeter and softer when cooked.
Red cabbage is grown in the UK and is in season from September to December. As the plant grows, it forms tight balls of leaves in the centre surrounded by much larger green-purple leaves. When the red cabbage is ready for harvesting, the whole plant is picked and the outer leaves discarded, leaving just the cabbage head – the part we eat.
Discover our full range of health benefit guides or check out some of our best red cabbage recipes, from traditional ways to serve it – such as our cider-braised cabbage wedges – to new twists on this popular vegetable, like our red cabbage & pickled chilli slaw.
Nutritional benefits of red cabbage
An 80g portion (boiled) provides:
- 12kcal / 49kj
- 0.6g protein
- 0.2g fat
- 1.8g carbohydrate
- 1.8g fibre
- 104mg potassium
- 25mcg folate
- 26mg vitamin C
Just 80g of red cabbage counts as one portion of your five-a-day. Discover more with our five-a-day infographic.
Traditional braised red cabbage recipes often combine the peppery flavours of cabbage with sweeter ingredients like apples, sugar, cider, port or wine. Lightly braising cabbage helps release beneficial carotenoids, adding whole fruit like apples naturally sweetens the dish, but be aware that when you add ingredients like sugar or certain types of alcohol you’ll be increasing free sugars, the type we are advised to cut back on.
Top 5 health benefits of red cabbage
1. Rich in antioxidants
Anthocyanins give purple-coloured fruits and vegetables, including red cabbage, their beautiful colour. They have protective antioxidant properties and as a result, there’s a lot of research evaluating just how these compounds benefit our health. For example, there are growing links between the use of dietary anthocyanins to help improve obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as type-2 diabetes.
Brassica vegetables are especially rich in anthocyanins as well as other antioxidant nutrients like vitamins C, E and the carotenoids.
2. May support heart health
A 2019 study indicates growing evidence that anthocyanins play a positive role in cardiovascular health and that those who eat foods rich in them (like red cabbage) have a lower risk of heart attacks and heart-disease-related death.
3. May help fight inflammation
A key component of brassica vegetables like red cabbage is a phytochemical known as sulforaphane. Animal studies report that sulforaphane may be responsible for the anti-inflammatory properties of these vegetables.
4. Contain anti-cancer compounds
While there are no ‘superfoods’ that can prevent cancer – and certain risk factors for cancer are unrelated to diet – there is evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce your cancer risk. Being rich in compounds like sulforaphane and anthocyanins puts red cabbage in a strong position if you’re considering a brassica vegetable to add to your diet. That’s because these beneficial compounds appear to prevent oxidative damage and possibly act in protective way against cancer, including colorectal cancer.
5. May support gut health
Including red cabbage in your diet may support gut wellness. It’s a good source of fibre, including the insoluble variety which promotes regularity. The fibre in cabbage is also a prebiotic, which means it’s the type of fibre that acts as a fuel source for the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut. Compounds in red cabbage called isothiocyanates appear to be particularly beneficial because they encourage the gut bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) – valuable compounds that have a far-reaching influence on our gut and wider health.
Is red cabbage safe for everyone?
Although safe for most, it is possible to be allergic to cabbage because of cross reactivity or ‘pollen food syndrome’, which also includes plants such as aubergine, beetroot, celery and peppers. A mild reaction may include symptoms such as itching mouth or tongue, sneezing or a runny nose. If you experience these symptoms after eating cabbage, speak to your GP. If a more serious allergic reaction occurs, call for an ambulance immediately.
Read more from the NHS about allergic reactions.
If you have a thyroid issue, you may be advised to minimise the amount of brassica vegetables you eat. This is because these vegetables may interfere with the absorption of iodine, which is needed for the production of thyroid hormones. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that you would need to eat a reasonable amount on a consistent basis for this to be an issue.
Cabbage is a high-fibre food, which for most of us is highly beneficial – it supports the digestive process and provides a fuel source for the healthy bacteria that reside in our gut. However, for some people, high-fibre foods may cause bloating and gas. This is especially relevant for those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
If you are on blood-thinning medication such as warfarin, your GP or registered dietitian may suggest you monitor the vitamin K foods (like cabbage) in your diet to ensure you eat similar amounts consistently. If in doubt, consult your GP before making any significant changes to what and how much you eat.
How to buy the best red cabbage
Ideally, buy red cabbage when it is in season in the UK, in the autumn months. It should be heavy and firm and there should be little damage to the outer leaves. It’s okay if there is a little tear or mark, as normally the first few outer leaves are thrown away before eating, but don’t buy any red cabbage that has large cuts in it, is black or going mouldy or soggy.
Healthy red cabbage recipes
Discover our top-rated healthy red cabbage recipes in our collection.
This article was reviewed on 15 October 2021 by Kerry Torrens.
Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
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