What Are the Health Benefits of Broccoli Rabe?

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 14, 2024
4 min read

Despite its name, broccoli rabe is not part of the broccoli family. Broccoli rabe is closely related to turnips, although it's cooked like leafy vegetables. Read on to learn about the health benefits of this vegetable.

Broccoli rabe is a green leafy vegetable that belongs to the same genus as cabbage, cauliflower, and kale, called Brassica. In some regions, broccoli rabe is known by other names, like broccoli rapini or raab.

Brassica vegetables (also called cruciferous vegetables) are rich in nutrients and have many health benefits. Broccoli rabe tastes slightly bitter and nutty and is very similar in appearance to other cruciferous vegetables, with florets like broccoli and leaves like kale.

All the parts of this vegetable — the stems, leaves, and florets — are edible, and it’s easy to cook. Although the origins of this vegetable are unknown, it’s widely used in Italian cuisine in dishes like pasta and salads along with other leafy greens.

As part of the cruciferous family, broccoli rabe has several essential nutrients. A single cup (roughly 170 grams) of boiled broccoli rabe contains the following:

  • Calories: 42
  • Carbohydrates: 5 grams 
  • Fiber: 4.8 grams 
  • Protein: 7 grams 
  • Fat: 1 gram 
  • Vitamin A: 43% of the daily value (DV) 
  • Vitamin C: 70% of the DV
  • Folate: 30% of the DV
  • Calcium: 15% of the DV 
  • Iron: 12% of the DV 
  • Zinc: 8% of the DV

Broccoli rabe is a great source of vitamin A and vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which contribute to good vision and better immunity, respectively. It’s also rich in potassium, which is important for regulating blood pressure, and magnesium, which your body uses to produce energy.

Broccoli rabe is remarkably low in calories and has a high amount of fiber. Glucosinolates are one of the most important nutrients in broccoli rabe. These are the sulfur-containing compounds that give it a unique taste and are also responsible for most of the health benefits described below.

All cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli rabe, are rich in glucosinolates. This chemical is responsible for broccoli rabe's bitter taste. When you eat broccoli rabe, the process of digestion breaks down these chemicals into smaller compounds like thiocyanates, isothiocyanates, indoles, and nitriles.

These biologically active compounds are widely recognized for their anticancer properties. Indoles and isothiocyanates especially have been found to prevent the development of cancer-causing cells.

Some studies in the U.S., the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe showed that those who ate higher amounts of broccoli rabe had a lower risk of prostate cancer.

Another study in the Netherlands found that women with a high intake of broccoli rabe had lower incidences of colon cancer. One other study in the U.S. showed that women who ate more than five servings of broccoli rabe every week reduced their risk of lung cancer.

Including larger portions of broccoli rabe may also help reduce the incidence of breast cancer.

An emerging trend in weight loss programs is an increased focus on the gut microbiome, which includes identifying specific microbes that may be linked to weight gain. The human gut microbiome contains two types of bacteria — Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes — that make up roughly 90% of the total bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.

Research has found that an increased presence of Firmicutes bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract is typically linked to obesity. On the other hand, a higher ratio of Bacteroidetes bacteria is found in individuals with lean muscle mass.

Broccoli rabe is rich in glucosinolates, which are digested by microbes present in your gastrointestinal tract. A study found that an increased intake of broccoli rabe led to a reduction of Firmicutes bacteria by as much as 9% and an increase in the presence of Bacteroidetes by almost 10%.

The endocrine system (also known as the hormonal system) includes several glands throughout the body. The main function of the endocrine system is to release hormones to enable different bodily functions at the right time. The endocrine system releases hormones into the bloodstream that act as chemical messengers to the different organs in your body, which respond to them and carry out specific functions.

These hormones regulate many physiological processes, like the growth of your body, energy production, and blood sugar levels. Research has found that an increased intake of broccoli rabe leads to increased activity in the endocrine system and energy metabolism.

Broccoli rabe is a rich source of folic acid, also known as folate or vitamin B9, which belongs to the family of B vitamins. Your body needs folic acid since it’s a critical part of the process of making healthy new cells, and it’s even more important for pregnant women. Lower levels of folic acid are linked to birth defects in children.

The two most common birth defects are anencephaly and spina bifida, which affect the brain and spine of newborns, respectively. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a minimum folate intake because defects like anencephaly and spina bifida occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy, long before you’re aware that you’re pregnant. 

The CDC recommends that women who have reached reproductive age take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. This is in addition to eating food that has folate, as it helps prevent major birth defects. Your body also needs folic acid to make new cells for your skin, hair, and nails.

You can enjoy broccoli rabe either cooked or in its raw form, depending on your taste. Just keep in mind that the bitter taste may be more evident if you eat it raw.

Broccoli rabe is widely used in Italian and Asian dishes and is typically either cooked or sauteed. But the best way to enjoy it is to add seasonings or sautee it with olive oil. You can serve it as a side dish or a salad to complement your main course.