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Scientists Made a Broccoli Pill

And they had good results when they gave it to diabetics.

Jesse Hicks

Annie Spratt/Unsplash and Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy

Broccoli gets a bad rap. For whatever reason, this green, cruciferous vegetable seems to inspire outsize loathing. Even in the leader of the free world. "I do not like broccoli," said the president. "And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!'' No, not that president—it was actually George H.W. Bush, in 1990.

For broccoli-haters like the former president, science might have a solution. In the great tradition of capsulized meals, researchers have created a broccoli pill. We don't want to get your hopes up, though; it's not a shortcut around eating nutrient-rich actual broccoli. Instead, the pill contains a concentrated broccoli sprout extract that may help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar.

The study focused on sulforaphane, a compound that occurs naturally in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and arugula. Sulforaphane had previously been shown to reduce glucose levels in diabetic rats, so researchers wanted to see whether it could do the same for humans. More than 300 million people worldwide suffer from type 2 diabetes, requiring treatment for chronic high blood sugar. Up to 15 percent of them can't take the first-line therapy—a medication called metformin—because of kidney damage risks. Sulforaphane, then, could be a valuable treatment.

To find out, researchers recruited 97 people with type 2 diabetes and randomly gave them either a placebo or a powdered, concentrated dose of sulforaphane every day for three months. And by "concentrated," we mean concentrated: about 100 times what you'd naturally in broccoli. "It was the same as eating around five kilograms [11 pounds] of broccoli daily," Anders Rosengren, lead author of the study, told New Scientist . All but three participants were taking metformin and they continued to take it during the study.

Those who took the broccoli pills saw their fasting blood glucose fall an average of 10 percent more than those who'd received the placebo. Rosengren told New Scientist that's enough to "reduce complications in the eyes, kidneys, and blood." The greatest effect appeared in obese participants whose diabetes was "dysregulated"—meaning they had higher baseline glucose levels to start.

It's also worth noting how Rosengren and his team decided to investigate concentrated broccoli extract in the first place. They analyzed a library of 3,800 drug signatures, looking for one that might reverse the "disease signature" (basically, how disease-affected tissues express their genetic makeup) in diabetic livers. Sulforaphane fit the bill. Now that it's shown to have useful results, researchers have more evidence that comparing drug signatures with disease signatures can help find new treatments.

They didn't study whether the broccoli pill could lower fasting blood sugar on its own; remember that most of the participants were also taking metformin. Sulphoraphane seems to work differently than metformin by suppressing the production of glucose; it may work as a complement or as a replacement treatment for people who'd face kidney complications from the drug. The team is ready to apply for regulatory approval for the powder, which could happen in as soon as two years. They also want to test it in people with pre-diabetes who wouldn't be prescribed metformin.

This is good news for diabetics and people at risk, but even when we do have futuristic produce pills, we'll all still need to eat the real thing because, fiber and other annoying health benefits.

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