Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.
Written by Emily Ziedman
If you’ve been keto or low-carb for a while, it’s likely you’re familiar with the hundreds of cauliflower recipes flooding the Internet.
From main dishes to side dishes, cauliflower is taking the keto and gluten-free communities by storm.
Cauliflower’s ascension to the spotlight can be traced back, at least in part, to the increasing popularity of plant-based, gluten-free, low-carb diets like the keto diet.
Its mild taste and extreme versatility make cauliflower a favorite among the creative minds of the keto community.
What is Cauliflower?
Mark Twain once said, “Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.”
Well, we don’t know about a college education, but Twain was right about one thing: Cauliflower is a descendent of the common wild cabbage.
In fact, cauliflower’s Latin name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis, breaks down like this:
- Brassica: cabbage (from the Celtic word “bresic”)
- Oleracea: plant species used in cooking
- Botrytis: cluster of grapes (from Ancient Greek word “botrys”)
Plants in the Brassica genus belong to the Brassicaceae family. They are also called the Cruciferae family for their cross-shaped flowers.
Despite the rather ominous-sounding name, this family has over 3,000 members you love (or love to hate), including:
- Brussels sprouts
- Bok choy
- Collard greens
…and of course, our beloved cauliflower.
Some plant biologists believe cauliflower originated in Asia Minor in 600 B.C. Others say it came from the East Mediterranean region.
Either way, trade introduced cruciferous crops into Europe in the 15th century. It was here that cauliflower and broccoli evolved until they became the veggies we know today.[*]
Cauliflower Nutrition Facts
A single cup of cauliflower (100 grams) contains 25 calories and about 5 grams of total carbs[*].
If you remove 2 grams of fiber from the total carbs, you only have 3 grams of net carbs per 100 grams. This makes cauliflower the perfect low-carb food for a keto diet.
But cauliflower packs a stronger punch than that.
It contains 48.2 milligrams of vitamin C in 1 cup, or up to 77% of the daily recommended amount for the average adult[*].
Cauliflower is also a good source of[*]:
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B6
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin B5
8 Health Benefits of Cauliflower
We all know vegetables are good for you. But what makes cauliflower and other crucifers so special?
One word: sulfur.
Sulfur is one cool element…and it doesn’t get nearly as much press as it should.
It all starts with sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates (GSL). GSLs can be classified into three categories:
- Aliphatic (ex: glucoraphanin)
- Indole (ex: glucobrassicin)
- Aromatic (ex: gluconasturtiin)
Glucoraphanin and glucobrassicin are particularly interesting because enzymes called myrosinases break them down into isothiocyanates (ITC) and indole-3-carbinol (I3C).
In short, ITC and I3C are two of nature’s powerhouses.
And while broccoli sprouts take the crown when it comes to GSL content, cauliflower still provides a good dose of them and is much more versatile.
With that in mind, here are 8 top health benefits of cauliflower:
#1: Cancer Prevention
There is one ITC, in particular, that is often associated with crucifers — sulforaphane (SFN).
SFN is a bit of a superstar in the nutrition science community.
Unlike free radical scavengers like vitamin C, SFN acts through a unique mechanism: the Keap1-Nrf2-ARE signaling pathway.
This pathway is a target for cancer treatments because it can protect cells from toxins and oxidative stress[*].
But SFN isn’t the only cancer fighter here. I3C and other types of ITCs are also known for anti-cancer benefits, such as:
- Inhibiting cancer-causing enzymes[*]
- Triggering phase 2 enzymes that eliminate carcinogens and other toxins[*][*]
- Stopping the cell cycle in cancer cells[*]
- Inducing death in cancer cells[*]
- Stopping new blood vessels from developing[*]
- Producing tumor suppressor proteins[*]
It’s important to remember that many of the benefits have only been seen in laboratory settings so far — meaning, there aren’t many studies in humans.
And animal models don’t always translate well to how things work in humans. And while some human case studies have shown promising results, you’ll have to wait for data from larger clinical studies for confirmation[*][*].
#2: Protects Your Heart
Chronic inflammation doesn’t just lead to cancer, it can also lead to heart disease. For example, inflammation may cause hypertension (high blood pressure).
And scientists think sulforaphane can help.
By increasing Nrf2 activity, SFN increases the activities of the glutathione (GSH) and thioredoxin (Trx) antioxidant systems[*].
Both systems are important for maintaining your heart health. Here’s how:
- More active GSH means more phase 2 enzymes that reduce oxidative stress on your heart muscle. Less stress means lower blood pressure[*][*].
- Trx contributes to the cardioprotective activities of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). High Trx levels can slow down the progression of heart failure[*][*].
Another common heart condition associated with chronic inflammation is atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of arteries due to plaques buildup.
SFN might be able to help here as well. SFN inhibits endothelial lipase (EL) activity, an enzyme that decreases the “good” cholesterol in your body.
#3: Slow Down Cognitive Decline
You already know that your diet affects your mental performance. That might even be why you started on your keto journey.
But can your diet slow down cognitive decline and prevent dementia?
Interestingly, eating a lot of fruits does not seem to have the same effect.
This could be because Trx and GSH help maintain homeostasis in the brain, which is prone to oxidative stress and thus inflammation.[*] Not surprisingly, inflammation is also thought to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
Also, vegetables contain more vitamin E than fruits.
Studies show that vitamin E could help slow down age-related memory loss. Eat your veggies with added healthy fats like olive oil or homemade salad dressing and you’ll absorb even more vitamin E[*].
Doctors recommend at least three servings of vegetables to slow down cognitive decline.[*]
#4: Provides Dietary Fiber
The American Heart Association recommends a total dietary fiber intake of 25 to 30 grams a day from food[*].
Cauliflower has about 2 grams of fiber per 100 grams, just under 10% of your daily needs.
Fiber isn’t just about having regular bowel movements. It can provide huge benefits to your gut microbiome.
That’s because cauliflower is rich in a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin. Your gut bacteria “feeds” on inulin by fermenting it and other prebiotics into short-chain fatty acids that are great for colon health[*].
- Type II diabetes
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- High blood pressure
- Immune function
- Certain types of cancer
Perhaps the most well-known benefit of dietary fiber is its ability to help control your appetite by promoting fullness.
Fiber-rich foods are usually higher in micronutrients and your body processes them more slowly. This not only prevents blood sugar spikes, but also results in slower absorption[*].
Bottom line? If you want to lose weight, make sure you get enough fiber.
#5: Skin Protection
So far, we’ve seen that SFN has protective properties against cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But did you know that it’s also good for your skin?
Exposure to UV radiation causes damage to your skin cells’ DNA. And the result? Wrinkles and dark patches, not to mention an increased risk of skin cancer.[*]
UV radiation can also cause skin inflammation.
But now there is convincing research that SFN can protect your skin from UV damage by activating a wide variety of enzymes. And its effects last 2 to 3 days — much longer than other sun screens[*].
#6: Improves Breathing
Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP) is a disease caused by two types of human papilloma virus (HPV).
The viruses cause benign tumors to grow in your air passages, resulting in hoarseness and difficulty breathing or swallowing.And although the tumors can be removed, they often return. However, researchers believe that I3C in cauliflower (and other crucifers) can help prevent or treat RRP.
RRP is sensitive to estrogen, so I3C is thought to help prevent tumors by helping your body detox harmful forms of the hormone.[*]Multiple studies have shown promising long-term results, with either stopping or slowing down the growth of tumors[*][*]. What about our friend SFN? Unfortunately, SFN doesn’t seem to have protective effects on inflammation your lungs, although there is evidence that it gets there.[*] As with many other lab studies, we’ll have to wait for more data.
#7: Provide Pain Relief
Because it is an anti-inflammatory agent, there is some evidence that SFN may play a role in pain management.
In mouse studies, SFN was effective at reducing pain from diabetes-related nerve damage[*].
SFN also increases the effects of opioids like morphine by blocking inflammatory responses in the body[*].
In humans, a combination of broccoli powder and ascorbigen (from vitamin C) reduced pain sensitivity in patients with fibromyalgia[*].
The best part? SFN does not have sedative effects like opioids do[*]. And it’s not addictive.
#8: May Help Fight Depression and Anxiety
We’ve seen that SFN may help slow down cognitive decline.
But cauliflower and SFN can have more benefits for your brain — fighting anxiety and depression.
Like Alzheimer’s disease, depression has also been connected to brain inflammation. Scientists believe that controlling that inflammation could help patients with depression[*].
One study from 2017 found that SFN indeed had antidepressant effects in mice. But there was more.
The SFN-rich broccoli sprouts even prevented young mice from developing inflammation-related depression when they were older[*].
How to Eat Cauliflower
It seems like cauliflower just exploded onto the food scene. The cauliflower steaks. The cauliflower buffalo wings. There’s even cauliflower rice, mashed cauliflower, cauliflower pizza crust, and cauliflower casserole.
Even Oprah’s been talking about it.
Naturally, you might be wondering: What is the best way to add cauliflower to your diet — Cooked? Raw? Does it matter? And what are some cauliflower recipes?
Let’s address the raw versus cooked issue first — and the answer is…maybe.
Remember our friend myrosinase? It starts converting GSLs to ITCs when plants are “injured” by chopping or chewing.
The products like SFN and I3C are then absorbed in your intestines and become available for your body to use.
But if you’re like most other people out there, you probably cook cauliflower first. And that could be bad news for myrosinase. Cooking cauliflower can denature myrosinase, although the “severity” depends on the temperature, time, and method of cooking.
Cooking cauliflower doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t get the health benefits.
When plant myrosinase is inactive, intact GSLs can be absorbed in the stomach or be broken down in the small intestine. If there are GSLs still remaining, they will then move to the colon, where bacterial myrosinase will break them down[*][*].
Studies also show that while you risk losing water-soluble nutrients during cooking, there could be increased bioavailability of other nutrients like carotenoids and some GSLs[*].
Whether you want to eat your cauliflower raw or cooked is up to you, but here are some of our favorite recipes.
This mashed cauliflower recipe is an excellent side dish to replace mashed potatoes and stay keto during the holidays. Plus, it tastes amazing.Print
Rosemary Cauliflower Mash and Gravy
Swap out those heavy potatoes for this rosemary cauliflower mash and keto gravy – a healthy ketogenic option that will taste just like the original recipe! Plus, learn our best tricks for staying keto during the holidays.
- Prep Time: 15 minutes
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Total Time: 45 minutes
- Yield: 6
- Category: Sides
- Cuisine: American
• 1 medium cauliflower, chopped
• 3 tbsp butter
• 1 tbsp minced garlic
• 1 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
• 1⁄4 cup heavy cream
• 2 tbsp grated parmesan
• 1⁄2 tsp black pepper
• 1⁄2 tsp pink Himalayan salt
• 4 tbsp butter
• 1⁄2 cup heavy cream
• 1 1⁄2 cup chicken stock
• 1⁄2 tsp xanthan gum
• 1 tsp black pepper
- Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan, add cauliflower florets, and boil until tender, about 15 minutes.
- Drain cauliflower and pour into food processor.
- In a medium skillet over medium low heat, heat butter, garlic, and rosemary until fragrant. Remove from heat and add to food processor with cauliflower. Pulse until combined.
- To food processor, add heavy cream, parmesan, salt, and pepper and pulse until smooth consistency is reached.
- For gravy, in a medium saucepan over medium high heat, heat butter, heavy cream, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce, cover, and simmer for 12 minutes.
- Remove from heat, add xanthan gum and pepper, and whisk together until thick consistency is reached.
- Calories: 272
- Fat: 27.3g
- Carbohydrates: 6.6g (Net: 3.1g)
- Protein: 4.7g
Keywords: rosemary cauliflower mash and gravy
*Keto dairy should be grass-fed, organic, and high-fat. If you can’t find grass-fed parmesan, you can swap it for sour cream or cream cheese.
A mac and cheese recipe that won’t ruin your carb counts? Yes please!
This keto recipe combines cauliflower with a cheese sauce made with fontina and cheddar cheese, as well as cream cheese.Print
Low Carb Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
This baked keto cauliflower mac and cheese casserole is filled to the brim with cheesy goodness but without all the carbs.
- Total Time: 30 minutes
- Yield: 3 cups
- Category: Sides
- Cuisine: American
- 8 oz heavy cream
- 4 oz sharp cheddar (shredded)
- 4 oz fontina (shredded)
- 2 oz cream cheese
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- 1 large head of cauliflower
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees and coat an 8×8 baking dish with butter or non stick spray.
- Cut cauliflower into small 1/2″ to 1″ pieces. Steam for 4-5 minutes until barely tender. Remove from heat and drain well. Pat dry with paper towels. Set aside.
- In a small pot, combine heavy cream, cheeses, cream cheese, salt, pepper, and paprika. Heat under medium fire until smooth. Stir well.
- Add cauliflower to cheese mixture and toss to coat.
- Pour into baking dish and bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden brown and bubbly.
- Serving Size: 1/2 cup
- Calories: 393
- Fat: 33g
- Carbohydrates: 10g
- Fiber: 4g
- Protein: 14g
Keywords: keto cauliflower mac and cheese
We get it. When you’re on the keto journey, there are times when you crave all things bread. And who doesn’t want pizza on a Friday night? Here’s an easy, low-carb cauliflower pizza crust recipe (pssst, it’s bread free).Print
Dairy Free Cauliflower Keto Pizza Crust
Craving pizza? This dairy-free cauliflower pizza crust is keto-friendly and is a great alternative to the high-carb pizza you might be used to.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Total Time: 50 minutes
- Yield: 2
- Category: Dinner
- Cuisine: Neapolitan
- 2 cups riced cauliflower
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons coconut flour
- 2 tablespoons avocado oil
- 1 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs
- Preheat oven to 405F.
- Microwave the riced cauliflower for 5 minutes then transfer it to a nut milk bag or clean kitchen towel. Carefully squeeze out as much water as you can. Let it rest a few minutes then squeeze out even more water.
- You should have about a cup of this cauliflower paste. Add that to a large bowl and mix in the rest of the ingredients until a soft dough forms.
- Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and shape your pizza crust on it. Do not spread it thinner than ¼ inch or it will tear.
- Roast for 25-30 minutes until the cauliflower crust is golden in color and lightly browned on the edges.
- Add your favorite toppings and pop it in the oven for an extra 5 minutes.
- Calories: 278
- Fat: 21g
- Carbohydrates: 12g
- Fiber: 7g
- Protein: 11g
Keywords: cauliflower keto pizza crust
Want more keto cauliflower recipes? Be sure to check out our 7 Low Carb Cauliflower Recipes.
Before your next trip to the grocery store, be sure to check out our keto diet plan and grocery list for beginners so you know exactly what to shop for.
The Takeaway: Is Cauliflower Keto?
Absolutely. Cauliflower is a great low-carb vegetable that will satisfy your craving for those starchy grains and legumes.
As for any risks or limitations? Listen to your gut.
Too much cauliflower can interfere with iodine absorption and give you gas (yikes!). And too much vitamin K (also found in large amounts of cauliflower) can also make blood-thinning medications like coumadin less effective, so you’ll want to talk to your doctor before eating loads of cauliflower.
Naturally, we recommend that you eat a balanced diet by mixing fresh cauliflower with other low-carb vegetables to get a variety of nutrients for your keto diet.
Cauliflower has always been thought of as the less colorful, uninspiring cousin of the broccoli. Not anymore. The days of kale and spirulina are long gone, and the reign of cauliflower is here to stay.