Protection of humans by plant glucosinolates: Efficiency of conversion of glucosinolates to isothiocyanates by the gastrointestinal microflora

Jed W. Fahey, Scott L. Wehage, W. David Holtzclaw, Thomas W. Kensler, Patricia A. Egner, Theresa A. Shapiro, Paul Talalay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

113 Scopus citations


Plant-based diets rich in crucifers are effective in preventing cancer and other chronic diseases. Crucifers contain very high concentrations of glucosinolates (GS; β-thioglucoside-N-hydroxysulfates). Although not themselves protective, GS are converted by coexisting myrosinases to bitter isothiocyanates (ITC) which defend plants against predators. Coincidentally, ITC also induce mammalian genes that regulate defenses against oxidative stress, inflammation, and DNA-damaging electrophiles. Consequently, the efficiency of conversion of GS to ITC may be critical in controlling the health-promoting benefits of crucifers. If myrosinase is heat-inactivated by cooking, the gastrointestinal microflora converts GS to ITC, a process abolished by enteric antibiotics and bowel cleansing. When single oral doses of GS were administered as broccoli sprout extracts (BSE) to two dissimilar populations (rural Han Chinese and racially mixed Baltimoreans) patterns of excretions of urinary dithiocarbamates (DTC) were very similar. Individual conversions in both populations varied enormously, from about 1% to more than 40% of dose. In contrast, administration of ITC (largely sulforaphane)-containing BSE resulted in uniformly high (70%-90%) conversions to urinary DTC. Despite the remarkably large range of conversion efficiencies between individuals, repeated determinations within individuals were much more consistent. The rates of urinary excretion (slow or fast) were unrelated to the ultimate magnitudes (low or high) of these conversions. Although no demographic factors affecting conversion efficiency have been identified, there are clearly diurnal variations: conversion of GS to DTC was greater during the day, but conversion of ITC to DTC was more efficient at night.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)603-611
Number of pages9
JournalCancer Prevention Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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