August 14, 2018
Fresh whole cauliflower on cutting board

Catch the Cauliflower Craze

by Erica Ilton, RDN, CDN

Move over, kale. The latest “it” vegetable is prompting headlines in publications as disparate as Forbes (“Is Cauliflower the New Kale?”), GQ (“Please Stop Calling Things ‘The New Kale’”), and Teen Vogue (“4 Reasons Why Cauliflower is the New Kale”).

Before it was "riced," added to pizza crust, and sliced into so-called "steaks," cauliflower was typically ignored—a victim of its own anemic appearance and overall blandness. But now, cauliflower is the center of both a multi-million-dollar business and a controversy that involves a powerful food industry group.

Caveat emptor

Like kale (and other cruciferous vegetables), cauliflower has impressive nutritional stats. But its newfound popularity seems to be less about what it offers than what it lacks—namely a lot of calories and a distinctive taste. These qualities make cauliflower an attractive substitute for rice in dishes such as paella and risotto, where it absorbs the flavors of other ingredients, and as a flour alternative for use in pizza crusts, pancakes, muffins, breads, and other baked goods. Such “cauli-flour,” as one company calls it, is also promoted for people who need to avoid gluten because they have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

But such attributes don’t mean all cauliflower products are healthier choices than their non-cauliflower-containing counterparts. For instance, California Pizza Kitchen’s cauliflower pizza crust has the same calories and fiber (not many in either case) as the chain’s crispy thin crust—but more saturated fat. And this online recipe from Green Giant for “Cauliflower Brownies” still includes plenty of butter and sugar.

Big business

Some of the recipes that utilize cauliflower in unorthodox ways start with the fresh vegetable, which is then pulverized into grain-size particles with the help of a food processor. But for those who lack the time, equipment, or desire to tackle a whole head of cauliflower, food manufacturers are happy to do the work for you.

Green Giant’s “original chopped cauliflower product,” Cauliflower Crumbles®, debuted in 2015, and the following year this mega purveyor of packaged produce added a line of Riced Veggies that includes a version made with cauliflower. Since then, other companies have capitalized on cauliflower’s popularity, including Caulipower, which sells cauliflower-based baking mixes and pizza crusts. According to the market research firm Nielsen, dollar sales of products containing cauliflower increased 71 percent in the last year.

“Rice Pretenders”

Not everyone is on board with the cauliflower craze. USA Rice, which represents U.S. rice farmers, has petitioned the FDA to create a standard of identity for its commodity that would prevent manufacturers of so-called “rice pretenders” from applying the word “rice” to finely chopped, or “crumbled,” cauliflower, which may look like rice but contains no rice at all.

A letter of complaint sent by the industry group to manufacturers and retailers of these products—and even to cauliflower recipe creators—states that “the way these ‘rice pretenders’ are being marketed, packaged, displayed, and sold trades on the good name, solid nutritional profile, and outstanding environmental record of U.S.-grown rice, intentionally creating consumer confusion that is doing harm to the U.S. rice industry.”

In March, the governor of Arkansas signed a resolution calling upon state legislators to establish a statewide standard of identity for rice, which may be the first step toward setting a national standard of identity.

Nutritional bonanza

Call it what you will, from a nutritional perspective, cauliflower is a solid vegetable. One cup of raw, chopped white cauliflower provides about 30 calories, 2 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and negligible fat. It’s an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of folate and vitamins B6 and K (though less than some of its cruciferous cousins like broccoli).

Similar to other cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower also has an array of phytochemicals—compounds that give plants their color, flavor, and aroma. Among them are indoles, glucosinolates, and isothiocyanates, which, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), may help block tumor growth, induce detoxification of carcinogens, and limit production of cancer-related hormones. Purple cauliflower (see inset) is rich in anthocyanins, which have been found to have anti-tumor, heart-protective, and other properties (though most studies are in test-tubes or in animals and those in people are mostly observational). Orange cauliflower is richest in beta carotene, a carotenoid that converts to vitamin A in the body.

The Many Colors of Cauliflower

White cauliflower is by far the predominant type of this cruciferous vegetable, but purple, orange, and green varieties also exist.

Cooking considerations

Cooking methods can affect cauliflower’s phytochemical and water-soluble vitamin content. Steaming, microwaving, and stir-frying lead to smaller nutrient losses than boiling (though boiled cauliflower is still a healthful choice).

Nowadays, cauliflower recipes abound on the Internet. Some are quite complicated, but here are three simple ones that use the most nutrient-preserving cooking methods:

  • Combine steamed or microwaved cauliflower with mashed potatoes. Add low-fat milk for a quick soup.
  • Mash steamed cauliflower with some low-fat milk, roasted garlic, and a touch of butter or olive oil as an alternative to mashed potatoes.
  • Add steamed cauliflower to pasta sauce or mac and cheese.

Bottom line: There’s lots to like about cauliflower. But just because a product, recipe, or restaurant dish has cauliflower in it doesn’t mean it’s low in calories, fat, or sodium, so always check the nutrition information if it’s available.

Also see 8 Recipe Ideas for Cauliflower.