‘Super broccoli’ variety developed to lower blood sugar levels – and it’s on the market

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease. Characterised by high levels of sugar in the blood, the condition is on the rise. Globally, it’s estimated more than 1.31bn could be living with diabetes by 2050​ – up from 529m in 2021.

Several treatments are available for those with the disease, ranging from eating well and moving more to weight loss, metformin tablets and insulin. But a new technology patented as a treatment for pre-diabetes and diabetes also exists in a less likely form: a variety of ‘super broccoli’.

In the UK, Quantum Institute spinout SmarterNaturally is turning this unique variety into a soup product to help lower elevated blood sugar levels and maintain them. The product could be ‘game changing’ for the millions of people who suffer with this chronic condition, believes SmarterNaturally co-founder and CEO Laura Knight.

Building up a naturally occurring compound in broccoli

The non-GMO broccoli variety in question was bred over decades to contain very high quantities of a specific compound: glucoraphanin.

Naturally occurring in broccoli – as well as other cruciferous vegetables such cauliflower, kale and brussels sprouts – glucoraphanin is converted into sulforaphane in the gut before entering the body’s cells. There it can exert several metabolic effects, serving to boost antioxidant production, reduce inflammation, and improve cellular function.

SmarterNaturally grows the broccoli and dries it, which both protects the compounds and makes it shelf stable. It also makes the ingredient lightweight and easy to incorporate into a ‘wide range’ of different food products, Knight explained at Forward Fooding’s recent food tech event in London.

SmarterNaturally has developed a dried instant soup product it sells direct to consumer. GettyImages/Gulcin Ragiboglu

There are other benefits to the start-up’s technology. Although glucoraphanin is found in small quantities in standard broccoli varieties, it can be destroyed by heat. “By cooking your broccoli at home, you could be destroying some of the beneficial compounds,” she told delegates, citing a ratio between time and temperature known to impact its bioavailability.

“Our product is delivered in a raw format…In general terms, you’re getting at least five times, if not more, glucoraphanin from our product that you would from a standard variety.”

Why drink soup instead of taking supplements?

To reap the benefits of the GRextra broccoli variety, SmarterNaturally recommends consuming one packet of soup per week.

Other means of consuming glucoraphanin exist, such as taking broccoli supplements. The start-up estimates that to digest the same dose of glucoraphanin, one would have to swallow 14 tables of a leading glucoraphanin supplement – or else consume five heads of raw broccoli.

“You can buy broccoli supplements, but the best data is in the broccoli florets and we’re using the whole broccoli head,” explained Knight. “There is no other broccoli that delivers the high quantity of glucoraphanin that our broccoli contains.”

And it’s not only the high dose of glucoraphanin that helps people ‘recharge’ their cells to perform more effectively, suggested the CEO. “We think it’s the weekly [boost] that kickstarts cells to behave more effectively.”

Taking a couple of supplements per day wouldn’t have this effect, she continued. “And the data isn’t as good as it is for our product.”

SmarterNaturally claims its once-weekly dose is the most powerful, convenient and cost-effective solution on the market to add glucoraphanin to the diet. On subscription, one serving of soup costs a consumer £5 (€5.83).

What else can glucoraphanin do?

Research into the potential health benefits of glucoraphanin and sulforaphane is extensive.

It’s estimated more than 3,000 published pieces of research around the health benefits of the compound exist, covering a wide range of different health areas.

blood sugar Alena Butusava

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease characterised by high levels of sugar in the blood. Gettyimages/Alena Butusava

“What’s really interesting is that in a number of these areas, such as the early stages of prostate cancer, osteoarthritis, neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s, as well as pre-diabetes, there is no medical intervention.”

Glucoraphanin and sulforaphane have also been found to alter the behaviour of the liver by reducing its production and release of glucose into the bloodstream, as well as altering the behaviour of fat cells by converting them from inactive ‘white fat’ cells to metabolically-active ‘brown fat’ cells.

They have also been linked to slowed progression of diabetic complications including cardiomyopathy, vascular complications and limb ischemia, retinopathy, neuropathy, nephropathy and reproductive health complications.

SmarterNaturally’s soup is rich in fibre and vitamins C and B6, as well as calcium and folic acid.

Glucoraphanin potential for food manufacturers

Given the rising number of people with type 2 diabetes, the market potential is ‘enormous’, according to the SmarterNaturally CEO.

The start-up first launched its dried instant soup product mid-2022 and is currently selling direct-to-consumer. Plans to launch into independent health stores are underway.

But the soup product may not remain the sole means of consuming the GRextra broccoli variety.

SmarterNaturally is also in talks with some ‘very major’ food manufacturers and food retailers about product development and potential ingredient supply.