Just about everyone has eaten cabbage at one point or another in his or her life, whether as a New Year’s tradition or as part of the regular diet. But did you know that not all cabbage is the same? It’s true. Red cabbage is not the same as green cabbage, and I’m not just talking about color.
Red cabbage, also known as purple cabbage, is a cruciferous vegetable that’s delicious both raw and cooked. It’s often eaten raw in salads, steamed, braised or sautéed with other vegetables. It’s also referenced as red kraut or blue kraut and can provide the much-needed benefits of probiotics in this form due to the fermentation process. In addition, the insoluble fiber from red cabbage is known to prevent constipation, lower the risk of developing diverticular disease and may help relieve symptoms of some gastrointestinal conditions, such as IBS symptoms.
But that’s not all: Red cabbage benefits extend even further, as you’ll learn below — and why you want to include this tasty veggie in your rotation.
Red Cabbage Benefits
1. Boosts the Immune System
Red cabbage contains ever-so-important vitamin C, a crucial antioxidant needed in order for our bodies to have strong immune systems. It stimulates the activity of white blood cells, forming the first line of defense for the immune system. Nutrient-dense antioxidants such as vitamin C are known to have high antioxidant potency to assist in minimizing harmful effects of reactive species. As one of the top vitamin C foods on the planet, red cabbage is a major immune system booster.
The immune system is extremely vulnerable to oxidant and antioxidant balance, as uncontrolled free radical production can impair its function and defense mechanism. These free radicals can form in the body and promote tissue damage. However, antioxidants are the perfect defense mechanisms for the immune system and can help fight off intruders, including cancer. Additionally, vitamin C is important in the formation of collagen, which keeps our bodies and cells connected and solid. (1)
2. Fights Inflammation and Arthritis
Red cabbage contains phytonutrients that may help reduce chronic inflammation. (2) One compound in red cabbage that may be responsible is sulforaphane (found in many cruciferous vegetables), a potent inflammation killer. (3)
According to The Arthritis Foundation, eating a diet filled with anthocyanin-rich fruits and vegetables like red cabbage should be a part of an arthritis patient’s daily regimen. These type of anti-inflammatory foods may help naturally treat arthritis inflammation and arthritic complications. (4)
3. Aids Healthy Bones and Reduces the Risk of Osteoporosis
Red cabbage is a vitamin K-rich food, and we know that vitamin K increases the amount of a specific protein required to maintain bone calcium, thus reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Women, in particular, seem to have higher bone density when eating a diet high in vitamin K. (5)
During the first twenty or so years of life, skeletal tissue continues to form. From that point until about age 40, your body maintains the bone mass you have at 20. Women experiencing menopause will then experience a rapid decline in the density of their bones, with men finally joining in around age 70. The less strong your bones become, the more likely you are to experience fractures. These fractures debilitate older people and are among the leading causes of lost mobility (becoming bedridden), which can then drastically decrease the ability to live a healthy life. That’s why vitamin K-rich foods like red cabbage are so important to help maintain bone health and delay or prevent osteoporosis. (7)
4. Combats Chronic Disease
During the course of the normal human life, cell degeneration will happen no matter how healthy you live. However, by filling your diet with foods high in antioxidants, you can give your body the best chance possible at preventing and combating serious chronic diseases. As a Brassica vegetable, red cabbage is one of those antioxidant-rich foods, with an ORAC value of 2,496 when raw and 3,145 when boiled. Brassica vegetables like red cabbage, kale and broccoli are thought to aid the body in preventing chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. (8)
In a laboratory study from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, researchers compared antioxidant potential of six plants high in anthocyanins (flavonoid pigments that give plants a blue, red or violet hue). Red cabbage, along with four of the other five plants, had significant antioxidant activity and successfully protected against one type of internal DNA damage caused by a specific colon cancer cell line, suggesting red cabbage may be a cancer-fighting food. (9)
5. Promotes a Healthy Gut
We know that probiotic foods provide a good dose of much-needed good bacteria that our digestive systems crave, but what does that have to do with red cabbage? I’m sure you have heard of kimchi. Most kimchi is made from green cabbage, but kimchi made from red or purple cabbage is becoming more popular. Kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented food — in fact, it’s one of the most popular vegetable probiotic foods in the world.
Probiotic-rich foods like kimchi support gut health by supporting the growth of healthy bacteria, protecting against leaky gut syndrome and boosting immunity. According to scientists at Pusan National University in Korea, kimchi may also protect against obesity, blood clots, age-related degeneration, neurodegeneration and even skin issues. (10)
Red Cabbage Nutrition
One cup (89 grams) of chopped, raw red cabbage has about: (11)
- 28 calories
- 7 grams carbohydrates
- 1 grams protein
- 2 grams fiber
- 50.7 milligrams vitamin C (85 percent DV)
- 34 micrograms vitamin K (42 percent DV)
- 993 IU vitamin A (20 percent)
- 0.2 milligram manganese (11 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram vitamin B6 (9 percent DV)
- 216 milligrams potassium (6 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram thiamine (4 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram riboflavin (4 percent DV)
- 16 micrograms folate (4 percent DV)
- 40 milligrams calcium (4 percent DV)
- 0.7 milligram iron (4 percent DV)
- 14.2 milligrams magnesium (4 percent DV)
Red Cabbage vs. Green Cabbage
While both red and green cabbage are good for you, red cabbage packs a more powerful nutritional profile. For example, red cabbage contains about 85 percent of the daily vitamin C our bodies need, while the green variety provides 47 percent. In fact, red cabbage has more vitamin C than oranges, believe it or not.
Red and green cabbage are two different cabbage varieties, but they have a similar flavor. Red cabbage tends to be more peppery and is usually smaller and denser than green cabbage heads. The leaves of the red cabbage are dark purple or reddish, which comes from the pH levels of the soil in which it’s grown, as well as the pigment that comes from the nutritionally valuable anthocyanins in contains.
In acidic soils, the leaves usually grow more reddish, while in neutral soils, they grow more purple. This explains why the same plant is known by different colors in various regions. Red cabbage needs well-fertilized soil and sufficient humidity to grow at its best. It’s a seasonal plant, seeded in spring and harvested in late fall.
It’s also important to note that red cabbage is ranked fifth in the Clean 15 on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, noted as one of the fruits and vegetables with the lowest amount of pesticide residues. However, if you are concerned at all about pesticide use, go for organic cabbage. (12)
Here’s a little more on how red and green cabbage stack up based on a one-cup serving:
Red cabbage contains 10 times more vitamin A than green cabbage. Vitamin A helps prevent early stage age-related macular degeneration from progressing due to lutein and zeaxanthin, which function mainly as eye-supporting antioxidants. It may also aid aid in keeping the skin and immune system healthy. Vitamin A can help maintain healthy teeth, skeletal tissue and mucous membranes. (13)
Green cabbage contains almost twice as much vitamin K as red cabbage. Vitamin K regulates bone mineralization by increasing bone density and helps the blood to coagulate.
Both contain a good amount of vitamin C, which provides antioxidants and collagen protein. The body needs vitamin C to help repair wounds and injuries as well as keeping bones, cartilage and teeth strong and healthy.
Red cabbage has double the iron of green cabbage. Iron delivers oxygen to your cells, which helps your muscles perform well during exercise and general day-to-day activities. Lack of iron in your diet could cause anemia, leading to fatigue.
Anthocyanins: Only in Red Cabbage
Red cabbage is the winner when it comes to antioxidants. Red cabbage contains anthocyanin pigment, which is not found in green cabbage. The purple color in red cabbage comes from anthocyanins, and these nutrients provide further evidence of the cancer-fighting flavonoids it contains. Anthocyanins are noted in research studies for protection against various types of memory loss, as well as other disease-preventing benefits like the ones I discussed above. (14, 15)
The Science and History Behind the Red Cabbage
As I mentioned above, the purple color of red cabbage is thanks to the anthocyanin pigments in contains. Depending on the acidity of the soil in which a plant containing anthocyanin is grown, this pigment can look red, purple or even blue.
While green cabbage still offers great aids to health, the color of red cabbage is what makes it the clear winner in overall antioxidant load. Plant geneticists at Cornell University believe that since “the amount of total anthocyanins in red cabbage was found to be a direct correlation to the total antioxidant power it provides, [this implicates] the potential health benefit of red cabbage to human health.” (16)
Red cabbage has a rich and well-documented history dating back to the height of Roman and Greek society, although some sources believe it’s been cultivated thousands of years even before those cultures wrote about it. The original version of the wild cultivar of red cabbage was grown originally in the Mediterranean region.
Many figures in history have contributed to the popularity of cabbage, including the Roman statesman, Cato, who is probably the person responsible for creating the cole slaw dish when he insisted on eating raw cabbage with vinegar. Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman citizen who served in the military, wrote philosophy and recorded common health practices of the ancient Romans, wrote about cabbage in Natural History, noting its medicinal properties both as a food and in poultice form. (17)
Although the first official record of cabbage didn’t appear until 1536 in Europe, it’s thought the Celts of the central and western parts of Europe may be even more responsible for the booming cabbage business dating back even before the Romans and Greeks. People in the southern parts of the Mediterranean probably developed cultivars of cabbage that could stand warmer temperatures than its original home.
Jacques Cartier likely brought cabbage to the Americas in the 1540s, where it was re-planted by colonists in the United States. However, it was 1669 before this plant would be written about in pre-United States records. Native Americans and United States citizens alike were known to plant and eat this valuable veggie by the 18th century.
The original shape of cabbage, referred to as “round-headed,” has given way through the years to a number of other cabbage shapes, including flat-headed, egg-shaped, conical and pointed. (18)
How to Use Red Cabbage
There are numerous ways to prepare red cabbage, such as red cabbage slaw, braised red cabbage, steamed red cabbage or simply eating it raw in salads. When cooking, red cabbage normally turns blue. However, if you want to retain the red color, you need to add apple cider vinegar or acidic fruit to the pot.
Like most plants that we eat, once heated, the nutritional benefits begin to diminish. A study was conducted showing just how this works with red cabbage. The results of this comparison of the difference between steaming, microwaving, boiling and stir-frying cabbage found that every cooking method decreased the overall nutrition and anthocyanin capacity of red cabbage. Steaming, though, did help retain a good amount of other antioxidants and vitamin C.
According to these researchers, Asian cooking methods may be your best bet if you do choose to cook cabbage. While eating it raw will avoid any loss of nutritive value, by using less water and shorter cooking times (particularly using a steaming method, not microwaving or boiling the cabbage), can still provide you plenty of nutritional punch. (19)
Also, lightly rinsing but not scrubbing the cabbage totally clean allows you to retain important gut-enhancing bacteria that come from eating dirt.
Red Cabbage Recipes
You can integrate red cabbage into many different types of recipes. Try the following red cabbage recipes to reap the nutritional rewards:
- Vegetarian Pozole Verde
- Healthy Cole Slaw Recipe
- Fish Taco Recipe (on Lettuce Wraps!)
- Stuffed Cabbage Rolls with Lamb Recipe
Red cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable that has many proven benefits, including:
- Boosts the immune system
- Fights inflammation & arthritis
- Improves bone strength & reduces osteoporosis risk
- Combats chronic disease
- Strengthens gut health
While both red and green cabbage are good for you, red cabbage packs a more powerful nutritional profile and more overall antioxidants. For example, red cabbage contains about 85 percent of the daily vitamin C our bodies need, while the green version provides 47 percent.
Eating raw red cabbage is the best way to get the full impact of its nutrition; however, if you choose to cook it, I recommend steaming with as little water as possible for a short cooking time.