Food as Pharma? The Case of Glucosinolates

Curr Pharm Des. 2017;23(19):2697-2721. doi: 10.2174/1381612823666170120160832.


Background: Glucosinolates (GLSs) are dietary plant secondary metabolites occurring in the order Brassicales with potential health effects, in particular as anti-carcinogenic compounds. GLSs are converted into a variety of breakdown products (BPs) upon plant tissue damage and by the gut microbiota. GLS biological activity is related to BPs rather than to GLSs themselves.

Methods: we have reviewed the most recent scientific literature on the metabolic fate and the biological effect of GLSs with particular emphasis on the epidemiological evidence for health effect and evidence from clinical trials. An overview of potential molecular mechanisms underlying GLS biological effect is provided. The potential toxic or anti-nutritional effect has also been discussed.

Results: Epidemiological and human in vivo evidence point towards a potential anti-cancer effect for sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol and 3,3-diindolylmethane. A number of new human clinical trials are on-going and will likely shed further light on GLS protective effect towards cancer as well as other diseases. BPs biological effect is the results of a plurality of molecular mechanisms acting simultaneously which include modulation of xenobiotic metabolism, modulation of inflammation, regulation of apoptosis, cell cycle arrest, angiogenesis and metastasis and regulation of epigenetic events. BPs have been extensively investigated for their protective effect towards cancer but in recent years the interest also includes other diseases.

Conclusion: It appears that certain BPs may protect against and may even represent a therapeutic strategy against several forms of cancer. Whether this latter effect can be achieved through diet or supplements should be investigated more thoroughly.

Keywords: Glucosinolates; bioavailability; breakdown products; cancer; clinical trials; indole-3-carbinol; isothiocyanates; sulforaphane.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brassica* / metabolism
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / methods
  • Food*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / physiology
  • Glucosinolates / administration & dosage*
  • Glucosinolates / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diet therapy*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control


  • Glucosinolates