Better living through... Christmas feast full of chemicals

When you get down to the stuffing this Christmas, think on, there's more to that bread sauce and sausage meat mix than meets the eye. Researchers in Germany have discovered that bread crusts are a rich source of antioxidants and may provide a much stronger health benefit than the rest of the bread. They recommend using the crusts when you make your bread stuffing. It will not only make a tastier stuffing, but you will be doing yourself some good.

According to Thomas Hofmann of the German research center of food chemistry, it's not just the vitamins and dietary fiber in bread that make it good for us. He and his team have found a cancer-fighting chemical concentrated in the crusts. The compound, called pronyl-lysine, which is not found in raw flour, forms from the amino acid lysine and the starch in bread as it's baked. Hofmann's colleague Veronika Faist tested pronyl-lysine on human intestinal cells in the laboratory and found that it boosts cancer-preventing phase II enzymes.

And, speaking of intestines, those notorious whiff-inducing roasted brussels sprouts should not be left off the Christmas menu. According to scientists at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) in Norwich, brussels sprouts contain a chemical with the scary-sounding name of allyl isothiocyanate, also known as sinigrin. Sinigrin should be scary– it breaks down to form an insect-killing chemical weapon in the plant. For humans, though, there's only one nasty side-effect, because this breakdown product is responsible for the sprout's pungency– both on the stem and after the meal.

The IFR researchers, however, have found that sinigrin is more than a party pooper. In humans, it suppresses the development of pre-cancerous cells. It works, they say, by persuading pre-cancerous cells to commit suicide– a natural process called apoptosis. So powerful is the effect that the IFR scientists suggest an occasional meal with sprouts could cut your risk of colon cancer.

Make sure you add a large dollop of cranberry jelly to your plate: The little red berries are dripping with disease-fighting phenols. The phenol content of cranberries is, according to Joe Vinson of the University of Scranton, about six times higher than that of broccoli. Phenols are believed to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke, and heart disease. He and his colleagues suggest that, gram for gram, cranberries are one of the healthiest fruits. They can help prevent urinary tract infections like cystitis and may reduce the risk of gum disease, stomach ulcers, and cancer.

The researchers are now investigating the cranberry's ability to stave off atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, one of the main causes of heart attacks and strokes. Perhaps a cranberry juice aperitif would be a wise choice instead of that sherry.

Saying that, it's still worth keeping wine on the table. The University of Leicester is one of the research centers testing the red wine compound resveratrol as a cancer prevention drug. With nearly $2 million support from the US National Cancer Institute, Leicester's Will Steward is working with colleagues at the University of Michigan to find out whether pure resveratrol capsules might prevent or treat the early stages of cancer.

Resveratrol is a natural agent found in grapes, peanuts, and several berry fruits, so even if you are a teetotaler you can get a dose of the chemical at Christmas. And don't hold off the pickles on Christmas, either– pickled cabbage, for instance, contains an anticancer compound too. The pickling or fermenting process used to make sauerkraut produces isothiocyanates. These too have been shown to prevent the growth of cancer, particularly in the breast, colon, lung and liver. Although some loss in nutrients may occur during fermentation, sauerkraut is still a good source for vitamin C, certain minerals, and dietary fiber.

Remember, if you stuff yourself during the holiday season, no amount of antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-everything else chemicals are going to save you from adding a few unwelcome pounds. Just make sure your New Year's resolutions include a mention of exercise.

This essay originally appeared in The Guardian, a top U.K. newspaper.