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National Nutrition Month

The Jolly Green Giant's Protective Little Sprout

The Vegetable Brand and a Medical Researcher Have Teamed Up to Sell a Product That May Help Prevent Cancer: Broccoli Sprouts

March 02, 1998|MARK GUIDERA | THE BALTIMORE SUN

Will an increasingly health-conscious nation clamor for broccoli sprouts?

That would make Dr. Paul Talalay happy. He is, after all, the Johns Hopkins University Medical School researcher who determined that broccoli sprouts contain high concentrations of sulforaphane, an organic compound that spurs cells to produce cancer-blocking enzymes.

Now Talalay and the company he founded to ensure his discovery is exploited properly, Brassica Protection Products LLC, have a powerful marketing ally, the Sholl Group Inc., licensee of Green Giant Fresh, one of the country's most recognized vegetable food brands.

The Minneapolis-based concern has struck a marketing agreement with Brassica (that's the scientific family name for crucifers such as broccoli and kale) to jointly market sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprouts nationwide under the Jolly Green Giant's imprimatur.

The joint venture, known as Brassica Sprout Group LLC, plans an initial launch of the new "BroccoSprouts" product in selected markets, probably in the Midwest, starting this month.

It hopes to have them in major grocery stores coast-to-coast later this year.

On the table for the joint venture is a share of the estimated $300-million sprout market.

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The cancer-fighting properties of vegetables and fruits is not a new notion. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research says there is a growing body of evidence that the foods we eat--or don't eat--may play a major role in cancer risk. The institute estimates that up to 40% of all cancer may be tied to diet, lack of exercise and excess weight. These factors may contribute to cell damage that over time leads to tumor growth.

Talalay, a professor of pharmacology at Hopkins, has spent much of his 46-year career looking for compounds that might protect or reverse the DNA cell damage that is a precursor to cancer.

Jeff Sholl, the Sholl Group's president, hopes to position the venture's broccoli sprouts, which will have a guaranteed level of sulforaphane potency, as a good fit for diet choices focused on preventing cancer.

The Sholl Group, which markets such products as cauliflower and broccoli florets under the Green Giant Fresh label, hopes to capitalize on two food industry trends with the introduction of BroccoSprouts, Sholl said.

One, he said, is the growing interest in healthful diets, particularly among aging baby boomers and those older than 55.

And second, vegetable marketers are seeing a huge acceptance of semi-prepared fresh vegetables, such as chopped salad mixes packed in resealable bags, broccoli florets and peeled baby carrots. Such products make meal preparation a snap.

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Green Giant Fresh-Brassica will find competition on some health-oriented grocery shelves.

Nancy Snider, who operates Snider's Sprouts, is president of the International Sprout Growers Assn., a trade group based in Amherst, Mass.

She said news of Talalay's work immediately stirred great interest among sprout growers and consumers nationwide.

She found Talalay's research data on the cancer-blocking properties of broccoli sprouts so compelling that she quickly located a supply of seeds so she could add broccoli sprouts to Snider's Sprouts' inventory.

Consumer interest since then has been strong, Snider said. While bean and alfalfa sprouts remain the nation's top sellers, broccoli sprout sales have leaped ahead of other varieties, such as radish and onion.

One drawback to growing and marketing broccoli sprouts has been their high price compared to other types of sprouts, Snider said. That's because broccoli seed prices average $19 to $20 per pound, or 10 times more than prices for other types of crucifer seeds.

But Snider believes that as more health-conscious consumers learn about the potential health benefits of broccoli sprouts, they won't balk at higher prices for broccoli sprouts.

Daniel Fogerty, a Bolton, Conn., resident who operates a Web page devoted to broccoli sprouts (http://www.broccolisprouts.com), said interest in the product is growing fast, particularly among people with cancer.

"I get several hundred hits a week on the Web page, and 50% of them are from people with cancer who want to know where they can find either broccoli sprouts or seeds," Fogerty said.

While other sprout growers and distributors have rushed to jump into the broccoli sprout business, Green Giant Fresh and Brassica have taken a more deliberate approach.

The reason is, Talalay insisted that sprouts marketed under the joint label guarantee a specific level of sulforaphane.

His team of researchers found in studies that the level of sulforaphane varied widely among grocery-bought fresh and frozen broccoli, and that consumers had no credible way of telling which broccoli products offered a sulforaphane punch.

The same proved true with broccoli seeds, which germinate into sprouts after three days of light and water.

To ensure sulforaphane-rich sprouts, the venture identified which strains of broccoli consistently produced sulforaphane-packing seeds. Hopkins plant physiologist Jed. W. Fahey, who heads up the Brassica Chemoprotection Laboratory, and Talalay analyzed more than 50 strains of broccoli seeds and identified 15 that produced high concentrations of sulforaphane.

Green Giant Fresh-Brassica hopes to see a marketing advantage from its guarantee of specific levels of the cancer-fighting compound, Sholl said.

"We decided we wanted to do this in a way that would ensure it has a long-term benefit for man," Talalay said. "To me this isn't just a business venture; it's my life's work."

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