Pieces of cauliflower sitting in a wooden bowl. Cauliflower can be a healthy substitute for meal-time favorites.

Cauliflower: A healthy substitute for mealtime favorites

Pizza. Mac and cheese. Buffalo wings. Cauliflower?

You’d be forgiven for thinking the vegetable at the end of this list of tasty favorites seems a bit out of place. But cauliflower is actually being used more and more these days as a way to make healthier alternatives to these and other popular dishes.

Nutritional benefits

Cauliflower is from the same plant family as a number of other vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts. And if you’re looking for a way to cut some of the fat and carbohydrates from your diet while increasing your intake of important nutrients, it may be time to give it a try.

“Our diets should include about 2-3 cups of vegetables per day, and eating cauliflower is a great way to reach that target,” said Ashley Simper, a registered dietitian at OSF HealthCare. “It benefits people of all ages because of the vitamins, minerals and fiber it contains.”

Cauliflower is:

  • Low in calories
  • Low in carbohydrates, which our bodies convert into sugar
  • High in fiber, which aids digestion and helps you feel full longer
  • High in vitamins C, K and B9 (folate), which provide numerous benefits

Versatility

Cauliflower is often used as a substitute for starch and meat in various recipes. Some of the most popular examples include:

  • Meat: Steak, ground beef, chicken nuggets, buffalo wings
  • Starch: Pizza crust, rice, mashed potatoes, gnocchi, crackers, mac and cheese

Preparation techniques include:

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  • Chopping/ricing (by hand or in a food processor)
  • Boiling
  • Roasting
  • Sautéing
  • Steaming

“Most people are surprised that they can’t taste the cauliflower too much in various recipes,” Simper said. “Other people might be able to taste it slightly but enjoy that it’s not a strong flavor.”

Buyer beware

While cauliflower itself contains many health benefits, the nutritional content in processed cauliflower products can be another story. Food manufacturers often add a number of unhealthy ingredients to help improve the flavor lost from the starch or meat that the cauliflower is replacing.

A good example is gnocchi, which are small dumplings typically made of potato or flour and covered in sauce. When comparing certain varieties of potato gnocchi and cauliflower gnocchi, cauliflower gnocchi’s total carb content looks really good with less than half the grams of its potato counterpart. However, fat and sodium content are much higher in the cauliflower version. A 1-cup serving has 5 grams of saturated fat, 11 grams of total fat and 620 mg of sodium, but the potato version has 0 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of total fat and 560 mg of sodium.

“So, a cauliflower product may or may not be a healthy option depending on the other ingredients,” Simper said. “That’s why it’s important to read the nutrition facts label and ingredients list to see what else it may contain.”

Other than processed cauliflower, general downsides to this veggie include:

  • It’s bland by itself
  • It has a strong odor when cooked
  • Its vitamin K interacts with some blood thinners
  • Like other vegetables, it can cause gas, bloating or digestion issues for some people