Superfood is the term coined for a common food that has all the benefits of the best preventer drug in the world – without any of the side effects. I’d prefer to think of them as the pick of the crop of nature’s health foods.
What tends to set these foods apart is the amount of antioxidants or other anti-inflammatory like properties. Inflammation is the key to most chronic conditions and is also associated with cancer. They also tend to contain lots of vitamins and also fibre. Vitamin C, in particular is usually noted in the plant foods, however what is often overlooked is that this is a fragile vitamin. The C contact starts going down the minute the fruit or vegetable is picked and further destroyed by freezing or cooking.
In the plant world, a strong vibrant colour is often associated with its health benefits. For example fruits and vegetables with a deep orange or red colour like carrots and beetroot are dripping with beta carotene (a form of vitamin A), dark greens tend to packed with chlorophyll and so on. All plant foods contain fibre and one current theory as to why foods can be superior to a pill packed with the same key health properties is the way the fibre slows down the release of the nutrients. Fibre is also important to mop up cholesterol and keep the bowels healthy.
Do Superfoods live up to the hype?
Watermelon hit the headlines recently due to the discovery that a constituent called citrulline can trigger production of a compound that helps relax the body’s blood vessels. This is largely due to it being converted into the amino acid arginine, known for its heart health benefits. These relaxed vessels are the central action that makes drugs like Viagra do their stuff. But just how much watermelon do you need to consume to get anywhere near a medicinal dose of citrulline? The scientists suggest it is around 6 cups of watermelon, which considering the diuretic effects of the melon could be counterproductive.
Blueberries (and bilberries) are one of the tastiest antioxidant containing fruits on the market. This purpley-blue coloured berry was a valued medicine to the Native American Indians. In the late 20th century it has been discovered that beyond the vitamin C that all fresh fruit has, the skin of blueberries have anti-inflammatory properties as well.
If you can’t afford blueberries – grape skins and seeds are rich in resveratrol and other anti-cancer, heart friendly goodies and act in a similar way to blueberries. The positive effects of the grapes in red wine (white doesn’t always use the skins and the seeds) are being rethought. After all the hype of the ‘80’s it appears fresh grapes and red grape juice might be better for you than wine after all.
Broccoli was one of the first superfoods to get popular attention. As the head of the cruciferae vegetable family it is a type of sulphur, responsible for the hotness in mustard and the odour of cabbage that is identified as the key anti-cancer component. The latest findings suggest that broccoli could play a role in preventing prostate cancer. Broccoli has similar benefits whether eaten cooked or raw but the strongest source of the nutrients is actually from sprouted broccoli seeds – you don’t have to eat as many and they are easy to sprinkle on a salad or include in a sandwich. To get the goodies from any sprouts it is best to eat them as young as possible, a good few days before the use by date.
If you don’t like broccoli make sure you include other cruciferous vegetables in your regular eating plan, such as cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts.
Garlic and the onion (allium) family also contain a type of sulphur, which gives it such a pungent smell. It has been a prized medicine used by all ancient civilizations that grew it. Not only is garlic a powerful antimicrobial herb but it also does more than fight infections. The allicin in garlic has cholesterol lowering properties and other benefits for the cardiovascular system. More recently it has been shown to also play a role in the prevention and treatment of diabetes, asthma and cancer.
If you don’t like garlic breath try eating some parsley afterwards. Unfortunately cooking and exposure to air diminish some of the good properties – so to get all the benefits try chopping some fresh garlic just before whisking it into a salad dressing. Onions also have some of these benefits.
Oats and other whole grains like barley are full of fibre and over 20 years ago the outer coating (bran) of oats was found to lower cholesterol. Unless you add sweetener in some form to the meal, these grains are also useful in lowering blood sugar and are essential foods in treating type 2 diabetes.
If you don’t like these grains or have a gluten allergy – brown rice, amaranth, millet and quinoa are equally delicious and contain nutrients and fibre. Most people do not have enough of these wholefoods in their diet and would benefit from swapping even their grainiest of breads for a few serves a week of these foods.
Oily fish is rich in omega 3 fatty acids and other goodies are a Health Trip favourite. Primarily anti-inflammatory which makes them a fine food for almost any chronic disease as well as cardiovascular health and cancer – there is a whole show on this in the archives.
Can’t eat fish? There is a lot of hype around vegetarian alternative such asflax seed and pomegranates but these contain short-chain ALA’s. The link above goes into the pros and cons of these but the take home message is that you may need additional nutrients such as zinc, E and B6 to metabolise these so they don’t end up creating inflammation in the body.
Tomatoes are one of the most over used fruits in the Australian and American diets. Just as well that it is abundant in lycopenes, yet another of those clever antioxidants. Lycopene has been identified, like broccoli, in the prevention of prostate cancer. More interestingly the combination of tomatoes and broccoli has been found to have an even more powerful anti-tumour effect. Next time you are making a napoli sauce, add some broccoli – even better serve it on a bed of quinoa or brown rice for an even healthier meal.
Soy is the most controversial of the superfoods and possibly because the most popular sources of it are also the most refined. Soy milk, powder (eg: in protein bars) and tofu have their detractors but the whole bean cooked or fermented (in tempeh or miso) is a healthy way to get a dose of phytooestrogens, an important nutrient to ease the effects of menopause.
My article on the tofu, phytooestrogens and dementia issues pulls apart the latest research and contains links to many strands of the debate.
If it is not called a Superfood, does it mean it is not as good?
What promotes a food from just ordinary to super is research. While all commonly eaten plant foods are packed full of nutrients scientists (or their funding bodies) currently don’t find carrots or beetroot – two vegetables abundant in vitamins and fibre – on the top of their list. However tea, coffee and chocolate producers have had a lot more resources to splash around, hence their rise in popularity. On that note – the caffeine in these three foods tends to negate some of the benefits if you are after a medicinal dose of antioxidants from these substances.
Nuts, seeds, sprouts, avocado, spinach, papaya are common inclusions on most superfood lists. Others spruik yoghurt, due to the natural probiotics and their benefits to the gut. However other fermented foods like sauerkraut and miso can have a similar action, it is just that they aren’t backed by such a powerful industry.
Why stop at superfoods? How about we consider some Super-meals. These would be ones containing a variety of dark coloured vegetables, a sprinkling of sprouts, some fatty fish, whole grains or raw seeds and finished with some berries or other intensely coloured fruit.
Let me know what your favourite Super-meals are.