Bemused by baobab, in a spin over spirulina, or perhaps you’re maddened by matcha? With nutritional claims ranging from the justifiably miraculous to the absolute bizarre, Charlotte Willis sorts the fact from the fiction to reveal the title-worthy superfoods deserving of a place in your pantry.
The use of superfoods in every-day cooking has become an international sensation over the past five years. These famed nutrient-dense foods are as varied in their sources as their respective health claims, and it seems like the UK as a nation is becoming increasingly captivated. We are among the top five countries researching superfoods online, and buying trends have resulted in a huge retail boom, with companies desperate to supply our ever-growing demands for these specialist nutritional ingredients. But which superfoods are scientifically proven to be worthy of their heroism? And could they be found a lot closer to home than we first may have thought?
The Fact: Fruits contain antioxidants. Fruits pack a powerful nutritional punch. Bursting with a naturally-sweet supply of fast-absorbing fructose for energy, among the various health claims of super-fruits, the most highly regarded is surely their rich antioxidant levels. An antioxidant is a compound that reduces the amount of intra-cellular damage that occurs inside the body as a result of lifestyle, exercise and daily body functioning. The phytochemicals and pigmentations found in fruits help reduce inflammation and cellular oxidation, which could help prevent heart disease and diabetes.
The Fiction: Juicing is the way forward. Unfortunately, you may want to rethink that £250 juicer! Health claims by juicing companies are often over-exaggerated and, as a general rule, it is best to consume fruits as a whole-food. This is because the antioxidant and health-promoting compounds are mainly concentrated in the skin and fibrous flesh of fruits. Furthermore, with the fibre removed from fruit it is much easier for the fructose (fruit sugar) to enter the bloodstream and cause a spike in blood glucose levels. Imagine how much fruit you would have to consume to equal the ingredients of one green juice; you’d be feeling pretty full after apple number two due to natural fibre!
- Berries – Contrary to popular belief, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries and strawberries all score higher than goji and acai for nutrient density. One cupful a day of these phenolic-compound rich fruits lowers the risk of heart conditions, boosts mental functioning and are rich in pigments that may even fight cancer.
- Avocados – Rich in all forms of healthy fats and containing more potassium than a banana, avocados are a true super-fruit. With high levels of vitamin C, K and Folate, avocados protect against high cholesterol and contain Lutein and Zeaxanthin, which contribute to healthy vision.
- Cherries – The darker varieties of cherries have been scientifically proven to contain a natural source of melatonin, vital for a healthy sleep cycle. Cherries also offer protection from excess uric acid which can cause gout.
The Fact: Vegetables can prevent disease. Any nutritionists, dieticians and medical professionals alike agree that a diet containing a large variety of fresh, seasonally grown vegetables equates to optimum nutrition and health. With recent scientific studies showing significant decreases in rates of disease among vegetarians and vegans who consume a plant-based diet, there is no doubt that common vegetables deserve the super-food title.
The Fiction: Powders can replace vegetables. Powdered vegetable substitutes are appearing all over the health-food market. Claiming to incorporate all of the essential compounds of their wholefood predecessors, these powder substitutes are not quite all they seem to be. Nutritional science takes the view that consuming vegetables the old fashioned way, whole and skin-on, provides the densest source of complete nutrition. So far, there is no substitution for a stir-fry in a powder!
- Cruciferous vegetables – Spinach, cress, rocket, kale, broccoli, collard greens, cabbages and sprouts all belong to the cruciferous family of vegetable. Arguably the most nutrient-dense family of vegetable – boasting protein, vitamin C and B, manganese and calcium – these vegetables are also high in vitamin K, which is essential for healthy gut functions.
- Sea vegetables – Including wakame, kelp and nori, sea vegetables contain a high level of bioavailable iron, calcium and iodine – helping to control the thyroid function. They may also be beneficial in helping to increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin and efficiency of dealing with glucose – reducing type 2 diabetes.
- Beetroot – Rich in nitrates, betaine and betaycanin, beetroot provides extremely diverse nutritional properties. The nitrates found in beetroot have been proven to significantly lower blood pressure, while improving blood flow and increasing oxygen uptake during intense physical exercise – reducing muscle fatigue.
- Black or white garlic – Garlic has been used for centuries as a potent herbal medicine. The active compound Allicin is a natural anti-microbial and has various proven healing properties. Furthermore, garlic has an active reduction on blood pressure and cholesterol, and can help elevate oestrogen levels in women. Black garlic appears to have even higher potency of these active compounds due to fermentation.
The Fact: Whole grains are best. Unlike refined grains such as white rice and cous cous, wholegrains offer a richer source of fibre and bran, aiding intestinal transit, digestion, satiety and blood glucose control. The starches in wholegrains are less readily available for digestion, and so the body has to work harder to gain energy from them. This leads to a sustainable level of energy throughout the day.
The Fiction: Grains are bad for you. While some individuals may be sensitive to certain grains such as wheat due to gluten, generally grains are extremely beneficial to digestive health. Eating a variety of at least three to five servings of wholegrains per day helps reduce colorectal cancers, cholesterol, heart disease and stroke risk. Don’t be fooled by the low-carb dieting fad! Wholegrains have been shown to block the absorption of fatty foods into the blood and aid satiety, helping with weight management.
- Oats – This breakfast staple, when cooked, produces a substance known as Beta Glucan, which actively helps to lower cholesterol levels in the blood. Rich in magnesium and a slow-release of energy, oats are ideal for athletes and reduce muscle fatigue.
- Quinoa – Boasting a complete amino acid profile, quinoa is technically a gluten-free seed. Key nutrients include a bioflavonoid called quercetin, which has anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties in the body – great for hay fever and allergy sufferers.
- Teff – A complete protein source and calcium rich, teff is a great addition to a vegan diet. This small seed-like grain can act to relieve bloating and pain caused by PMS by acting as an anti-inflammatory.
The Fact: A great nutritional addition. In need of a boost of nutrients or needing to kick your body into shape? There are a mystifying array of superfood powders that cater for every need. Nutritional extract powders are a brilliant way to enhance a meal and boost your dietary intake of essential vitamins, protein and minerals.
The Fiction: You can rely on them for nutrients. While heightening your diet, these powders must never be seen as a substitute for wholefoods. My best advice is to use them wisely. A few tablespoons a day is enough to help maximise your body’s nutritional functioning without hurting your wallet.
- Baobab – This African fruit-tree extract boasts six times the vitamin C content of an orange and twice as much calcium as cow’s milk. Rich in antioxidants and a source of natural energy, it makes it a super-charging powder for shakes and smoothies.
- Moringa leaf – Native to Northern India, Moringa has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a natural anti-inflammatory benefiting heart, kidney and liver conditions, while being high in protein, vitamin B6 and magnesium to relieve stress and anxiety.
- Cocoa powder – A food-cupboard staple with powerful benefits, it is naturally rich in healthy fats and, what’s more, the old saying ‘chocolate makes you feel good’ may well be true. Cocoa powder contains phenylalanine – a neurotransmitter found in the brain to boost mood.
- Macca root – A Peruvian member of the radish family, Macca contains vitamin E and zinc, making it ideal for anyone with skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis. It is also a hormone balancer, used to reduce symptoms of PMS, infertility and menopause.
- Nutritional yeast – This is a true vegan superfood staple! Boasting 8g protein and 20% of your daily zinc requirements in just 2 tablespoons, these powerful flakes also help control blood sugar levels and are rich in vitamin B12.
- Spirulina – Possibly holding the title for the most well-known superfood, spirulina powder is a form of blue-green sea algae that is dense in nutrients including 4g protein and 11% of your RDA for iron per tablespoon. Spirulina has been shown to help protect against anaemia and allergic inflammation. Just ensure you go for an organically-grown variety to prevent contamination and/or pesticide use.
Super-Charge your Diet
While superfoods are here to stay, the key to gaining the best from your diet is variety. I hope this article has shown you that true dietary superfoods don’t have to be expensive or hard to source. By simply incorporating two to four servings of these nutritionally-boosting foods into your daily diet, you will help super-power your body to its highest nutritional functioning.
The super-sceptical foods
- Acai berries: Unfortunately, there have been no human based clinical trials to suggest that acai berries poses specific weight loss, detoxifying or nutrient-dense benefits above and beyond commonly eaten berries such as blueberries or raspberries. Save on the air miles and eat locally grown berries instead.
- Vitamin enhanced waters: These fully loaded waters are marketed to help enhance daily vitamin and mineral intake. However, turn the label round and you’ll more often than not find a whole host of added sugars, sweeteners, chemicals and colourants, as well as un-naturally, sourced enhancing ingredients to meet these health claims. Try infusing coconut water with fresh fruit and herbs for a healthier (and cheaper) alternative.
- Wheatgrass: Despite its fame, wheatgrass is not truly nutritionally dense enough to be classed as a superfood, with much of the health claims being inconclusive. Although it contains a variety of vitamins and minerals, you’d have to consume a very large amount to reap any such benefits!