Koff’s Superfood Picks of 2010: Foods that Fight Disease and Promote Wellness
Superfoods. We might all nod our heads at this term or use it in a conversation or even on a product package. However, despite the fact that the word “superfoods” is widely used, there really is no one universal working definition. So this article will begin with defining superfoods and then will highlight several that stand out, give some examples of products that contain superfoods,and finally, conclude with the future of superfoods.
Defining a Superfood
A quick online search for a definition of “superfoods” yields many varying and vague explanations. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “a food considered to be especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being” was referred to as “super” in documents from 1915, 1949 and in 2002. But then what did they mean by “especially nutritious”—can one adjective be used to define another?
Another online definition adds to the confusion, stating that a superfood “may have a high phytonutrient content”—may? As in could or could not? Or, as noted on About.com, in order to define a food as “super” it should have more than one of the following characteristics: low calories, substantial omega-3s, high fiber content, rich in phytochemicals, high vitamin and mineral content, and low in unhealthy ingredients.
As one tries to sort out what is and is not a superfood, a few thoughts occur. First, don’t all these explanations sound like the characteristics of everyday good or nutritious foods? And on the flip side, what about foods that meet several of the categories above but are chemically produced—shouldn’t this factor into what really makes a food “super?” Can a food whose production leaves soil or air worse for wear, or depletes precious resources, be a superfood?
According to Wikipedia, many dietitians and other nutrition professionals share some concern about the term’s use and may even dismiss it as nothing more than a marketing tool. Not all do, however. A review of Amazon.com generated a list of publications discussing superfoods, ranging from title mention to significant attention within the book. In the past two years, superfoods have become a hot trend, with hundreds of products mentioning the term on their packages or promotions (I recall Crofter’s Organic
Superfruit spreads and Navitas’ superfoods displays of organic foods sustainably sourced from around the world…but I also remember seeing a Superfruit Jelly Belly display). The question remains: are companies promoting superfoods because they are technically better for our health (based on the aforementioned characteristics) or because they’re better for the bottom line?
To avoid overuse of the term “superfood,” the European Union even went so far as to prohibit its use in the marketing of products unless “supported by a specific medical claim supported by credible scientific research,” as of July 2007. Yet, what defines “creditable research”?
Questions and concerns beget further questions and concerns. Yet, in an effort to move on, what follows is a list of foods, categorized by their health benefits, that when organic, are great for all and super for many, and warrant inclusion in the American diet in their whole-food form, whether that’s straight from the farm or carefully processed into a packaged food.
Because we cannot completely control our environment (externally or internally) at all times, antioxidants are needed to help fight free radicals, which can damage cells in our bodies, leading to cancer and other maladies. Thus, foods that are naturally rich in these free-radical-fighting nutrients are justifiably referred to as superfoods.
Science has shown that because organically grown fruits and vegetables must employ their own protection mechanisms, they naturally have higher levels of antioxidants— logically making organic antioxidant sources superfoods, right? However, in the realm of superfoods, the apparent race for supremacy among organic foods rich in antioxidant content is counterintuitive. Choosing between them is like choosing which mountain-top is “better,” or which beach is “better.” Each of the following superfoods offers great antioxidant benefits. Rather than trying to narrow the list down to the “best,” seek to include a variety of high-antioxidant foods in product formulations. This allows consumers to take advantage of the other nutrient benefits these foods offer as well. Some antioxidant and overall nutrition powerhouses include:
Camu Camu. This antioxidant-rich fruit from Peru is also high in
vitamin C, provides key amino acids and is linked to immune support, and healthy skin, gums, and eyes. In processed foods, freeze-dried camu camu makes a great addition to smoothie mixes, cereals, bars and more.
Amla Berries. Often called Indian gooseberries, this fruit also contains high levels of vitamin C, key amino acids and minerals and is used in ayurveda and other traditional medicinal practices as a tonic for ulcers and digestive wellness. Freeze-dried versions of amla can be added to food formulations. Gillian McKeith (host of the show “You Are What You Eat”) features both amla and camu camu in her Organic Vitamin C bars. Amla has also become popular in personal care, where the oil is being used as a tonic to strengthen hair and prevent premature graying.
Maqui Berries. The latest “best” superfruit, maqui is said to have the highest levels of antioxidants ever found, and is rich in anthocyanins and polyphenols that help protect vision. Freeze-dried powders are available, and recently the whole berry has become available for organic processors.
Goldenberries. In addition to antioxidants, these berries provide amino acids and minerals such as iron and phosphorus. Sun-dried goldenberries are like nature’s “Sour Patch Kids” and can add a sweet-tart kick to any mix.
Mulberry. This berry offers a great non-alcoholic source of resveratrol, the powerful phytonutrient touted in red wine. Mulberries are slightly sweet but still add a tang to the flavor profile.
Pomegranate. This antioxidant superfruit also provides potassium for hydration. The “ink-ing” effect of pomegranate has made the dried powders popular as part of non-alcoholic and alcoholic cocktail mixers.
Cacao. The high antioxidants in cacao have given people a healthy excuse to indulge, but cacao is also a good source of magnesium and dietary fiber. While cacao has long been available in chocolate confections, it’s naturally unsweetened and is great in savory dishes like a barbecue rub or mole-flavored potato chips.
In addition to all these exotic antioxidant-rich foods, local heroes include blackberries, cranberries, spinach, artichokes, mushrooms, grape juice and wine.
Fat intake is essential for optimal health, as our bodies can’t make all the fatty acids we need. Yet, as with all foods, one of the biggest nutrition blunders with fatty acids is to emphasize the need for one specific nutrient over another and isolate it for consumption. With the warranted popularity of omega-3 fatty acids, this mistake often occurs. While many lists of superfoods highlight omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, ALA, and DHA), super sources standout because their fatty acid profile works synergistically with their other nutrients.
Chia Seed. Chia is a perfect example of synergistic nutrition. It contains a beneficial ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s (3:2), and is naturally protected by its antioxidants, which make the fats more nutritionally stable and suitable for cooking. The superseed is also a good source of fiber. Happy Baby adds Salba brand chia to foods to bump up EFAs. Mary’s Gone Crackers’ new Love Cookies also feature chia—not only to add omegas, fiber and protein—but also for the superfood’s processing characteristics. When included in baking mixes, chia has a gelling quality that can help improve texture in gluten-free and egg-free products.
Wild Salmon. In recent years, several fatty fish have achieved super status due to their levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. However, looking solely at these nutrients minimizes the scope of benefit, especially that of wild salmon. Wild salmon is a superfood because it also contains astaxanthin, additional omega-3 fatty acids DPA and HPA, omega-5 (myristoleic acid), omega-7 (palmitoleic acid), and omega-9 (nervonic acid) fatty acids.
All of these likely contribute to why studies show that wild salmon consumption confers health benefits for heart, skin, nerves, and anti-tumor benefits and does so possibly with even greater efficiency than isolated omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA. Organic Bistro has several frozen entrées that include wild salmon.
Hemp Seed. When further looking at foods that confer benefits beyond their omega-3 content, hemp seeds require mention as they are a potent food source of gamma linoleic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid that aids metabolism, bone, skin and hair health.
Hemp seeds are also a vegetarian and non-carbohydrate source of complete protein. Nature’s Path uses hemp in a variety of products and SoCal Cleanse, a certified organic cleansing system, uses hemp protein as its base.
Black Cumin. Another option for EFAs is the oil from black cumin, which also supports immunity and stimulates neutrophil activity, making it a respected “anti-cancer” agent. Intellimmune oil from Intelligent Nutrients includes this oil, in addition to red raspberry, grape seed, pumpkin and cranberry oils.
Energy is what the body runs on; as such, everyone always seems to want more. Here are some ingredients that can rev up your products:
Green Tea. This powerful antioxidant works to build and sustain energy and its caffeine releases over a longer period of time than coffee. It is also well known for its appetite suppressant qualities. DöMatcha, a green tea powder, can be added to smoothies or other drink mixes, or it can be used with cacao for a truffle.
Brown Seaweed. Another metabolic booster is edible brown seaweed, which contains a carotenoid (fucoxanthin) that appears to aid resting energy levels and have fat-burning capabilities. Garden of Life touts this ingredient in its fücoTHIN supplement and its 70 percent organic protein bar.
Cacao. Chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulant, but it also contains magnesium—Mother Nature’s muscle relaxant, which works intracellularly to downregulate stress. This creates the perfect balance of stimulation without the negative effect of invoking inappropriate cellular stress. Dagoba and Theo chocolate pair cacao with spices like cayenne, cinnamon or chilies, offering an additional metabolic boost.
While many of the aforementioned nutrients support optimal immune function, two nutritional standouts, broccoli sprouts and mushrooms, deserve mention for their excellence in this category.
Mushrooms. Numerous mushrooms have immune-supportive benefits, yet shiitake stands out for its ability to directly benefit the immune system’s T-cells. Shiitakes contain lentinan, an anticancer agent, and immune system stimulant as well as L-ergothioneine, a potent antioxidant. Annie’s uses shiitake in its salad dressings and Amy’s Kitchen includes organic shiitake in some of its frozen meals. New Chapter has a line of mushroom supplements called Life Shield. The Plantidote skin line by Dr. Weil for Origins combines mushrooms and anti-inflammatory spices such as ginger and turmeric. Diamond Organics also offers these immune boosters as a supplement and as ingredients in their mail-order prepared foods.
Broccoli Sprouts. These offer support for your immune system through their high level of the phytonutrient sulforaphane glucosinate (SGS)—a long-lasting antioxidant and cancer-fighting agent that helps aid the body in the removal of free radicals and chemicals. You would have to eat 1.25 pounds of raw broccoli to get the same amount of SGS found in just half a cup of sprouts. Sprouts have been a popular addition to breads and wraps as well as veggie burgers and bars.
Chronic inflammation lies at the core of many diseases; the ability of certain herbs and spices to positively affect inflammation has rightfully promoted them to superfood status. Two of these spices are ginger and turmeric. The herb thyme also deserves mention, as it contains antimicrobial properties that help fend off bacteria internally as well as externally. One of the benefits of using spices is that they work with the body to upregulate and downregulate, not completely shut off systems like some anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics.
Turmeric. More than 700 studies to date have shown the benefits of turmeric (curcumin) in preventing and treating cancer, Alzheimer’s and arthritis. It is also being looked at as a treatment for asthma and other inflammatory diseases. The flavor goes well with coconut oil and milk in traditional curries but can also be used to coat a nut mix or even used in a cereal grain blend. Paste or salves from turmeric are also now being used in skin care products like Plantidote, mentioned above.
Ginger. This spice is both an anti-inflammatory as well as a digestive aid (helping with nausea and motion sickness) and also relieves congestion and lowers the risk of blood clots. Ginger tends to be more widely accepted in terms of taste versus turmeric, and there are so many ways to use it, but if too much sugar is used along with it, then the anti-inflammatory benefits lessen or go away. Some great products that feature ginger are Living Intentions Chia Ginger Granola and the GoRaw Ginger Snap Super Cookies.
For years, we’ve known the numerous benefits of water, but hydration goes beyond water and looks at electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Most Americans get sufficient, if not excessive, sodium in their diet from foods and beverages. However, potassium is what helps bring water inside the cell. While potatoes and bananas, even dried fruit, are good sources of potassium, coconut water supplies an excellent level of potassium in a diluted source of carbohydrate (it’s a water, not a juice) along with other minerals.
The Future of Superfoods
There are so many more foods which, especially when grown organically, could also be called “super.” However, when it comes to processing, superfoods like superheroes not only have special powers, but they, too, have their kryptonite—that which renders them useless despite their powers. The benefits of superfoods can be minimized or lost if overwhelmed by too much of an antagonist (e.g., sugar, bad fats, salt), over-processing (e.g., heat or isolating a single nutrient), or insufficient quantity or quality. Whether or not we have regulation to ensure that the term “superfoods” is not abused, we can all learn a lesson from the EU on this one. We should spend less effort looking to promote a food as “super” and more effort continuing to create nutrient-dense foods for consumers to enjoy.
For more on this story, please visit OrganicProcessing.com