I often hear complaints about the marketing hype surrounding this superfood or that superfood, especially when it comes to the newest berries from deep in the South American jungle! So I’ve worked out my own definition of what I think constitutes a true superfood.
Hardly a month goes by without us reading about a new ‘superfood’ or ‘magic ingredient’ that can prevent cancer, lower our cholesterol, boost the immune system or keep us looking young. A dietitian may encourage you to eat a piece of fruit but the choice you reach for can bring vastly differing nutrients. Put simply, an orange is not equivalent to an apple. Look at this comparisons:
- An orange has ten times more vitamin C and beta-carotene, four times more thiamin and a huge 40 times more folate, a B vitamin that prevents birth defects, than an apple.
- Broccoli is nutritionally superior to beans, zucchini or other green veges and so are its relatives cauliflower, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts.
- Liver towers over red meats including kangaroo and venison.
- Garlic lords it over leeks, onions, shallots and chives, even though they are all cousins.
- Dark chocolate is the one with the catechin antioxidants (the more bitter, the better). Milk chocolate has only around one-third and white chocolate – forget it!
Sometimes the headlines are premature; sometimes they don’t tell you the huge quantities you need to eat to see a clinical effect, such is the case with cranberry juice. While there is solid research to show it can keep urinary tract infections at bay, you need to drink at least 300ml (a large glass) every day to see any benefit.
To be free of hot flushes during those menopausal years means a real commitment to soy; around one litre of soy beverage a day is what’s needed to get enough of those mighty phytoestrogens. Garlic, king of the superfoods, has been shown to lower cholesterol in many, but not all studies, but the volunteers were taking in at least four cloves a day, or the equivalent in garlic extract or powder.
Sometimes the headlines are premature; sometimes they don’t tell you the huge quantities you need to eat to see a clinical effect.
Defining a superfood
Despite the hype, it’s clear that foods are not created equal. Although there is no formal definition on what exactly is a superfood, here’s what I look for in deciding whether a food is ‘super’ or not. It should have one or more of these eight qualities:
- Be rich in vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fat or fibre compared to its kilojoule/calorie count (have a high nutrient density). They stand out from the rest!
- Have 25 per cent or more of the recommended intake of two or more nutrients in a serve OR be outstandingly rich in one nutrient, having 50 per cent or more of its recommended intake for the day.
- In addition to the normal nutrients, contain significant quantities of what could be regarded as health-promoting and/or protective substances, such as phytonutrients or other substances not usually found in foods in its class.
- Be minimally processed without being enriched.
- Provide essential nutrients without overloading the body with salt, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar or other compounds linked to poor health.
- Have research linking it to a potential reduced risk of illness or poor health.
- Be easily available and affordable.
- Have medicinal or healing qualities which have been acknowledged by traditional medicine and contain effects that go beyond nutrition – think of the folklore behind garlic or ginger.
In a nutshell, they’re nutrient-rich, natural, they won’t overload you and they’re easy to incorporate into your daily diet.
Super foods from each food group
All vegetables are a nutritionist’s delight, but the superstars that turn up time and time again are spinach, members of the cruciferous family (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), dark-green lettuces (mignonette, rocket, baby spinach leaves), avocados, beetroot and orange sweet potato (kumara). You get the highest quantities of vitamin C, folate, fibre, and minerals without overloading your system. Also included in this group is fresh garlic thanks to its ability to fend off bacteria and viruses, reduce cholesterol levels and thin the blood.
Grains and grain foods
Concentrated sprinkles such as wheatgerm and lecithin rank highly for B vitamins and minerals. They are an easy nutrition supplement for your breakfast. Brans have concentrated fibre and make a handy addition to top up fibre and prevent constipation e.g. wheat bran, rice bran, oat bran and psyllium.
Hardly surprisingly, it’s low-fat yoghurt (and milk) that gives you the most bang for your nutritional buck.
Meat, chicken and fish
When it comes to animal protein foods, top of the class are pink or red salmon, lean beef-steak, pork loin and eggs. Liver and kidney are concentrated in things like iron and vitamin A but have long suffered in popularity with their strong flavour.
Nuts and seeds
Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and peanuts rank the highest for nuts. Flaxseed and chia tick the most boxes for the seeds.
It’s soy that shines over the other beans and peas.
While all fruit is nutritious and variety is important, two main types are outstanding. Go for the berries, especially blueberries (but also strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and cranberries) and any of the citrus fruit (grapefruit, oranges, mandarins). Kiwi fruit come close as a contender.
Herbs and spices
Of all the foods, spices and dried herbs are the most concentrated in phytonutrients. Those that pack the most powerful punch are cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, sage, mint, saffron and ginger. Chilli also makes this list. Just remember you need to use them in generous quantities – not just as a garnish – and consume them regularly.
A day’s eating plan based on super foods (tried and tested superfoods)
It’s not hard incorporating these superfoods into your everyday eating. Here’s one day’s menu to get you started.
A bowl of oats topped with a tiny sprinkle of brown sugar and cinnamon
Cup of tea
Salmon, avocado and baby spinach salad with a vinaigrette dressing made with hemp seed oil, garlic and lemon juice
Slice of soy-linseed thick toast
Grilled lean lamb cutlets with basil pesto sauce with broccoli, green peas, carrots
Glass of red wine
Mixed berry yoghurt with extra fresh blueberries or strawberries on top
Apple, oat and linseed muffin
Snack pack of raw almonds mixed with raisins and apricots
Glass of milk
This is an edited extract from Catherine Saxelby’s Complete Food And Nutrition Companion: The Ultimate A-Z Guide by Catherine Saxelby published by Hardie Grant Books ($39.99).
Quinoa and millet complement and balance each other in this recipe. Toasting the seeds for the sprinkle gives them an extra crunchy texture – the sprinkle is a great staple for scattering on just about any breakfast.
Our wake-up and go version of granola is chunky with clusters and power-packed with grains, nuts, seeds and antioxidant-rich superfoods.