07 October 2014

What’s so 'super' about superfoods?

When it comes to buzzwords in nutrition, the term 'superfoods' may just top the current list. But superfoods are more than just a trendy word . . .

Right now, the focus is on superfoods and it’s likely to stay there. And, what’s more, foods such as chia, dark greens, Brussels sprouts, ancient grains and fermented foods are on their way to stardom, says Mayo Clinic dietician and wellness nutritionist, Katherine Zeratsky.

Superfoods usually have a particularly high nutritional content, often vitamins and minerals which have antioxidant effects. These natural compounds protect us against the damaging effects of oxidation and inflammation.

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But, as with any emerging trend in the world of nutrition, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the truth from the myth and to understand what you need to eat, and why.

What, exactly, is a ‘superfood’?

“Superfoods” is a widely use term, especially among marketers of food products and supplements. It generally describes foods with a low kilojoule content and with exceptional nutritional value. The health benefits of these are supposedly very high.

Most superfoods are found in the fruit and vegetable section of your supermarket, or come with minimal packaging, says Professor Tim Crowe, Associate Professor in Nutrition in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne.

While it’s always best to eat superfoods as close to their natural state as possible, they don’t always have to be raw. “Cooking food can actually increase the absorption of some nutrients and also make the food easier to digest, as is the case with legumes,” Crowe explains.

Most foods that are marketed as “superfoods” do indeed have health-enhancing properties. However, Crowe advises consumers to be careful of any newly discovered “miracle” superfoods, typically sourced from exotic locations, with astounding health benefits and a hefty price tag to match.

“This is especially true of superfoods that claim to prevent and treat all manner of diseases with little published clinical trials to back them up,” he says.

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The first step should always be to check whether an independent health organisation has endorsed the food or the claims relating to it.

“For example, fish could be described as a ‘superfood’ for its link to preventing heart disease. For this reason, heart-health organisations list it as a recommended food,” Crowe explains.

Cancer Research UK echoes his sentiments, adding that although superfoods are often promoted as having an ability to prevent or cure diseases, including cancer, one shouldn’t solely rely on these foods to keep you healthy. Superfoods should always form part of a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle.

Superfoods to try

Here are some superfoods you may want to consider including in your diet:

- Acai berries

According to Mayo Clinic wellness nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky, acai berries, a grape-like fruit harvest from acai palm trees that are found in the South American rainforests, may be a good source of heart-healthy fats and fibre as well as powerful antioxidant properties.

While there are limited published clinical studies on their health benefits in humans, Prof Crowe comments that laboratory studies with cells and animals suggest acai berries may have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects.

Acai can be consumed raw, in tablet form, in beverages such as juice, smoothies or energy drinks or in other food products such as jelly or ice cream. Look for freeze-dried acai fruit which has maintained its nutrients or juice that has not undergone any heating or pasteurisation.

- Goji berries

Goji berries, also called wolfberries, are widely grown throughout Asia, and have been used to treat numerous conditions in China for centuries. Most commercial goji products such as juice, dried health food snacks and added to muesli bars use varieties originating from Tibet.

A few studies done on humans indicate that goji berries improve antioxidant levels in the blood. They also contain a carotenoid that appears to help reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration.

These bright red berries contain the same amount of vitamin C as an orange, and are high in vitamins A, B1, B2, B6 and E, which help to protect against disease.

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Goji may decrease the liver’s ability to break down some medications and interact with the anti-clotting medication warfarin. Therefore it is also not recommended for people who are taking medications such as diazepam, ibuprofen, antihypertensive drugs and anti-diabetes drugs. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before deciding to take goji as a supplement.

- Noni Juice

Noni is a lime-green tropical fruit found in Polynesia. Used there as a regenerative medicine for more than 1500 years, it appears to have excellent antibacterial properties and helps to strengthen the immune system.

Studies on rats and mice have shown it has cancer-fighting properties, while a study of noni fruit extract in human cancer patients reported improvements in quality of life. It also appears to reduce nausea after surgery, much in the same way as ginger does.

Look for freeze-dried products that only use the whole fruit. When buying noni juice make sure it has not been pasteurised.

- Raw cacao

Raw cacao beans from the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree are a potent concentrated source of antioxidants, are rich in iron and high in magnesium. 

Be sure to buy certified organic raw cacao in a powder, nib (chocolate chips) or whole bean form because the ‘Dutch method’ – which applies extremely high temperatures of up to 150°C  to process most cocoa powder and commercial chocolate – will destroy its heat-sensitive minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.

Promote cardiovascular health by sprinkling raw cacao into a smoothie or munching dark chocolate in small amounts.

- Wheatgrass

Wheatgrass, prepared from the seed leaf of common wheat, is brimming with nutrients. These include vitamins E and C, beta-carotene and amino acids that boost the immune system and enhance healing after illness or injury. It also contains superoxide dismutase, a natural antioxidant.

Prof Crowe’s final advice on superfoods is that no matter how ‘super’ a food is, it is most likely to be beneficial when eaten as part of a healthy diet.

Read More:

Coconut water – the ultimate thirst quencher
'Eat your greens' the Green Smoothie way
The many wonders of Goji Berries

Image: Superfoods word in wood letters with plastic scoops of healthy seeds and powders from Shutterstock.


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