Superfood. It’s a buzzword you hear all too often...but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something behind the claims. So what exactly makes a food “super”? While there’s no specific definition, most superfoods are categorized as such because of their nutritional value, talent to fight and prevent disease, and their ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound (they may or may not wear a cape).
Superfoods are usually high in antioxidants (prevent and/or slow cell damage), polyphenols, vitamins, and various minerals. They can even help slow the aging process! As you can see, they have all the markings of a real-life superhero.
Blueberries have long been the poster berry for the Superfood League, loaded with antioxidants and with their apparent ability to protect against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Wild salmon (omega-3 fatty acids). Broccoli (vitamin C, folic acid, and cancer-fighting phytonutrients). Garlic (high in allicin). These are some of the usual suspects in the superfood game. But they’re by no means the only players.
It seems like every other week some new fruit, vegetable, grain, or seed is touted as the next “it” food for the health-conscious shopper.
We all try and eat healthily. We watch our calorie and fat intake (although not all fat is created equal...there’s good fat and bad fat), and we reduce the amount of sugar and processed food that we consume. But it can be exhausting to keep up with it all, having to scrutinize labels and portion sizes. And that’s what makes superfoods so appealing. Many of them don’t require a major diet overhaul. In fact, lots of them are added to rather than replace something else. You can’t get much easier than that.
But it’s hard to keep track with so many rising and falling in popularity. With that in mind, it was time for a “Superfoods of 2015” roundup. What are the most super of the superfoods? Which ones are becoming - or remaining - the creme de la creme?
1. Chia Seeds
Ch-ch-ch-chia! Remember the Chia Pet? The oddly shaped clay animals that you covered with a chia seed paste? They would sprout into quirky puffs of green “hair” and “fur” (depending on whether you had an animal or human version). As it turns out, we should have been eating them rather than watching them grow. Native to Mexico, chia seeds are one of the new superfoods.
Crazy high in omega-3 fatty acids (an essential fat that our bodies can’t produce), fiber, and calcium, among other things. They’re satisfyingly crunchy with a mild nutty flavour. You can toss them into a smoothie, add them to your salads, or sprinkle them on top of cereals and oatmeal. Easy peasy.
2. Cocoa Powder
Yup. Cocoa. We’ve all heard about the benefits of dark chocolate, but you can take it a step forward (or back, depending on how you look at it), and add cocoa powder to the superfoods club. You get all the taste of chocolate without the sugar. Cocoa powder is also high in flavonoids and antioxidants, lowers blood pressure, and improves overall blood flow.
It contains the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, both of which have anti-depressant qualities (why do you think so many people turn to chocolate when they’re depressed or unhappy?), and the phenylethylamine (or PEA) in it has the same effect on our brains as falling in love! Add a scoop to smoothies for a healthy chocolate punch. Just make sure you avoid Dutch or alkalized varieties, as they’ve had up to 90% of their antioxidants processed out of them. Look for raw cocoa.
3. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is the new black (is anyone else sick of that expression yet?!). It’s very high in healthy fatty acids, high in lauric acid (which kills harmful pathogens and bacteria), improves blood cholesterol levels, and reduces the risk of heart disease. If that’s not enough for you, it can help shrink your appetite and increase fat burning in your body, so it’s an excellent weight loss partner.
But there’s still more...it’s also great for your skin and hair, and a slew of other benefits. It most definitely qualifies as “super”. Refined coconut oil is best for cooking (stir-frying, sauteing, and baking), as it has a higher heat threshold and little to no coconut flavour. That said, if you want a bit of aroma and flavour, you can opt for either virgin or extra-virgin varieties instead.
4. Açai Berries
Açai berries are native to South America (most of the exports come from Brazil these days), and they have been a popular and well-known superfood down there forever. They’ve only recently made the leap to North American and European awareness, but they’ve made quite the impact in a short period of time.
Known for their weight loss and anti-aging properties, they’re also high in anthocyanins (fights cancer and heart disease), oleic acid (the heart-healthy fat found in olive oil), antioxidants, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids. That’s quite the ingredients list. Beyond that, they can help boost energy levels, promote sleep, improve digestion, and even trigger a self-destruct sequence in leukemia cells! Holy health benefits, Batman! Look for either frozen, powder (toss in smoothies and fruit salads) or juice blends.
If you’ve heard about any of the superfoods on this list, it’s probably kale. A member of the cabbage family of cruciferous veggies, kale packs a ridiculously high nutritional punch: one cup contains 206% of your recommended vitamin A intake, 684% of vitamin K (blood clotting), 134% of vitamin C, as well as large doses of manganese, calcium, copper, and potassium.
Loaded with antioxidants, it can lower cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart disease, and it contains a phytonutrient that seems to reduce the likelihood of certain cancers, including breast and ovarian. Want more? The lutein and zeaxanthin present in the leafy green (and sometimes purple) have been shown to reduce the risk of both macular degeneration and cataracts. Good for your eyes, body, and soul. Eat it in salads, throw it in a smoothie (just not too much), or cook it up.
Quinoa was first cultivated by the Incas over 5000 years ago, and it was known as the “mother of all grains” (even though it’s not a true grain). You’re most likely to see mainly the red, white, or black varieties at your local grocery or health food store. You can cook and eat it as you would rice, and it’s often ground into a gluten-free flour, too. Similar to a whole grain (you know how good those are for you), quinoa is high in various vitamins, minerals, and fiber (which leaves you feeling full for longer).
One cup of quinoa contains lots of good stuff, including 8g of protein (yes, protein), 5g of fiber, copper, zinc, iron, and several of the B vitamins. It’s also one of the only plant foods considered a complete protein source, containing all nine essential amino acids. For that reason, quinoa is a popular meat replacement for vegetarians. It’s also gluten-free. So try out some of theses quinoa recipes. If that’s not enough, it’s high in the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol, both of which have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer, and anti-depressant qualities. Superfood much?
7. Goji Berries
You may have seen these wrinkled, red-orange, raisin-looking berries somewhere before, but you didn’t know what they were. Native to Tibet and Inner Mongolia, goji berries have been an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. They were used for the treatment of visual, immune, and circulation issues. High in our old friend antioxidants, goji berries also contain protein (roughly 1g per tablespoon), which is rare for berries and other fruit. You can toss them in smoothies, add them to salads, or eat them on their own as a healthy snack. They’re soft and chewy like raisins but have a taste similar to cherries and cranberries (and yes, raisins, too).
8. Hemp Seeds
Don’t laugh. Yes, we get it. Hemp...marijuana. Hahaha! But rest assured, hemp seeds are not (just) for stoners and potheads. They do contain trace (as in very, very small) amounts of THC, but they’re also high in minerals, fatty acids, protein, and have the ideal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. This balance has been shown to prevent cardiac death and has anti-inflammatory benefits. Additionally, hemp seeds have the full amino acid spectrum, making them a well balanced and complete protein source. Add them to smoothies, salads, cereal, or oatmeal.
See Also: Top 10 Superfood Salads
We throw the word “super” around a little too willy-nilly these days, but if these eight foods aren’t the very definition of that word, I don’t know what is. Add one, or three, or all eight to your diet and live a better, healthier life.
This time next year, it may be an entirely different group of eight. But for today, these are the superfoods you want in your corner.
Anything else you’d add? What food do you consider to be an honorary member of this awesome eight? Leave your additions in the comments below...