What Are Superfoods?
Blueberries, kale, salmon—you’ve heard countless times about the nutritional benefits of these everyday ingredients, commonly labeled “superfoods”. There’s no official scientific definition of a superfood but it’s generally accepted that superfoods contain high levels of much-needed vitamins and minerals. They can also be a source of antioxidants, substances that shield our bodies from cell damage and help prevent disease. While there are a number of common foods that provide these nutrients, there is also an array of more exotic and less mainstream superfoods that are worth getting to know.
Like chocolate, cacao powder contains flavonoids, which are known to help lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain and heart. With fewer than 15 calories per tablespoon and containing almost no fat, cacao provides a strong chocolate flavour without the guilt. “For someone who has a chocolate tooth and is looking for heart or circulation benefits, it’s a good call,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietician.
But make sure to read the label carefully before buying. “If you ever see the terms Dutch or alkalized cocoa, that means the powder has been processed, and up to 90 percent of the antioxidants are gone. When you’re buying, choose the raw or non-alkalized version which contains all the phytochemicals and antioxidants,” says Andy Bellatti, a Las Vegas-based registered dietician. Try adding the powder to smoothies for a rich chocolaty taste.
Unlike their land-bound counterparts, sea-grown vegetables are packed with omega-3 fatty acids which may prevent sudden heart attack and stroke. Seaweed is also full of important minerals such as bone-friendly calcium and magnesium, as well as iron, potassium, iodine, and zinc. “An easy way to incorporate seaweed into the diet is by taking sheets of nori—the kind they use for sushi—and layering on some cooked brown rice and sliced vegetables. Then roll it all together to make a quick lunchtime wrap,” says Blatner. Beyond nori, the adventurous superfoodie has a variety of seaweed to choose from such as dulse, arame, hijiki, wakame, and kombu.
Despite their relation to marijuana, hemp seeds contain virtually no trace of the psychoactive ingredient in their controversial cousin. The seeds are high in protein and contain all the essential amino acids needed for growth and repair. Hemp seeds also have a desirable ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and are a good source of amino acids, magnesium, and potassium. “They have a very mild taste, so you could add them to soups, salads, pilafs or pesto,” says Bellatti.
Not to be confused with active dry or brewer’s yeast, nutritional yeast is made from deactivated yeast and has no leavening power. It’s a great source of protein and fibre and is also among the only vegan-friendly sources of vitamin B12 which is essential for normal brain and nervous-system function but found mostly in meat and dairy products. “As long as nutritional yeast is fortified with B12, it’s a great way for vegan and vegetarian folks to get the vitamin in their diets,” says Blatner. It can be sprinkled on pastas and stir-fries—and, Blatner adds, “It makes an awesome popcorn topping for people who want that Cheetos, stick-to-your-finger kind of snack.”
Black garlic has long been prized by Asians for its health benefits but it became widely available in Western markets only a few years ago. The black bulb is created by fermenting raw garlic through prolonged exposure to heat and humidity, giving it a sweet, mellow flavour and an inky hue. In addition to the sulphuric compounds that provide garlic with its heart-healthy and anti-cancer benefits, the fermented cloves are a source of important probiotics. “Fermented foods help stabilize our intestinal flora. When the intestine is in good shape, it strengthens our immune system,” says Bellatti. Black garlic has been increasingly sought-after in high-end cuisine and it is often used to make sauces, dressings, and dips.