I know the names Acai (pronounced ahh Sigh Eee), Cacao (pronounced Ca Cow) and Goji sound like exotic, foreign substances, but the truth is these are nutrient-dense “superfoods” that are rapidly gaining in popularity. And my prediction is, as more of us focus on ways to live longer, healthier lives, these strange sounding powders and berries will soon become household words.
The term “superfood” was coined in 2004 by Dr. Steven Pratt who authored a book entitled Superfoods RX, Fourteen Foods that Will Change Your Life. According to Dr. Pratt in order for a food to be termed a superfood it must live up to 3 qualifications: 1. The food needs to be readily available 2. It must contain nutrients known to enhance longevity and 3. And the health benefits have to be backed by peer- reviewed scientific studies. (Regarding green tea for instance: one recent study from Japan found that men who drank it regularly had lower cholesterol than those who didn’t. Researchers in Spain and the United Kingdom have also shown that ECGC (a potent antioxidant in green tea) can inhibit the growth of cancer cells etc.) Superfoods fall into a special category of food because most are low in calories, while at the same time they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Why Do We Need Superfoods?: Over the past 37 years (since I first became involved in the health movement) I have witnessed an incredible evolution in our understanding of the why diet is important and what exactly comprises a healthy diet. Starting with an awareness of the detrimental effects of sugar, white flour, processed foods and denatured oils, some individuals, as early as the 1960’s began switching over to a diet that included less processed, sugar-laden foods and instead ate more organic, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. More recently, the health conscious consumer has been rejecting foods that are genetically engineered and are demanding grass-fed (as opposed to factory-farmed) beef, eggs and poultry.
Although these dietary modifications have had a tremendous impact on the health of the individuals who apply them, apparently not enough of us have. The US continues to have serious health problems: 125 million Americans (including 54% of our kids) are affected by one or more chronic illnesses such as: Asthma, Obesity, Heart Disease, Diabetes, Cancer and Allergies. Since the 1970’s the obesity rates have tripled among children to the point where now a whopping 17% of our kids are obese and 35% are overweight. Many of these problems we now know for certain are related to poor diet choices
The good news is, people are getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and relying on a broken medical system that is dominated by the pharmaceutical industry to fix their ailments. The answer remains the same as the one the nutrition mavericks in the 60’’s and 70’s were touting. Although we now have more science to back up their claims, switching to a healthier lifestyle that includes exercise, plenty of pure water, lots of organic vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, grass fed beef, free range chicken and eggs and yes a few super foods will improve your health, extend your lifespan and make you less reliant on the medical system. Most importantly, focusing on a whole foods, antioxidant rich, plant based diet will tip the scales in favor of you aging gracefully and healthfully without having to deal with a boat load of degenerative, chronic illnesses.
Common vs Exotic Superfoods: While we have become accustomed to hearing about the health benefits of some common foods that provide superior nutrition (as in the first generation of superfoods: broccoli, beans, blueberries, coconut oil, pumpkin, salmon, spinach, yogurt, kefir, green tea etc.), there are also several more exotic, less mainstream superfoods that are incredibly beneficial and worthwhile to get to know.
Here are a few:
Acai: is a small berry that grows in the rain forest of South America on a type of tall palm tree. It has a dark blue purple hue and a mild berry taste.
- Health Benefits: It has been touted as having anti-aging benefits and good for weight loss. The antioxidant in Acai is in the form of anthocyanins which are known to help prevent heart disease and cancer. Unlike other nutrient dense fruits, it also contains Essential Fatty acids including omega 3-6 and 9 and monosaturated fats (similar to the fat in olive oil). It is also low in sugar.
- How to use: best to buy in frozen unsweetened packs and add to smoothies.
Cacao: This superfood is the raw form of chocolate.
- Health Benefits: Like chocolate, Raw Cacao powder contains flavonoids ( known for helping to lower blood pressure and improve circulation.) It is rich in calcium, iron and it has one of the highest levels of magnesium of any food. Raw Cacao is also known to enhance mood due to the fact that it stimulates the release of serotonin which is a brain “feel good” chemical that helps us attain restful sleep and avoid depression. Cacao powder has less than 15 calories per tablespoon and contains almost no fat.
The ORAC score: (The Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity…which basically means how high the antioxidant level of a food is) is incredibly high for Cacoa (almost double that of Acai)
- How to Use: To obtain the best results, it is recommended to consume at least 1oz or approx. 3tbsp or more per day. It can be added to smoothies, added to coffee for a chocolate flavor or sprinkled on fruit.
- Caveat: Avoid processed or alkalized versions of cacao powder as these treatments can destroy the phytochemicals and antioxidants i I have also read recently that some cacao powders can contain higher levels of the heavy metals cadmium and lead. So be sure to purchase a version that is raw, organic and from a reputable company that deals in fair trade and sustainable growing practices.
Camu Berries : One superfood author Julie Morris refers to these as “The South American Cranberry”. She also states they grow in the floodplains and are quite tart.
- Health Benefits: In her book Superfood Smoothies, Julie goes on to tell us that although this berry is a bit of an ugly duckling among the family of superfoods, it is nature’s number one source of vitamin C and “it’s benefits are so concentrated, that literally using just a pinch will enhance a smoothie with more Vitamin C than taking a pill”
- How to Use: Get 100% organic Camu powder and use ¼ to a 1/ tsp. in smoothies.
Chia Seeds: Are grown in Central America.
- Health Benefits: They contain a substance called mucilage which allows them to absorb 8-9 x their own weight in water when they soak for 15 min making them a good thickening agent for smoothies, a source of fiber and helpful for weight loss. Chia seeds are also known for their essential fatty acid content. They actually contain 8 x the omega 3 level of salmon. Additionally those little seeds have more calcium than milk, 3 x more iron than spinach and 3 x more antioxidants than blueberries.
- How to Use:
Flax seeds: have been around and part of the human diet for over 7,000 years. They have a mild, nutty flavor that usually can’t be detected when added to smoothies or other foods.
- Health Benefits: Are a great source of fiber and contains a substance called lignans which help balance hormones. Like Chia seeds, Flax seeds are a good source of essential fatty acids which help support brain function, reduces inflammation, are good for the heart and help reduce joint stiffness. They are also a good source of Vit E.
- How to Use: The seeds should be purchased whole (and organic) and ground into a powder before use. If not, they’ll pass through the system undigested. If you don’t have a Vitamix or Blend Tech (super charged blenders) , before throwing them in your blender, grind them first in a inexpensive spice or coffee grinder. Then store them in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for up to 2 days. Add them to smoothies, sprinkle on oatmeal, salads or fruit.
Goji Berries: are native to Tibet and Inner Mongolia
- Health Benefits: In ddition to containing protein, fat and carbs, they also contain over 20 vitamins and minerals including high levels of Vitamin C. Clinical trials have shown that they support vision including helping to prevent macular degeneration and cataracts. Goji berries are rich in antioxidants and they come dried whole and in powder form.
- How to Use: Add them to smoothies or eat them whole (very chewy!)
- Health Benefits: Organic matcha reduces inflammation by providing antioxidants to battle free radicals and it is a source of chlorophyll. It has more than 100 x the antioxidant level of regular green tea. Relaxes and gives energy at the same time so you feel alert and focused.
- How to Use: make a cup of Matcha tea and let steep for at least 5 minutes
Maca Powder: Is a hardy, resilient plant that grows (and thrives) in the harsh climate of the Peruvian Andes Mountains. It is similar to a thick radish root, is related to the mustard family and it has a very distinctive earthy flavor.
- Health Benefits: It is referred to as an “adaptogen” because it provides adrenal support, helps balance the body’s hormonal system and improves energy without caffeine or other stimulants. From the reading I’ve done it seems to have helped people with symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to anxiety, anemia and low libido. Possibly because it grows in such a harsh climate, even after years of storage, it seems to maintain it’s nutrient content which includes (iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins and amino acids).
- How to Use: With its distinctive earthy, nutty flavor, the powder can be added to baked goods, a little bit added to smoothies he powder can be used when baking or it can be sprinkled on oatmeal or salads.
Pomegranate: Packed with juicy, bright red edible kernels, pomegranates are more familiar to most than many of the aforementioned superfoods. It is also one of the most heavily researched fruits.
- Health Benefits: Pomegranates have 3 x the antioxidant level of red wine and green tea and has antiviral and antibacterial properties. According to some studies, drinking the juice of pomegranates can help protect against heart disease, cancer and osteoarthritis.
- How to Use: Can be added to smoothies. However, unless you have a super charged blender such as the Vitamix or Blend Tech, it is better to either drink 6-8 oz. of the unsweetened juice or use the crunchy seeds in salads.
Hemp Seeds: Some think these seeds have psychoactive properties (since they are related to the marijuana plant). But fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your opinion) these seeds have no trace of any mind altering substance.
- Health Benefits: They are however are a great source of protein as they (unlike most non animal sources of protein) contain all 8 essential amino acids. Hemp seeds are also a source of Omega 3 fatty acids, magnesium, iron and zinc. They are considered alkalizing and are easy to digest.
- How to Use: Hemp Seeds are mild so they can be added to salads or used in a smoothie
Maqui Berries: Are small purple berries that grow in certain areas of South America. They have a mild taste and are referred to as “the rainforest blueberry”.
- Health Benefits: They have the highest level of the antioxidant “anthocyanin” of any fruit every tested. They are also a rich source of Vitamin C and are low in sugar .
- How to Use: Add 2 tsps of Maqui powder to smoothies
Mulberries: In the northeast, they can be found growing in some backyards.
- Health Benefits: They are one of the best natural sources of Resveratrol (which is a rare antioxidant (found in grapes in lower amounts and of course in red wine in much lower amounts). Resveratrol has been shown to improve circulation and have anti-aging properties. Mulberries are also a great source of fiber.
- How to Use: your guessed it….add them to your smoothies.
A Sampling of the ORAC score for various superfoods:
Raw Cacoa Powder 100gms 95.000
Acai berry powder: 100gms 53,600
Goji berries 100gms 13,300
Blueberries ½ cup 6,552
Kale (1 cup raw) 1,770
Tomatoes ½ cup 367
Summary: One of the reasons we experience cravings and subsequently gain weight is because we are consuming food that lacks the nutrients our body needs to maintain itself. When we make the switch to foods and superfoods brimming with readily available nutrients, our cravings diminish, we lose weight and experience enhanced health and energy For those of us who are constantly on the lookout for the next best nutrition breakthrough, superfoods are an exciting addition to the growing list of exceptional foods that can have a huge impact on our health. Just as individuals who are into high performance cars wouldn’t think twice about purchasing the purest, highest grade fuel to put in their gas tanks, so too will many savvy individuals with a focus on vitality and longevity go to greater lengths to consume the highest quality, nutrient-dense foods.
I haven’t tried them all yet, but the ones I have included in my morning smoothie (Acai, raw cacao, Goji, chia and flax seeds) have been fantastic additions. Little by little I’m discovering the distinctive flavors and health enhancining qualities of each one. If my predictions are correct, you already have a couple of these strange sounding compounds in your kitchen. If not, I hope you’ll consider giving them a whirl!
Bio: Maureen “Mo” McDonnell has been a holistic, nutritionally-oriented RN for 37 years. She is the health editor of WNC Woman Magazine, the Medical Coordinator of the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer in New Mexico and the cofounder of Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet (SOKHOP.com). Maureen spends her days researching, writing and speaking to groups near and far on the role nutrition and the environment play in women and children’s health. Maureen lives with her husband H in the amazing mountains of WNC and is blessed with 7 grandchildren.