Superfoods

Superfoods are foods that are considered to be unusually rich in nutrients and so extremely good for our health. However, there are no set criteria for determining what is and what isn’t a superfood. Also, as there is no legal regulation of the term, it can be attributed to practically anything, by anyone. This leaves it open to exploitation.

And exploited it is! One reason for this is the fact that increasing numbers of people are now opting to live a healthy life – a crucial element of which is diet. The processed food companies are well aware of this trend and are keen to cash in.

To this end, many of the claims made for these foods are vastly exaggerated or even deliberately deceptive. While a food may well be healthy in its natural state, the processing it goes through invariably renders it much less so.

Green tea is a case in question. When this is sold unadulterated, as it should be, it contains a range of antioxidants. But it is quite common for it to be mixed with inferior teas, which make it a much less healthy product. Needless to say, this fact is kept quiet. What may have started out as a superfood, is no longer so by the time it hits the stores.

The takeaway therefore, is that you must take all claims regarding the supposed benefits of a superfood with a healthy dose of scepticism. There’s a lot of truth in the saying – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Also, never underestimate the capacity of big business to hype ordinary products as being something out of the ordinary.

So, with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the most popular of these so-called superfoods. Some actually are super and have a place in any eating plan. Others, however, are less so as we’ll see.

Eggs

This shouldn’t come as a surprise – there are enough nutrients in an egg to turn a single fertilized cell into a baby chicken! Really, what else do you need to know? The protein in eggs is of the highest quality to be found in any food.

Eggs are also a veritable powerhouse of other nutrients – lutein and zeaxanthin being two good examples. These are carotenoids that lower the risk of age-related macular degeneration – one of the main causes of blindness. Another is choline – a nutrient known to enhance brain development and memory.

One medium sized egg provides approximately 75 calories, 7 grams of protein and 6.5 grams of fat (1.5 grams of which is saturated). It also contains iron, vitamins, minerals and the carotenoids. Overall, eggs are the most nutritious food on the planet.

Despite all this, many people are concerned about eating them because of their cholesterol content. This fear dates back many years and was sparked by the high incidence of heart disease associated with the high-fat western diet. However, while eggs do have quite a high amount of cholesterol (213 mg in a large egg), this isn’t, and never has been, a cause of heart disease. It is a fact that foods high in cholesterol are actually very good for our health.

The real culprit is the foods eaten along with eggs – processed meats such as sausage and bacon, bagels, cream cheese and highly sugared coffee, etc. All highly refined stuff loaded with unhealthy chemicals, carbohydrates and trans-fats. The egg itself actually has very little to do with it! Even if it did, the incredible amount of high quality nutrition it provides would far outweigh any negative effects. A related fact here is that eggs contain high levels of omega-3 fats that are known to be heart-protective.

The message to take from this is that eggs are perfectly safe to eat. Their cholesterol content is only an issue for people who already have a high level of it – if this is the case with you, it may be sensible to restrict the number of eggs you eat. Everyone else can eat as many as they like.

Quite apart from the nutrition they provide, eggs are also extremely satiating. For example, a three-egg omelette for breakfast is, by itself, sufficient to keep the average person going until midday. Furthermore, they are relatively low in calories so can definitely be incorporated into any weight-loss plan.

You do need to take a bit of care when buying eggs though. They are not all made equal and the major egg producers can be trusted about as far as you can throw them. This is clearly demonstrated by the labels they attach to their eggs – free-range, organic, cage-free and free-roaming are the classic examples. These are actually largely meaningless.

Take the free-range label; this can be legally applied to eggs laid by birds that are allowed to forage outside for just a few minutes a day! They are usually fed an unhealthy diet high in grains and synthetic additives but little in the way of nutrients. Furthermore, their living environment is almost always an extremely unpleasant one – over-crowded, dirty and very polluted.

It is a fact that many eggs are contaminated with drugs and chemicals. These are used by the producers to control the diseases caused by the unsanitary conditions the birds are forced to live in.

They aren’t all bad though. While the eggs from the big producers should be avoided if possible, there are many smaller outfits that do supply a quality, and ethical, product. These producers allow their birds to forage freely in the wild outdoors and eat their natural diet.

Genuine free-range eggs have darker, orange colored yolks – this indicates a higher nutrient content. The eggs from the larger outfits, however, almost always have an insipid pale yellow yolk.

The message here is that if you want the best possible return from your egg consumption, you must get the best quality eggs. Don’t bother looking in the supermarkets, you won’t find them there. Instead, you have to source local egg producers who take the time and trouble to produce the genuine article.

While on the subject of quality, you may be interested in organic eggs. A genuine organic egg is the ultimate and, ideally, is the only type you should eat. To qualify as organic, it should meet a number of criteria. The birds should be free-range and fed certified, nutrient-enhanced, organic feed. They should not be given drugs such as antibiotics (as they are raised in a healthy environment, they simply don’t need them) and they should not be exposed to chemicals in the form of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

When it comes to eating your eggs, ideally they will be eaten raw. This is because many of the nutrients are lost in the cooking process. However, few people are going to eat raw eggs so the next best option is to use the lowest heat you can, which basically means poaching or soft-boiling.

TIP – to determine how fresh an egg is, put it in a pan of water – fresh eggs sink to the bottom, stale eggs don’t. With a hard-boiled egg, you’ll know it’s fresh if it’s difficult to remove the shell.

Verdict
Eggs are the superfood to beat all superfoods. Quite simply, there is nothing better for you on the entire planet.

Blueberries

This North American fruit has had superfood status for quite a while now. Whether or not it actually is, of one thing there can be no dispute – blueberries are a really excellent source of vitamin K. They are also valued for their high levels of antioxidants, while some advocates claim they protect against cancers, heart disease and even loss of memory.

With regard to the heart disease claim, a well regarded study in 2014 found that people who ate three or more portions of blueberries a week, had a 25 percent lower risk of a heart attack than those who ate them no more than once a month. It is also thought that blueberries combat high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (the build-up of fatty material inside the arteries). They do this by relaxing the walls of blood vessels and so preventing hardening of the arteries – a well known cause of heart attacks and strokes.

Can blueberries prevent cancer? Well, to date there is very little evidence of this. In laboratory studies on cells and animals, blueberry extracts have been shown to reduce free radical damage that can cause cancer. However, it is not clear how well humans absorb these compounds and whether or not they have a protective effect.

With regard to its beneficial effects on memory, again, there is no conclusive evidence of this. A number of small studies have found a link between blueberry consumption and improved spatial learning and memory. However, most of these relied on small sample groups or animals, and so carry no real weight.

Blueberries have a high content of fiber, a fact that makes them important with regard to the issue of digestion. A 2013 study reported that people who ate blueberries every day for five weeks had higher levels of a type of bacteria crucial for the health of the digestive system.

Verdict
Not a superfood. The health claims for blueberries simply cannot be substantiated. That said, there is absolutely no doubt that they are extremely good for us, as they are low in calories and high in important nutrients. But then, so are most fruits!

Broccoli

A somewhat unappetising mainstay of school dinners for many years, broccoli has undergone a resurgence recently. The vegetable is a very good source of vitamins, fiber, protein, omega-3 fats, calcium, zinc, selenium, iron and niacin, to name just some.

Supposedly, it helps fight diseases such as cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. What’s the reality though?

With regard to diabetes, Broccoli has a very high content of an antioxidant called sulforaphane. This may help to alleviate the damage to small blood vessels caused by high blood sugar, as is commonly seen in people with diabetes. There is no conclusive proof of this, though. Another claim made for sulforaphane is that it can inhibit the development of colon and prostate cancers. Again, though, there is no conclusive proof of this.

There is no evidence to support claims that broccoli lowers blood pressure either. A 2012 study in which blood pressure patients were given broccoli for five weeks, found it made no difference whatsoever.

Verdict
Not a superfood. However, it does provide a range of nutrients needed for many of the body’s functions. It may also offer a small degree of protection against cancer and cardiovascular disease due to its sulforaphane content.

Oily Fish

Oily fish are a very good source of protein, vitamin D,  selenium and B vitamins. They are also high in omega-3 fats – a type of fat that’s very good for our health, and which most people don’t get enough of.

It’s a known fact that Eskimos have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than people in the western hemisphere. It’s also a fact that they have a diet high in oily fish. So not surprisingly, this has sparked research into the health benefits offered by these types of fish. The results show quite clearly that fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines do offer protection against this disease.

Furthermore, they also lower blood pressure. The evidence is conclusive enough for the UK government to recommend that people should eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be an oily variety.

There is also evidence to show that eating oily fish several times a week reduces the risk of age-related macular degeneration – a common cause of blindness in older people. However, a study to see whether fish oil supplements could reduce the progression of macular degeneration in people who already had the condition failed to find any evidence that it did.

A study in 2011 investigated the possibility that omega-3 fats may reduce the risk of dementia. The conclusion was that there is no preventative effect.

A number of studies have claimed that eating oily fish can offer protection against cancer – prostate, bowel and breast in particular. However, these tests have all had limitations that mean they cannot be considered conclusive one way or the other.

Verdict
Definitely a superfood. Eating oily fish offers clear and proven protection against cardiovascular disease. It’s good for us in many other ways as well. The only reservation is that our oceans are heavily polluted with toxins such as mercury.

For this reason, we recommend eating the smaller varieties, such as sardines, anchovies, herring, etc, which don’t live long enough to be affected by the toxins. Two or three servings a week is enough. The larger fish, such as tuna and king mackerel, should be avoided because of the toxins they almost certainly contain.

Green Tea

After water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world. In the western nations, it accounts for about 12 percent of all tea consumed. Interestingly, few people are aware that, regardless of the various names given to them, all teas come from the same plant. This is an evergreen shrub called Camellia Sinensis.

What differentiates the various types of tea is the method of production; to be specific, the degree of oxidation they are exposed to. Black teas are exposed to a high level of oxidation, whereas green teas are not. The lower level of oxidation is thought to result in less of the tea’s nutrients being lost during the manufacturing process.

Green tea is an excellent source of a powerful family of antioxidants called polyphenols, a range of vitamins, and minerals such as zinc and selenium. Popular in Chinese medicine for centuries, it has been used to treat a whole range of ailments.

Having only recently been elevated to the list of so-called superfoods, just what is green tea really good for though? Well, if you believe everything you read, quite a lot actually. It offers protection against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, it aids in weight loss, and lowers blood pressure. If the latter is true, it will help people suffering from cardiovascular disease.

Let’s look at the cancer claim first. Ten years ago, a major review of data taken from a number of studies involving over a million participants, tried to find a link between green tea and cancers of the prostate, bowel, lungs and mouth. None was found.

Green tea contains a powerful antioxidant called catechin which is said to promote weight loss by increasing the body’s metabolism. This causes calories to be burnt at a faster rate. One study has claimed people who drink green tea burn up to an extra 70-100 calories per day. It neglected to say how much green tea they had to consume to achieve this though!

Most blood pressure drugs work by reducing the effects of an enzyme called Angiotensin II. Compounds in green tea are touted as having the same capability. A 2015 survey of data taken from previous studies found evidence of a modest reduction in blood pressure in people who consumed green tea. It was not enough to be considered significant though.

Green tea is claimed to be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Supposedly, this is due to its high level of antioxidants. However, there is no conclusive evidence to back this up.

Verdict
Not a superfood. It’s a pleasant drink and very good for us in a number of ways. But that’s it.

Kale

Kale has rapidly established itself as one of the most popular health foods. A member of the cruciferous vegetable family, it comes with a lot of nutrients. These include vitamins (A, C and K in particular), fiber, omega-3 fats (unusual in a vegetable) and protein.

The health benefits claimed for kale are too long to list here but the main ones are that it has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, it fights a number of cancers, is effective against diabetes, can improve eyesight and is good for heart health.

The reason touted for it being so effective as an anti-inflammatory agent is that it is high in vitamin K. While there is no dispute about this, the fact is all dark green leafy vegetables are high in vitamin K. There is absolutely nothing special about kale in this respect.

With regard to cancer, studies show that compounds found in kale can help fight a range of them, including those of the lung, bladder, breast, colon and liver. However, these have all been done on rodents. Studies done on humans show mixed results – some showing a link and others not showing any.

Kale is good source of antioxidants. These fight free radicals in the body that are thought to cause diseases such as diabetes. However, once again, all fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, and so have the same beneficial effect with regard to diabetes and other diseases. This applies to heart disease as well.

Good eyesight is another supposed benefit of kale. This is because it is high in carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin which promote vision and the health of the retina. But, once again, it turns out that while this is true, it is also true of all dark green leafy vegetables.

Verdict
Kale is definitely not a superfood. Like all cruciferous vegetables, it is very good for you but that’s as far as it goes – there is absolutely nothing stand-out about it.

Nuts

Packed with protein, minerals, vitamins and fiber, nuts, just like eggs, are powerhouses of nutrition. There are many types, most offering both general and specific health benefits. One thing common to all of them is a very high fat content. It’s the fear that this will make them put on weight that prevents many people from eating them.

However, studies have shown quite clearly that eating nuts does not cause weight gain – in fact, as part of a sensible and controlled diet, they actually do the opposite – make you lose weight. This is because they are satiating and so suppress the body’s hunger signals.

As nuts are such an important source of high quality nutrients, we’ll take a brief look at the main types and see what they have to offer:

Almonds – almonds are a great source of bone-building calcium and so are ideal for people who don’t eat dairy products for whatever reason. They are also high in vitamin E and other antioxidants that nourish the skin and reduce signs of aging.

Almonds have compounds called flavonoids in their skin that are known to improve artery health and reduce inflammation – good for maintaining a healthy heart. Of all the nuts, almonds are also the best source of protein.

Brazil Nuts – a key nutrient provided by brazil nuts is a mineral called selenium. This is critical to several body functions, such as the prevention of damage to the thyroid gland, combating inflammation, and the production of DNA. It’s also important for the liver and kidneys. Three or four nuts a day provides all the selenium we need.

Brazil nuts are high in calories and so are a good source of instant energy – this makes them ideal for people who are active.

Cashews – cashews are a very rich source of minerals – copper and magnesium especially. The latter is known to be important for memory recall, brain function, keeping blood pressure under control and reducing the risk of migraine attacks. Copper is used in the production of skin, bone, and hair pigments called melanin and collagen. Amongst many other things, these help provide our skin’s elasticity.

Cashews also contain flavanols that inhibit the ability of cancer cells to divide and multiply, so reducing the incidence of some types of cancer.

Chestnuts – nutrition-wise, there’s nothing special about chestnuts. They do, however, have an extremely high level of fiber which makes them a low-glycemic index food. Accordingly, they can help to regulate glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

They also have less fat and calories than any other nut. This makes them an ideal addition to a weight-loss diet. When ground up, they form a gluten-free flour that can be used for baking.

Hazelnuts – hazelnuts are rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium. These are minerals that provide a range of health benefits, a very important one of which is the maintenance of healthy blood pressure.

Hazelnuts are also rich in oleic acid – this is known to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, and so helps to minimize the effects of diabetes.

Pecans – just one ounce of pecans provides 8 percent of the recommended daily amount of fiber. They are also one of the most antioxidant-rich foods in the world.

As with hazelnuts, pecans are high in oleic acid and so are good for people with diabetes. Many of the minerals found in pecans are very good for the brain.

Recent research has found that some nutrients in pecans can be helpful to people suffering from osteoporosis. They do this by increasing bone mass and reducing bone loss.

Walnuts – of all the nuts, walnuts are the best with regard to the heart. This is because of their rich content of omega-3, 6 and 9 fats. Omega-3 fat is also known to be good for cognitive function which means walnuts feed the brain as well.

Studies have shown that a handful of walnuts a day cuts the risk of both breast and prostate cancer. The same handful also has a significant impact on male fertility, i.e. sperm quality. This is one of the lesser known benefits of walnuts.

Pistachios – grown mainly in the Middle East, pistachios are lower in calories than most nuts. This makes them ideal for people who are trying to lose weight, as well as improve their diet. Nutrition-wise, as with nuts in general, they provide a range of minerals plus a large amount of protein.

However, one issue with these nuts is that the majority of them are bleached before being marketed. This is done to hide unsightly staining on the shells caused by the harvesting process. Not only can this leave bleach residues on the nuts, important phytochemicals in their skins are destroyed. For this reason, it is recommended that you eat only organically grown pistachio nuts.

Macadamias – macadamias are the most nutrient-rich of all the nuts. They provide high amounts of manganese, magnesium, iron and copper, plus several B vitamins. They are also low in carbohydrates and protein while being high in omega-3 fats.

100 grams of macadamias provides 20 percent of the daily recommended amount of fiber. They are also a very good source of phytosterols – these help to regulate cholesterol levels.

They are, however, the nut with the highest calorie count.

Verdict
Superfood. Nuts are a superb source of unsaturated fats, fiber, vitamin E, antioxidants and omega-3 fats. This makes them one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Eating a handful of mixed nuts every day is one of the best things you can do if you are seeking a long and healthy life.

Avocados

Native to Central/South America and classified as a fruit, avocados are yet another of nature’s products that positively brim with health-giving nutrients.

As with nuts, these green fruits are an excellent source of monounsaturated fats. They provide close to twenty essential nutrients, including vitamins A, C and E, B-vitamins and folic acid. They are also a rich source of potassium (twice the amount found in bananas). The fruits also provide a high amount of fiber, which is another very good reason to eat them.

Benefits claimed for avocados include protection against cancer and heart disease. Another is that the fruit has anti-inflammatory properties.

How good are they really though? Well, firstly, their high content of monounsaturated fats makes avocados extremely satiating (just one provides half a person’s daily fiber requirement). Not only that, they provide a lot of energy – this enables you to cut down on carbohydrates should your weight be an issue.

Their high fat content also enables the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients from other foods eaten in conjunction. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that monounsaturated fat offers protection against heart disease, and also lowers blood pressure.

With regard to cancer, several studies have been done in an attempt to find a link. One of these concluded that phytochemicals in avocados make them potentially beneficial for inhibiting the development of oral and prostate cancer. A 2015 study showed an antioxidant called lutein, which is high in avocados, may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.

Avocados contain chemicals called phytosterols that have anti-inflammatory properties known to be good for treating osteoarthritis – a condition suffered by millions of people worldwide.

Tip – many of the nutrients found in avocados are in the dark green part of the fruit just under the skin.

Verdict
Superfood. Avocados contain too many healthy fats and nutrients, such as lutein, oleic acid, vitamins, folate, fiber, monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, to be anything but.

Chia Seeds

Originating in Mexico, chia seeds are becoming one of the most popular foods with the health-conscious. Supposedly, they offer a huge array of nutrients that include vitamins, protein, fiber, antioxidants, minerals and healthy fats.

So what are they good for? Well, if you believe the claims made for them, they have anti-aging properties, are good for the heart, the digestive system, bones and teeth, plus they help with diabetes and weight loss.

Chia seeds have a high content of antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals (damaged body cells) that, amongst other things, cause damage to the skin. So they may be helpful in this respect. There is no proof of this though.

Chia seeds provide more omega-3 fats than salmon. This has led many people to think they must therefore be very good for the heart. However, while they undoubtedly are, it’s a fact that plant-based omega-3 fats are not as good as those from animal sources.

With a high fiber content, chia seeds can be nothing else than extremely good for our digestive systems. There is no dispute here.

With regard to bones and teeth, they do have a high level of the necessary nutrients – calcium, protein, magnesium and phosphorus. In fact, chia seeds provide more calcium than most dairy products. This makes them a very good source of this essential mineral for people who don’t eat dairy for whatever reason.

There is research that suggests chia seeds lower blood sugar levels, and so can help control diabetes. However, there is no evidence that this is actually the case.

Verdict
Chia seeds may be a superfood. The main issue with the many health claims made for them is the lack of conclusive evidence. The few studies done have been mainly on animals. However, superfood or not, they do make a very worthwhile addition to any diet.

Coconut Oil

The coconut tree is thought to originate in South America. The oil, taken from the pressed meat of the coconuts, has only recently gained superfood status. Bear this fact in mind when you evaluate the various claims made for its supposed benefits. These include heart health, weight loss, improving digestion, treating Alzheimer’s disease  and many others.

Coconut oil contains more saturated fat than butter, lard and beef tallow (no less than 90 percent of it is fat). It has no carbohydrates or protein and only minute amounts of a few assorted nutrients.

However, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, saturated fat is not the demon it’s made out to be; it is, in fact, very good for us – in small amounts. So when consumed in said small amounts, the fat content of coconut oil is nothing to be alarmed about. That’s the first thing.

The second is that 50 percent of this saturated fat is lauric acid – a medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA) that has several health-promoting properties. One of these is that it increases the rate at which we burn calories. For this reason, coconut oil is being touted as a means of losing weight. A recent study has suggested that this might actually be the case. However, it only involved a few subjects so cannot be taken too seriously.

Still with lauric acid, when the liver breaks it down, ketones are created that can be used as fuel by the brain. There is a current theory that because these ketones supply energy to the brain, thus eliminating the need for insulin to convert glucose into energy, coconut oil is an effective treatment for people with Alzheimer’s. While there may be something in this, a study has yet to be done that actually proves it.

MCFAs are also thought to boost digestive health. This is because they are easily absorbed in the digestive tract, plus they apparently help other nutrients to be absorbed as well. If so, it follows that people with digestive disorders, like Crohn’s disease, will benefit from eating coconut oil.

Verdict
Not a superfood by any stretch of the imagination. There are no conclusive studies that prove otherwise. In fact, for some people coconut oil could even be dangerous due to its extremely high content of saturated fat. If you’re looking for a healthy oil, go with olive oil which has proven benefits.

Turmeric

A spice native to Southern Asia, turmeric has a deep orange-gold color, and is widely used for cooking and as a coloring agent (it is the main ingredient in curry powder). Before use, it is usually dried, boiled and then ground into a powder. It has been used for centuries in China where it is considered to have medicinal qualities.

One of the main claims made for turmeric is that it is rich in a compound called curcumin – this is thought to give it anti-inflammatory properties. Some studies indicate curcumin may be effective at fighting Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Other studies show it has a high content of antioxidants that fight and neutralize the free radicals in our bodies that can be the cause of so many illnesses.

However, it’s a known fact that turmeric is not easily absorbed by the body. Therefore, to get any worthwhile benefits from it, assuming there are any, you would need to consume so much of the stuff there would almost certainly be side effects. It is also a fact that many of the studies done have involved conflicts of interest, i.e. researchers with vested interests in the results (was it ever thus!)

Verdict
Not a superfood. As is so often the case, the claims made for this undoubtedly tasty spice are overblown. There simply aren’t any studies that provide conclusive proof for any of them.

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