Blueberries are brain food.
If there’s one good-for-you food that has cut through the din of conflicting and controversial diet headlines, it’s the tiny indigo berry native to North America, which scientists have discovered contains powerful disease-fighters that may improve memory, intelligence and coordination.
But blueberries aren’t the only food with bragging rights.
Pomegranates, kiwifruit and, yes, even dark chocolate are the latest buzz, joining such everyday foods as broccoli, spinach, wild salmon, sweet potatoes, soy, oats, walnuts and tomatoes. Together these nutrient-dense foods containing health-promoting phytonutrients are being dubbed “super foods.”
“Super foods are foods that have longevity and contribute to good health,” says Steven Pratt, an ophthalmologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital of La Jolla, Calif., and co-author of the best-selling “SuperFoodsRx” and the new “SuperFoods HealthStyle” (William Morrow, 2005, $24.95).
“It’s foods that are available in markets around the world and make up part of a dietary cuisine,” Pratt says. “It’s also food that has been studied, and the scientific studies have been peer reviewed.”
Cruise the aisles of any supermarket in America, and broccoli is ubiquitous for three reasons: It’s easy to buy, it’s inexpensive and it’s easy to cook. It’s also one of the most studied, which is how we know it’s one of the most nutritious foods on the planet.
Beyond the traditional vitamins and minerals Mother told us about, scientists have discovered broccoli is also a good source of lutein, an antioxidant available in colorful fruits and vegetables that helps prevents macular degeneration, a condition that can cause blindness in older adults.
But not all super foods are as obvious. Take the goji berry. A Tibetan fruit that tastes like a cross between a cranberry and a cherry, the goji berry has long been considered a medicinal food in Asia. But scientists know little about how it works in the body to promote health.
Nutrition experts agree we’ve only begun to scratch the surface in our efforts to discover how foods prevent disease in the body. Pratt’s first book featured 14 super foods, a term he believes he coined but could not trademark. His second book adds 10 more to an ever-growing list, and there are “sidekicks” galore – related foods that provide similar health benefits.
One of the most surprising super foods to hit the headlines is dark chocolate. It is loaded with health-promoting polyphenols – antioxidants that may help lower blood pressure and promote vascular health. Cocoa has more polyphenols than red wine or green tea. But to qualify, the chocolate must contain at least 70 percent cocoa solids.
This month, Hershey’s is introducing an extra dark chocolate that touts antioxidant power equal to three cups of tea, two glasses of red wine or 1 1/3 cups of blueberries. Impressive stats, but the company Web site (www.hersheys.com) points out that scientists are still investigating exactly how antioxidant scores relate to their activity in the body.
“Marketing folks are sometimes way ahead of the science,” Pratt warns.
When it comes to super foods, there is a lot of compulsive list-making going on. During the holidays, press releases touted the antioxidant powers of turkey (selenium), pumpkin (beta-carotene) and brussels sprouts (glucosinates). Some lists focus on a half dozen foods; USDA scientists have focused on 100 foods and spotlighted 20. But you can forget the numbers game and feel good about adding any of these to your grocery cart.
Why? High in folate, fiber and antioxidants, beans can help lower cholesterol and LDL levels, scavenge free radicals, moderate insulin levels and reduce cancer risk.
How much? Eat two ½ cup servings a day of cooked or canned beans.
Why? A true nutritional powerhouse, blueberries provide more antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable. Phytonutrients include anthocyanins, chlorogenic acid, ellagic acid, catechins and resveratrol, substances that fight cancer, heart disease and age-related memory loss.
How much? If possible, eat ½ cup fresh or frozen or ¼ cup dried blueberries every day. Eat any type of berry at least three times a week.
Why? Cruciferous vegetables are loaded with antioxidants. Broccoli contains cancer-fighting sulforaphane, indoles and carotenoids plus beta-carotene, lutein and zeathanin that promote eye health and ward off macular degeneration.
How much? Eat ½ cup raw or 1 cup cooked broccoli every day.
Why? Oatmeal’s already mighty nutrition profile just gets better when phytonutrients – lignans, caffeic and ferulic acids – are stirred into the pot.
How much? Eat at least three servings of whole grains a day. A serving equals one cup cooked oatmeal, ½ cup uncooked rolled oats or ¼ cup steel-cut oats
Why? An important source of vegetable protein, soy also contains isoflavones, an estrogen like substance that protects and maintains bone strength. Soy also contains important omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health.
How much? Eat one serving of soy foods a day. The size depends on the form of soy food. Try edamame for snacking out of hand.
Why? Spinach contains more than a Popeye-sized dose of iron. When it comes to antioxidants, it’s packed with carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein for eye health.
How much? Eat at least one cup cooked spinach or dark leafy green vegetable a day.
7. Sweet potatoes
Why? Loaded with beta-carotene, sweet potatoes boost the immune system. They also reduce cholesterol build up in the arteries and help fight age-related macular degeneration and a variety of cancers.
How much? Eat at least one ½-cup serving of sweet potatoes or other beta-carotene-rich produce (carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin and orange bell peppers) a day.
Why? Tomatoes contain lycopene plus a range of beneficial phytochemicals that protect against heart attack, cancers and age-related macular degeneration. Cooked tomatoes contain more lycopene than raw tomatoes.
How much? Eat one serving a day with a little bit of healthy fat, such as olive oil, to help absorb the lycopene. Servings sizes are one medium raw tomato, about one cup cherry tomatoes, ½ cup sauce, ¼ cup puree, two tablespoons paste or six ounces juice.
Why? If you’re looking for an excellent source of “good” polyunsaturated fats, walnuts are one of the few plant sources high in omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts are the only nuts that contain ellagic acid , a cancer-fighting antioxidant. The amino acid arginine can reduce the risk of heart attack.
How much? Eat 1-½ ounces of nuts per day. One ounce equals 14 walnut halves.
10. Wild salmon
Why? Wild salmon contains large amounts of omega-3, a fatty acid that reduces the risk of heart disease and heart attack by lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol. Omega-3s also reduce inflammation that triggers arthritis and autoimmune diseases.
How much? A serving is just three ounces, roughly the size of a deck of cards, or ¼ cup canned. Eat 12 ounces a week.
11. Extra-virgin olive oil
Why? The monounsaturated fats of olive oil are considered “good” fat that reduces cardiovascular disease, lowers blood pressure and prevents some types of cancer.
How much? Eat one tablespoon most days.
12. Dark chocolate
Why? Dark chocolate has the highest antioxidant content of any food. The darker the chocolate, the higher the count.
How much? Eat a one -ounce serving daily. Also, try grapes, red wine and green tea that are high in polyphenols, which boost good cholesterol. In addition to dark chocolate candy, try raw cocoa nibs. Although somewhat bitter, they have an intense, tannic flavor, like wine.
Sources: “12 Best Foods Cookbook” and “SuperFoods HealthStyle”
When it comes to phytonutrients, experts say we’ve only scratched the surface. With each new study, watch for more antioxidant-rich foods to arrive at a store near you. Here are a few creating new buzz:
Pomegranate: The newest research coming out is pointing to pomegranates as the next great super food powerhouse, with three times more antioxidant power than green tea and red wine. Pom, the marketing machine behind pomegranates, has trademarked the term “The Antioxidant Superpower.” “They say it’s dental floss for your arteries,” says Tricia DiPersio, corporate dietitian for Wild Oats.
Acai (ah-sigh-ee): Touted to contain 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and 10 to 30 times more anthocyanins than red wine, the little berry from the Brazilian rainforest is poised to samba its way into American hearts and diets. The acai contains vitamin A, vitamin C and omega fatty acids 6 and 9.
Gogi or goji (go-gee): A berry from Tibet that is high in antioxidants, goji is described at www.live superfoods.com as a cross between a cherry and a cranberry. “There’s not a lot of science on it, but you know there’s no bad berry on the planet,” says Steven Pratt, author of “SuperFoods HealthStyle” (Morrow).
Gold kiwifruit: An odd-looking, fuzzy fruit originally from New Zealand, it has become a mainstream supermarket item. Rich in vitamin C, it has more vitamins and potassium than a banana and more fiber than a bowl of bran flakes, according to a press release from Zespri Kiwifruit.
Quinoa (keen-wah): With the whole-grain emphasis in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, watch for less familiar grains to make it into the mainstream. A staple of the ancient Incas, quinoa is considered a complete protein because it contains all eight essential amino acids.
Not sure your chocolate is dark enough? Steven Pratt, author of “SuperFoods Healthstyles,” had mass market chocolates tested. Here are the brands that came out on top:
Newman’s Own Sweet Dark Dark Chocolate: 955 milligrams total polyphenols
Dove Silky Dark Chocolate: 811 milligrams
Endangered Species Chocolate Company Wolf Bar (with cranberries and almonds): 811 milligrams
Cadbury Royal Dark Indulgent Dark Chocolate: 765 milligrams
Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate: 739 milligrams
Chocolat de Dina Extra Dark Chocolate with Green Tea: 676 milligrams