These antioxidant-rich items have the power to change your life
By: Jill Wendholt Silva
Knight Ridder Newspapers
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 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.
When Wild Oats Markets began a labeling program last year to educate consumers on the benefits of eating more super foods, the company went beyond naming individual foods to include entire categories of health-promoting foods, including seeds, sea veggies and “green foods” or supplements such as wheat grass, spirulina, chlorella and barley grass.
“The super foods list doesn’t keep changing; it keeps getting added to,” says Tricia DiPersio, corporate dietitian for the natural foods chain.
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.
Still, with the $640 million premium juice market projected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2008, it’s no surprise that Naked Juice is already marketing grab-and-go bottles of juice made from the obscure Brazilian berry known as acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee), which is touted to have 10 times the antioxidants of red grapes.
But typically Brazilians pour an avalanche of sugar on acai to tame its tartness. Naked Juice chose to combine the tart berry juice with sweeter apple, banana and white grape juices. “Sometimes with the higher antioxidant fruits, you need to find the right mix of fruits,” says Rachel Kenney, education manager for the California-based premium juice company.
In “12 Best Foods Cookbook” (Rodale, 2004, $21.95), Dana Jacobi highlights foods that are not only loaded with phytonutrients but also have what she calls a certain “voluptuousness.” After all, if a food doesn’t taste good, most of us won’t eat it no matter how good it is for us.
“I tried to look at foods beyond what its headline fame might be,” says Jacobi, a New York-based food writer and chef who developed the recipes for her book. “What these 12 foods do — besides providing phytonutrients — is they cover the whole range of what a balanced diet is and include variety.”
To that end, she made a choice to leave apples out of the cookbook, even though they taste great, are easy to buy and rate high on the USDA’s list of antioxidant foods. And she chose chocolate over red wine and walnuts instead of almonds.
“What I hope (readers) take from the book is the things that are good for them and have a good time with them. Not to have them feel like this is a duty or a sacrifice,” Jacobi says.
Food, after all, should taste better than a spoonful of medicine.