The skinny on superfoods

PHOTO: The skinny on superfoods

For the past few years the term "superfood" has been used and abused.

Various berries, grasses and algae have been branded as being sources of longevity, disease fighters and even IQ enhancers - claims that make "superfoods" an attractive prospect if not something of a miracle.

The basic promise of a superfood is that it is calorie-light for its size and packed with anti-oxidants and nutrients like an overstuffed suitcase.

A dictionary listing describes superfood as "a natural food regarded as especially beneficial because of its nutrient profile or its health-protecting qualities".

Some authors claim that foods like beans, pumpkin and oats can impact - in a good way - heart disease and cancer.

Peachy.

To be sure, the term superfood sits more comfortably in marketing parlance than in clear scientific definition.

Indeed, the rise and promotion of superfoods have drawn flak from nutrition experts, who say the claims are oversold or have little basis in fact.

With the increase in people looking to get healthy, these foods appear to be an attractive shortcut, but as Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St Georges Hospital London told The Guardian: "Nominating some foods as nutritional talismans gives the impression that ordinary, affordable and everyday foods are somehow deficient."

For example, a small serving of broccoli or spinach has just as much vitamin C and folic acid as 30ml of wheatgrass.

Loading up on exotic and exciting-sounding berries, grasses and algaes may not be helping you as much as you think.

The body is designed to take on only so many nutrients. Anything over that quota will be flushed out of the system.

According to the British National Health Service's report, "Miracle foods, Myth and The Media", the research on these superfoods is flawed.

The studies are too short-term and rarely consider other factors like diet and lifestyle. So what do you do? The best thing is to have a balanced diet with as little processed food as possible.

Ms Elizabeth Somer, a nutritionist and author of books like The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals, puts it this way: "Every superfood is going to be a 'real' (unprocessed) food.

"You don't find fortified potato chips in the superfood category."

The fruits

Apples

This is the Clark Kent of fruit - unassuming but packed with power.

But there really is something to that adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. One apple contains a quarter of your recommended vitamin C intake. The fruit is also packed with antioxidants.

What gives apples their special strength is a soluble fibre called pectin. Fibre helps keep your digestive system healthy and pectin can also help to lower blood cholesterol levels.

Just be careful when storing them though. They are odour-sensitive and absorb smells from whatever they are kept next to. So unless you love curry-flavoured or durian-flavoured apples, the fridge's crisper is ideal.

Broccoli

While most green leafy vegetables are good for you, broccoli is one that is very, very good. Eat it raw or cooked.

Part of the cabbage family (aka cruciferous vegetables), it contains vitamins C and A and is a great source of antioxidants, calcium, fibre and folic acid.

Not only is folic acid vital for healthy hair, nails and skin, it also keeps red blood cells healthy.

Folic acid is also a vital part of the diet during pregnancy.

Bananas

The perfect workout food.

They have three natural sugars - glucose, fructose and sucrose - which give a quick energy boost. Also a good source of potassium which helps boosts heart function and promotes healthy blood pressure.

It contains relatively high levels of potassium, which can suppress calcium excretion. Besides being good for your bones, it can help prevent kidney stones.

Bananas are also one of the rare fruits that contain vitamin B6, which helps your immune system stay in fine working order.

Coconut milk

Handily available in supermarkets, coconut milk contains many vitamins and minerals like potassium and calcium.

Calcium is good for bones, and this is a handy source if you are lactose intolerant.

It is a saturated fat made up of short chain fatty acids, the kind of fat your body can turn into energy rather than store as unhealthy and harmful fat.

Coconut milk is also a source of lauric acid, which boosts the immune system.

Papayas

Papayas are rich in vitamin C and contain the antioxidant beta-cryptoxanthin, which is thought to reduce the risk of polyarthritis (a condition which affects several joints at once).

The fruit also has fibre, which is good for beating constipation and keeping cholesterol in check.

jonrob@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The New Paper.

 

Purchase this article for republication.

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