Superfoods versus suppl ements?
We’ve long been fed the line that certain vitamin and mineral tablets are essential for good health – so why are so many of us suddenly swapping synthetic supplements for natural nutrients? Jane Alexander reports
A new book is warning that vitamins might not be as healthy as we think: they could even be causing us harm. Dr Paul Offit, author of Killing Us Softly ( Fourth Estate) claims that vitamin supplements can actually increase our risk of heart disease and cancer. While that may come as a shock to most of us, many naturopaths — and, in particular, rawfood advocates — are not so surprised. They have been saying for years that the best way to supercharge our diet is not with manufactured supplements but with foods dense in natural nutrients — the so- called ‘superfoods’. In fact, many nutritional experts now eschew supplements altogether, claiming that foods like acaí, maca and chia are better, healthier and much safer than synthetic vitamins and nutritional supplements.
‘Superfoods are holistic health supplements that contain more nutrients per calorie than most foods,’ says naturopath Veronika Poola ( kaliyoga.com). ‘They are especially high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes. Unlike synthetic supplements, they are foods and come in a form that is recognised and more readily absorbed by the body.’
Pharmacist Shabir Daya, of online pharmacy victoriahealth.com, agrees. ‘ They offer great benefits,’ he says. ‘Providing not only vitamins and minerals but phytonutrients which have many beneficial properties.’ He points out that superfoods are also much safer than synthetic supplements. ‘Superfoods do not offer mega doses — megadoses of any nutrient can have a detrimental effect.’ But he is swift to point out that they aren’t necessarily a magic bullet and that you should take some of their miraculous claims with a pinch of salt. ‘Most foods that are touted as superfoods often do have very potent antioxidant properties,’ he says. ‘However, they may not have a complete profile of nutrients, which is why I recommend a balanced, varied diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, alongside superfoods such as goji berries, acaí and so forth.’
Certainly, there is a lot of hype around and some foods, such as bee pollen (supposedly ‘nature’s perfect food’), have very little by way of research to back up the claims made by their advocates. Many ‘green’ supplements, such as chlorella, spirulina and barley grass have also come under scrutiny from scientists who point out that the enzymes they contain are aimed at plants, not humans and that, while they don’t do any harm, they equally don’t do much good. But, equally, research shows that many of these foods do have powerful health benefits.
If you’re relying on supplements to boost your diet, now could be the time to investigate the superfoods. Expect many more to follow. ‘Watch out for moringa and reishi next,’ says Veronika Poola.
The 10 Top Superfoods
The following are the 10 most highly regarded superfoods, from acaí to ashwaganda, chia to cacao. We look at their claims to fame, the proof behind them and how to use them in your daily diet.
1 Acaí: the anti-ager and weight reducer
The claims: Exceedingly high in antioxidants, acaí is said to help prevent premature ageing. Its amino acid profile gives a sustained energy boost and its high essential fatty acid content helps regulate blood sugar.
Are they justified? Acaí berries contain very high amounts of essential fatty acids and omegas, proven to lower LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Plus they contain a remarkable concentration of antioxidants (twice the amount in blueberries), which may help combat premature ageing. In particular, the acaí berry is a dense source of anthocyanins (containing 10-30 more than a glass of red wine).
How to superboost it in your diet: Add half a teaspoon to juices and smoothies. Make sure it’s freeze-dried and not pasteurised.
2 Ashwagandha: the stress reducer
The claims: This ayurvedic tonic is an adaptogen that helps counteract the effects of stress and burnout. Can relieve nervous tension and restore sexual vitality. May help fertility. Are they justified? An impressive amount of research indicates that ashwagandha does have a host of benefits, including boosting immune function and enhancing brain chemistry — improving memory, soothing depression and easing stress. Its anti-inflammatory effect has been shown to be comparable to a dose of hydrocortisone and patients with osteoarthritis found it significantly reduced pain and disability. How to superboost it in your diet: Add a teaspoon to food or have it as a tea, up to three cups a day.
Cacao: nature’s Prozac
The claims: Pure raw cacao (the raw ingredient of chocolate) can reduce stress and anxiety and increase feelings of wellbeing. It is extremely high in antioxidants and magnesium.
Are they justified? The journal of the American Heart Association, Circulation, says, ‘Recent research demonstrates a beneficial effect on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and vascular and platelet function.’
How to superboost it in your diet: Add a desertspoon of the nibs to porridge, cereal or smoothies. Note: don’t take late at night — it could affect your sleep. Make sure you buy the actual nibs, rather than refined, sweetened cacao.
4 Chia seed: the appetite suppressant
The claims: Chia was apparently used by the Aztecs and Mayans for endurance and energy. It’s a gelatinous seed that adds bulk to food, making it an excellent weight-loss aid. It contains the highest vegetarian source of EFAs (essential fatty acids) and is exceedingly high in calcium and iron.
Are they justified? The American Society for Nutrition cites a study published in The Journal of Nutrition which showed chia could help reduce serum triglyceride levels and inflammation. But the Journal warns that more research needs to be carried out to verify other claims. Most research so far has been on lab animals, not humans.
How to superboost it in your diet: Soak the chia for 10 minutes (one part chia to seven parts water) as a breakfast base, or add to smoothies or soups or rice (add it when the meal is cooked).
Goji berries: the life extender
The claims: Nicknamed ‘the longevity fruit’, these small berries have potent anti-ageing and immune-enhancing properties. Said to increase stamina, strength and sexual energy too. Are they justified? A study reported in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that daily consumption of Goji berries for 14 days ‘increases subjective feelings of general wellbeing, and improves neurologic/psychological performance and gastrointestinal functions’. How to superboost it in your diet: Twenty-eight grammes a day is the ideal dose; sprinkle on porridge, cereal, yoghurt; add to tomato and red pepper dishes.
6 Hempseed: the hormone balancer/beauty booster
The claims: A superb vegetarian protein (a much better choice than soya or whey protein for athletes) with the ideal ratio of essential fatty acids. Hemp can encourage weight loss and a healthy immune system. It also helps promote glossy hair, healthy skin and nails, and may balance hormones and reduce inflammation. Can also help depression and soothe eczema.
Are they justified? A study in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism concluded: ‘Hempseed has the potential to beneficially influence heart disease. Cardiovascular patients may not be the only subjects who benefit from this research. Only time will tell if other diseases that have an immunological, dermatological, neurodegenerative basis may also benefit from this new nutritional intervention.’
How to superboost it in your diet: Blend one or two tablespoons into smoothies or add to soups at the end of the cooking time.
Maca: the libido raiser
The claims: Another powerful adaptogen, used originally by the Peruvians for energy and sexual prowess, Maca is said to help reduce anxiety, stress and depression and enhances libido and fertility.
Are they justified? According to the US National Institutes of Health, ‘Randomised clinical trials have shown that maca has favourable effects on energy and mood, may decrease anxiety and improve sexual desire. Maca has also been shown to improve sperm production, sperm motility, and semen volume.’
How to superboost it in your diet: Start with a teaspoon and gradually work up to a tablespoon per day on cereal or in soups and hot drinks (it works well with cacao).
8 Dragon fruit (pitaya): the super antioxidant
The claims: Dragonfruit was used by the Mayans. It is high in antioxidants and believed to help prevent diabetes and cancer, neutralise toxic metals and reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. It is also said to have wound-healing properties and to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Are they justified? A study reported in the medical journal Pharmacognosy Research suggests dragonfruit could help prevent diabetic complications and lower the risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure.
How to superboost it in your diet: Add it to
smoothies and salads.
Turmeric: the disease fighter
The claims: Turmeric is a potent antiinflammatory, antiseptic and antioxidant (five to eight times more potent in its immuneboosting effect than vitamins C and E). It helps to protect cells and inhibits the replication of damaged cells. Turmeric also appears to help arthritis, lowers cholesterol and protects the heart. It’s a powerful brain food and may even help weight loss and acne and strengthen bones.
Are they justified? The National Institutes of Health in the US have funded at least eight studies probing turmeric’s potential to treat a range of diseases from cancer and cystic fibrosis to Alzheimer’s and arthritis. An Italian study found it decreased arthritic pain 58 per cent.
How to superboost it in your diet: Add the
spice to curries, stews and soups.
10 Spirulina: ‘nature’s green magic’
The claims: Supposedly one of the most nutrient-rich foods, and the highest source of protein and iron (while being low in calories), spirulina is said to curb appetite and balance blood sugar levels, making it a good weight-loss aid.
Are they justified? Animal studies have shown spirulina to be helpful in chemotherapy-induced heart damage, stroke recovery, age- related decline in memory, diabetes and hay fever. But the US National Institutes of Health says there is insufficient evidence to recommend spirulina and that more research is needed.
How to superboost it in your diet: Add a tablespoon to citrus juices or add to salad dressings. Caution: If you have any medical condition, are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor before supplementing your diet