It seems like every time I open a food magazine or read a food website these days, people are promoting the latest “superfood.” I’ve learned from these sources that my smoothie just isn’t complete without açai berries or maca, and that day without raw cacao is like a day without sunshine.
Superfoods are very trendy right now. Experts are predicting that new superfood products will become a $10 billion global industry by 2011. With so much money at stake, the “superfood” trend has been co-opted to sell everything from broccoli to vitamin supplements. So, with so much ado about superfoods, just what is a “superfood” anyway?
“Superfood” is new marketing jargon for a food that is particularly nutrient-dense, with more antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, enzymes or protein than most of the foods we are accustomed to eating. As you can imagine, there is wide latitude in that definition.
In various healthfood communities, superfoods are usually exotic plant products that come from far away lands. Some of these expensive, fashionable foods include goji berries from China and Tibet, açai, camu camu, maca, chia, and lucuma from South America, nonifruit and durian from Southeast Asia, mesquite and spirulina from Mexico, and chlorella from Japan.
While many of these foreign superfoods are very nutritious (and indeed, I have consumed my share of raw cacao and spirulina), why does more and more of what we eat in the U.S. carry such a heavy environmental and social footprint? Can we not get enough nutrition without consuming far-flung novelties shipped from thousands of miles away?
Some would argue that because of soil depletion, environmental pollution, and high-stress, modern life in the U.S., eating regular food just isn’t enough to be healthy anymore. And besides, these new superfoods are sustainably harvested in a way that protects the habitats they come from.
Hmmm. Let’s break this argument down…
Sustainable Harvesting. American entrepreneurs have been making a killing for the past decade selling luxury foods at a premium to people who don’t need them by paying undernourished peasants in developing countries a miserably low “fair wage” to “carefully” exploit their natural resources and sometimes displace their own staple crops.
Indeed if the choice is between clearing vast tracts of rainforest to grow superfoods on sterile plantations that abuse their workers (many of them children) and “wildcrafting” the same crop from its native habitat while paying a relatively high wage to the locals, the latter is obviously the better choice. But how sustainable can “wildcrafting” be in a $10 billion superfood industry, really? Even in our own country, precious, local superfoods like morel mushrooms, echinacea, and American ginseng have been “wildcrafted” almost to extinction in their natural habitats, and now must be farmed on a large, environmentally-compromising scale to meet demand.
Since the advent of industrialization (and the aggressive marketing that came with it ), we have increasingly become a nation of unfettered consumers. Americans comprise just 5% of the world’s population, and yet use more than 40% of its resources. Sustainable harvesting practices are simply not efficient enough to meet America’s ravenous demand for food we don’t really need. To be brutally honest about it, our insatiable hunger for everything from chocolate to soybeans is pillaging the planet and its people. Simply put, Americans are eating their way through ecosystems all over the world.
The choice to be a “green” consumer is still to be a consumer. Rabid consumption and sustainability are not compatible, no matter how eco-friendly we try to be about it. On a planet with finite resources, it doesn’t matter if we buy expensive, organic, “fair trade” cacao or cheap, plantation-grown cocoa—either way, we’re ultimately getting our chocolate fix by pilfering from the resources of poor people who may not even have electricity and indoor plumbing. A balance must be struck that is equitable and sustainable for everyone on the planet .
Soil Depletion. Soil depletion is a major concern in the U.S. Many experts believe we may be on the brink of a food crisis because we have squandered and contaminated this precious resource with decades of intensive, industrial farming practices. This begs the question: Why are we not working to rejuvenate our own soils with sustainable composting, waste management, and agriculture practices, instead of depleting the very fragile, tropical soils of other countries to meet the American demand for faddish specialty foods?
American demand for more food than we need is helping drive us to reach peak oil very quickly. What many people don’t realize is that this same demand is driving us to “ peak soil ” too. We can make a powerful statement against the malnutrition and environmental devastation caused by industrial farming by spending our money at home supporting small farmers who use good land management practices to maintain fertile soils that produce high-quality, local food.
Pollution and Stress. If environmental pollution and the stress of modern life are why we need better nutrition, then there is no “superfood” that can make up for toxic air pollution, chlorinated, fluoridated water, a processed-food diet, and a lifestyle that demands too much of us physically, mentally, spiritually and economically. Frankly, we would be much better off spending our money and energy fixing these important problems than buying goji berries.
“Regular” Food. If by “regular” food you mean the Standard American Diet of processed, packaged foods and pallid, pre-ripe produce shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, then I would agree: “regular” food is not enough to keep us healthy in the best of circumstances. In fact, this “regular” food is the very source of most of our health problems in the U.S. But before these nutritionally bankrupt, “regular” foods became the foundation of our diets (because of soil depletion, pollution and and a fast-paced lifestyle), most Americans used to eat quite well, mostly from domestically-grown, organic, in-season crops—and we still can.
I contend that other continents do not hold a monopoly on nutrient-dense foods. When grown organically, sustainably and locally, many traditional American foods can be every bit as nutrient-dense as any new-fangled food we might buy from afar. And, I believe that choosing such time-tested foods is a big part of solving our problems of over-consumption, soil depletion, environmental pollution and high-stress, modern life.
So, before you spend half your paycheck on the latest fashionable food with a name you can’t pronounce, try these 10 readily-available, smaller-footprint superfoods which you can affordably purchase or grow at home:
1. Avocado – Avocado is one of the world’s healthiest foods. The delicious and nutritious fruit has been cultivated in Central America for over 5,000 years. It also grows in many southern parts of the U.S.
Avocados are a good source of Vitamins C, E and K, Vitamin B6, folate, beta-carotene, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and dietary fiber. Avocados are also higher in potassium than a medium-sized banana. In fact, avocados contribute nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to the diet, including 81 micrograms of the carotenoid lutein, which some studies suggest may help maintain healthy eyes. Avocado is also very high in oleicacid —a type of monounsaturated fat that can lower cholesterol. It has also shown promise in offering protection against breast cancer.
Studies have shown that another unique benefit of avocados is that when they are added to salads, the body absorbs more nutrients from the other vegetables and fruits than it would have if the avocado weren’t included. The firm, creamy texture of a ripe avocado is hard to beat, and the fact that it’s so good for you is just another reason to start eating more of this great American food.
2. Blueberries – Blueberries are native to North America and were an important food source for the Native tribes for centuries. Blueberries are full of flavor and are very high in vitamin content, fiber and most importantly, antioxidants.
Packed with antioxidant phytonutrients called anthocyanidins, blueberries neutralize free radical damage to the collagen matrix of cells and tissues that can lead to cataracts, glaucoma, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, heart disease and cancer. Anthocyanins, the blue-red pigments found in blueberries, improve the integrity of support structures in the veins and entire vascular system. Anthocyanins have been shown to enhance the effects of vitamin C, improve capillary integrity, and stabilize the collagen matrix (the ground substance of all body tissues).
In addition to their powerful anthocyanins, blueberries contain another antioxidant compound called ellagic acid, which blocks metabolic pathways that can lead to cancer. In addition to containing ellagic acid, blueberries are high in the soluble fiber pectin, which has been shown to lower cholesterol and to prevent bile acid from being transformed into a potentially cancer-causing form.
While the best way to enjoy blueberries is wild and raw, they’re great used in all kinds of recipes. Besides fresh, they can be found frozen and dried, so you can enjoy them year round. And they make an attractive, easy-to-grow shrub in your backyard in most parts of the U.S!
3. Bone Broth – While this is a prepared dish with multiple ingredients, it’s hard to beat a thick, gelatin-rich bone broth for dense nutrition. Made from the bones of chicken, fish or beef, broth (or stock) has been consumed as a source of nourishment for humankind throughout the ages. It is a traditional remedy across cultures for the sick and weak. A classic folk treatment for colds and flu, it has also been used historically for ailments that affect connective tissues such as the gastrointestinal tract, the joints, the skin, the lungs, the muscles and the blood. Broth is a valuable food and a valuable medicine, much too valuable to be forgotten or discounted in our modern times with our busy ways.
Broth contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily. It is high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silica, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons—stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, which are now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.
Broth is rich in gelatin, which has been found useful in the treatment of a long list of diseases including peptic ulcers, tuberculosis, diabetes, muscle diseases, infectious diseases, jaundice and cancer. American researcher Francis Pottenger pointed out that because gelatin is a hydrophilic colloid (which means that it attracts and holds liquids) it facilitates digestion by attracting digestive juices to food in the gut. In fact, bone broth is a key superfood in healing the mucosal membrane of the intestines, relieving gut dysbiosis, leaky gut syndrome, IBS, Crohn’s disease and other severe digestive disorders.
You can make bone broth over the weekend using marrow bones and joints from beef, fish or chicken. Nourishing Traditions cookbook (and your grandmother, I’m sure) have some outstanding recipes. Or you can even order ready-made bone broth online from U.S. Wellness Meats. (Readers: If you order through this link you’ll get 15% off plus free shipping with code AFF15!)
4. Cod Liver Oil – Our grandparents swore that a teaspoon of this nasty stuff would cure all that ails us. Turns out, they were right.
Cod liver oil contains more vitamin A and vitamin D per unit weight than any other common food. Even a tablespoon provides well over the recommended daily allowance for both nutrients. In addition, cod liver oil contains 7 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. EPA is the precursor of important prostaglandins, localized tissue hormones that help the body deal with inflammation, and DHA is extremely important for the development and function of the brain and nervous system. EPA and DHA are extremely difficult to get from vegetarian sources. In fact, roughly one-third of the population is not able to synthesize these oils from flax or hemp seed, and must obtain them from animal sources to be healthy.
There is hardly a disease that does not respond well to treatment that includes cod liver oil—not just infectious diseases but also chronic modern diseases. Cod liver oil has been used to successfully treat learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, diabetes, glaucoma, obesity, hypertension, osteoporosis, rickets, cancer and more. It is a real powerhouse of nutrition not found elsewhere.
Eating fish will not provide the levels of nutrients that are found in cod liver oil. Even in heavy fish-eating populations, the addition of cod liver oil improves health. And taking fish oil capsules is not the same as taking cod liver oil either. One tablespoon of regular cod liver oil provides the amount of elongated omega-3 fatty acids found in twelve 1,000 mg fish oil capsules!
One concern about taking cod liver oil is the presence of contaminants—heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium and lead), PCBs, etc. Fortunately, all cod liver oils in the U.S. must be tested and approved free of detectable levels of 32 contaminants before they can be imported into this country. Furthermore, mercury is water soluble. It may be present in the flesh of fish, but it is not present in the oil.
Fortunately, today’s cod liver oil comes in capsules as well as flavors that make it significantly more palatable than in our grandparent’s generation. Some brands are almost yummy. We use Blue Ice High-Vitamin Fermented Cod Liver Oil, which is considered a raw food, the least-processed of the various brands, mindfully harvested, and of exceptional nutrient content and quality.
5. Hemp Seeds - When most people think of hemp, they associate it with stoned hippies and the Grateful Dead. But there’s so little THC in agricultural hemp that even if your entire diet were to consist of hemp foods, you still wouldn’t consume enough THC to fail a drug test. Since hemp still cannot be grown legally in the U.S., the seeds are imported from Canada, where hemp is permitted to be grown on the prairies.
Hemp food products are full of nutrition, and the seeds and oils are delicious. Hemp seed is superior to flax seed as a vegetarian source of essential fatty acids (EFAs) omega-6 and omega-3, which contribute to the health of our hearts, brains, joints and skin. Hemp’s ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is roughly 3:1, which is recommended by many health agencies including the World Health Organization. Hemp seeds are also a direct source of stearidonic acid, another omega-3 fatty acid. This is significant because linolenic acid is converted to stearidonic acid on its way to becoming the very healthy fat known as DHA. By consuming stearidonic acid you bypass the need to make it from linolenic acid.
Besides protein and fat, hemp seed contains fiber, vitamins (particularly vitamin E), plant sterols, and minerals like iron, magnesium and phosphorus. Hemp also has a balance of all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete vegetarian protein source. However, unlike soybeans and other beans, hemp is free of the trypsin inhibitors and oligosaccharides that inhibit mineral absorption and cause gas and indigestion. And, unlike most of the soy grown in North America, hemp is never genetically modified.
When you purchase hemp products, you buying an eco-friendly product. Hemp is a sturdy crop that grows tall and fast. Because it is so robust, the vast majority of hemp from Canada is organic, with no pesticides or herbicides needed. And, once the seed is taken for food production, there is a great deal left over that can be used for other purposes such as making paper, clothes and insulation. Growing more hemp for paper would be a great alternative to cutting down the world’s forests.
6. Liver – Good old fashioned liver is one of the richest sources of natural Vitamin A. A single serving of liver contains 1500% of the RDA of this otherwise hard-to-obtain, fat-soluble vitamin! Liver is also very high in easily-absorbed forms of iron, niacin, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, riboflavin, selenium, zinc, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12. These are all nutrients the average American is deficient in.
Liver is highly prized in many traditional societies as a superfood reserved for pregnant women, children and the elderly or ill. However, most Americans find it unpalatable. This is why I sneak it into my cooking. Minced and added to hamburger or chili, or boiled with bones into broth, if I didn’t tell them, my family would have no idea they eat a fair amount of liver.
Liver is very affordable no matter where you buy it. But, because the liver is the organ of detoxification, it is very important to buy it from a clean source. Grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef is really the only liver source you should consider. You can find this at Whole Foods, a local farm, a good butcher or online from U.S. Wellness Meats. (Readers: If you order through this link you’ll get 15% off plus free shipping with code AFF15!)
7. Oregano - This popular herb is an easy-to-grow, small shrub with multi-branched stems covered with small, grayish-green, oval leaves and small white or pink flowers that attract bees and garden pollinators. In warmer parts of the U.S., oregano grows as a perennial plant, but in harsher climates, it grows as an annual.
Like its fellow herbs, oregano is both medicinal and highly nutritious. The volatile oils in this spice have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus. In Mexico, researchers have compared oregano to tinidazol, a commonly used prescription drug to treat infection from the amoeba Giardia lamblia. These researchers found oregano to be more effective against Giardia than the commonly used prescription drug.
Oregano contains numerous phytonutrients that function as potent antioxidants that can prevent oxygen-based damage to cell structures throughout the body. Additionally, on a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano has demonstrated 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 12 times more than oranges, 4 times more than blueberries, and twice as much as superfood açai berry!
Oregano is a very good source of iron, manganese and dietary fiber, as well as a good source of calcium, magnesium, Vitamin, K, Vitamin C, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Whenever possible, choose fresh oregano over the dried form of the herb since it is superior in flavor, and is not irradiated. The leaves of fresh oregano should look fresh and be a vibrant green in color, while the stems should be firm. They should be free from darks spots or yellowing. Store fresh oregano in the refrigerator wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel. It may also be frozen, either whole or chopped, in airtight containers. Alternatively, you can freeze the oregano in ice cube trays covered with either water or stock that can be added when preparing soups or stews.
8. Pumpkin seeds - Pumpkin seeds are another American superfood that the Native tribes prized for their culinary and medicinal value. High in fiber and protein, these seeds are also a rich source of minerals, especially iron, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and zinc. Pumpkin seeds are also rich in the amino acids alanine, glycine and glutamic acid.
Pumpkin seeds are a great source of five of the B vitamins. One-quarter cup of roasted seeds contributes: 11% daily allowance of B-1, 16% daily allowance of B-2, 41% daily allowance of niacin, 4% daily allowance of B-6, and 8% daily allowance of folic acid. That’s a lot for a little seed!
Pumpkin seeds are believed to be beneficial for prostrate health, bones strength, arthritis, and killing intestinal parasites. Pumpkin seeds also contain compounds called phytosterols, which are believed to reduce levels of harmful cholesterol and also improve the body’s immune system.
Always soak your pumpkin seeds in pure water for at least six hours before eating them to remove any enzyme inhibitors that make them hard to digest. You can then dehydrate them or lightly roast them in the oven with a little salt and cayenne pepper to make the perfect snack.
9. Sweet Potatoes - The sweet potato is one of the oldest known cultivated foods in the Americans, going back over 9,000 years, and it is packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber. In fact, sweet potatoes are one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat!
Sweet potatoes contain 42 percent of the recommendation for vitamin C, four times the RDA for beta carotene, and, when eaten with the skin, sweet potatoes have more fiber than oatmeal. They are also a good source of manganese, copper, vitamin B6, potassium and iron. Their sweet flavor is satisfying and curbs the appetite longer by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
Sweet potatoes can be used in just about every recipe that calls for regular potatoes. Thick cut slices of sweet potato roast-up beautifully, and make a delicious, healthier substitute for standard French fries. In fact, you may find sweet potatoes so delicious that they become your potato of choice. When compared to the regular russet potato, the nutrient-rich sweet potato is a clear winner.
10. Wild Pacific Northwest Salmon - The benefits of eating salmon have been well chronicled, and it’s included in almost every “foods you need to eat” list. But, while eating more salmon is a great idea, eating more wild salmon is an even better one. The majority of salmon sold at the grocery store is farmed. Farmed salmon doesn’t eat a natural diet and is instead given a “feed” which often contains genetically-engineered grains and other foods not usually eaten by salmon in the wild. There is also a concern about contaminants, antibiotics, and toxins in the farmed salmon.
Wild salmon is very high in protein and, more importantly, it contains large amounts of the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Wild salmon is the greatest, and most delicious and bountiful whole food source of these omega-3 fatty acids. These important fats are thought to be very beneficial in supporting cardiovascular function, preventing cancer, fighting high blood pressure, and improving brain function.
While most grocery stores are now carrying frozen wild salmon (which in my opinion is a far better choice than fresh, farmed salmon), you can always find canned salmon. This great, and under-used product always contains wild salmon, and it’s inexpensive, delicious, and extremely healthy. You can also get sustainably caught, low-mercury, wild salmon (and other fish) online from Vital Choice.
Other domestic or smaller footprint superfoods worth mentioning include eggs, kefir, bee pollen/Royal jelly, cranberries, pomegranates, pecans, unsweetened chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, nettles and more! With so many nutrient-dense choices available close to home at a decent price, you really don’t need to eat exotic foods to maintain optimal health. So, save your money, eat right!
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