Superfoods don’t have to be exotic or expensive — in fact, many are grown in Canada, easy on the budget and readily available at the grocery store. Here, some of our top choices.
Quinoa. Quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah”) is grown in Canada, and it’s as easy to cook up as rice. This ancient Incan staple has more protein than any other grain, not to mention higher levels of fibre, calcium, vitamin E, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. It has a balance of essential amino acids, and it’s gluten-free and easy to digest. (For more information, see FoodTV.ca.)
How to use it: You can use quinoa in place of rice or couscous in side dish recipes, soups, stews and salads, or enjoy it as a breakfast cereal topped with fruit or honey. Buy it in the bulk food section (rather than fancy packages) to save money.
Cranberries. Some berries get all the glory — like blueberries, strawberries, acai and goji berries — but they can be expensive or hard to find during certain times of year. Cranberries offer the same antioxidant benefits as other red berries, not to mention vitamins A and C and 2 grams of fibre per 1/2 cup, but we often neglect this potent fruit outside of holiday season because they’re too tart to be eaten alone.
How to use them: Use fresh or frozen berries in a rice pilaf or bruschetta, in a fruit crumble or crisp, in stuffing, chutneys or jams and in breads. Watch for recipes that incorporate other super-fruits like cherries, blueberries and pomegranate — the sweet will balance the tart. Dried cranberries can be enjoyed alone or used in trail mix, cookies and baked goods, or toss a handful on your cereal or salad.
Pumpkin. This food gets top marks from health experts, yet we often ignore it once the fall harvest is over. However, there are many reasons to eat it all year long because it’s packed with beta-carotene, vitamin A and other antioxidants. It helps support the immune system, provide protective benefits for the heart, fight aging and protect our eyes.
How to use it: Pumpkin doesn’t need to be fresh to be healthy. While canned pumpkin has less fibre, thanks to the heating process it often has more bio-available beta-carotene. Like winter squashes, pumpkin can be roasted, stuffed, used in baked goods (like muffins, pies and cakes) and soups.
If you’re using fresh, don’t throw out the seeds! They’re high in magnesium and a source of plant proteins and healthy fats. Roast them up for a snack, use them in baking or toss them on a salad.
Legumes (beans, lentils, split peas, etc). There are few excuses to avoid legumes — they’re cheap, easy to find (dried or canned) and an excellent source of those plant-based proteins we should be getting in our diets. In addition, they’re a good source of fibre, omega-6 fatty acids, water-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals. They’re also low-glycemic index foods — meaning they won’t cause a spike in blood sugar — so they’re useful to help prevent diabetes. With the exception of soy beans, they’re also low in fat. (For more information, see Oprah.com.)
How to use them: Salads, soups, stews and dips are just a few of the countless options — but you can also use them in baking and desserts. Canned legumes are more convenient (though more expensive) than dried versions which need to be soaked prior to cooking. If you’re short on time, opt for dried lentils which don’t require soaking or long cooking times. Serve them up with some rice to balance out the amino acids. (And yes, you can freeze them too.)
Because legumes are staple foods around the world, they’re also a great ingredient for international cuisine enthusiasts.
Kale. You can buy it just about anywhere, and it’s one of those essential leafy greens we hear so much about. It’s got a solid fibre content, calcium, iron, vitamins A, C and K. Kale is also packed with antioxidants, and sulforaphane and a compound called indoles — both of which are known to help prevent cancer. Like cabbage (and unlike spinach), kale holds its shape well when cooked.
How to use it: Use it as a salad green, shred it in stews, stir fries, soups and omelettes, braise it, steam it or sauté it with garlic and soy sauce. You can even bake it to create kale chips — or blanch and freeze for future use.
If kale isn’t your taste, try Swiss chard or cabbage — both have topped experts’ superfood lists.
Allium family vegetables. We’re familiar with the health benefits of garlic and onions, but experts like Dr. Perricone extol the virtues of the entire Allium family, including chives, leeks, shallots and scallions. This family contains flavonoids which prompt the body to produce more glutathione — a chemical which helps get rid of toxins and carcinogens.
Members of this family can also help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce the risk of blood clots and certain cancers and help fight neurological diseases. They also help support the immune system.
How to use them: Recipes aren’t hard to find because these ingredients are commonly used, but try to find ones where they get a chance to shine. To switch things up, try milder leeks or shallots in a stir fry or vegetable dish instead of onions, or toss them in a salad. Some alliums like garlic should be enjoyed raw for maximum benefit because cooking can harm some of their protective properties. (See Garlic for your heart.)
Beets. Nutritionist and author Jonny Bowden calls them “red spinach” for a reason: those potent pigments are thought to help ward off certain cancers like colon cancer. They’re also high in folate (an essential B-vitamin) and manganese, and the betaine found in beets can help fight inflammation in the body. (See WHFoods.com for more details.)
How to use them: Cooked is okay, but the best benefits come from the raw, fresh form. Grate it onto a salad or vegetable dish for an attractive splash of colour. You can also marinate them in olive oil, fresh lemon juice and herbs.
Prunes. They’re not as sexy as other superfoods, and often elicit a few jokes and giggles. While known for helping to promote regularity (thanks to the fibre), they’re also packed with phytonutrients called neochlorogenic and chlorogenic acid — which are powerful antioxidants that help prevent cell damage. They’re also a good source of beta-carotene and potassium — which offers a helpful boost for the heart and the bones. Prunes also help the body absorb iron, and despite their sweet taste they won’t raise blood sugar levels like other dried fruits. (See WHFoods.com for more details.)
How to use them: Enjoy them on their own, or chop them up and use them as a topping for cereal or in a trail mix. You can also use them in appetizers, stuffing and with roasted meats. Serving sizes don’t have to be huge — a quarter cup is sufficient.
Dark chocolate. Yes, experts agree that chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. Various studies have shown that chocolate has antioxidants which help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s also a great way to give our mood a little boost.
However, most of us reach for the wrong stuff when that sweet craving hits, so we’re not reaping the full benefits of those disease-fighting flavonoids. Cocoa is the key — but milk chocolate and some dark chocolate don’t have enough, and white chocolate doesn’t have any. Look for dark chocolate that’s at least 60 per cent cocoa, though some sources recommend 70 per cent and above. (See Top foods your heart will love for more information.)
How to use it: Do we really need advice on how to enjoy chocolate? Yes, because dietitians warn to keep the portion sizes small — a small piece each day is enough. Sprinkle some chocolate shavings on a fruit salad, or make your own hot chocolate from scratch. Many appetizer, side dish and main course recipes also use chocolate as a flavouring so they’re a good way to get some of this superfood without the fat and sugar of chocolate desserts.
If you’re feeling brave, try a Chocolate Beef Stew or a challenging Mexican mole sauce.
Super spices. What you put on your food can be just as important as what you cook. For example, one teaspoon of cinnamon has as many antioxidants as a serving of blueberries — making it a superfood favourite. Hot pepper (think cayenne or ground red pepper) contain capsaicin, another antioxidant which is also thought to boost the metabolism. Allspice, cloves, ginger, oregano and sage are also packed full of antioxidants.
How to use them: Give bland cooking a pass and get creative in the kitchen. Cook vegetables in ginger or your favourite herb blend. Try a Mexican Hot Chocolate or sprinkle some cinnamon in your coffee, or on your toast or oatmeal. Look for soups that contain turmeric, or add some herbs to your grilled cheese or mashed potatoes. (See Spices of life for more suggestions.)
Additional sources: University of Virginia Health System, Forbes.com, New York Times, Oprah.com