Secrets of 16 Strange and Popular Superfoods
Last Updated: Aug 15, 2016
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Chia seeds. Acai. Maca powder. Goji berries. Every day it seems a new “superfood” makes health news headlines. While no food on its own is a one-stop wellness solution, many of these popular health foods do offer health advantages to those who consume them. These benefits include everything from improved blood sugar control and a lowered risk for infections and chronic disease to increasing your odds for a long, vibrant life. Learning more about some of the latest dietary superstars can help take the “huh?” out of your grocery shopping decisions and add potent benefits to not only your plates, but your wellness. Read on to learn the REAL benefits these 17 superfoods have to offer. Check to see if your favorite one was included and if not, leave a comment below to let us know.
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Yes, the same seeds that sprout greens in Chia Pets can benefit your organs and waistline. A rich source of fiber, chia seeds promote appetite control and digestive health. Additionally, the healthy fats they contain play an important role in brain function and heart health. “Chia seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to our diets, but not abundant in the food supply,” said Tina Marinaccio, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer with Health Dynamics in Morristown, New Jersey. “Adding chia seeds to shakes, yogurts, cereals or smoothies is a great way to get these essential fatty acids, especially for people who don't like fish or are vegetarian.” A very small amount of chia seeds (1 ounce a day) will do the trick.
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This Brazilian berry is packed with antioxidants, healthy fats and amino acids, making it one of the world’s healthiest foods, according to Dr. Nicholas Perricone, a dermatologist and nutrition expert. Acai has a naturally sweet, chocolate-like flavor, and many of its nutrients derive from the pigments that provide its bright purple hue. It's a great source of omega-3s, helps reduce inflammation, improves blood sugar control and is said to even have anti-aging benefits. Although acai pulp and juice are available at grocery and health food stores throughout the U.S. your best bet is to opt for the frozen or dried kind because the have been picked and frozen or dried at peak of their ripeness. Make sure to check the nutrition label to avoid acai products with added sugars.
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Flaxseeds (also called linseeds) are reddish brown or yellowish gold seeds with a crunchy texture and nutty flavor. Like chia seeds, they can help you fulfill your needs for omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. Flaxseeds provide about 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon, compared to 5 grams per tablespoon in chia seeds. “Flaxseeds are particularly rich in lignans, compounds that seem to provide extra protection against many types of cancer -- a benefit that chia does not provide,” writes Monica Reinagel, a licensed nutritionist and professional chef. To reap these benefits, add ground flaxseeds to smoothies, yogurt, cereals and baked goods.
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Among the most nutritious foods available, seaweed is loaded with vitamins A, B-6 and C as well as iodine and fiber. “Some people are turned off because they think of the stuff that washes onto the shore and gets stuck in their toes, but most of us have already eaten seaweed without knowing it,” said registered dietitian Tina Marinaccio. For example, the sea vegetable carrageenan is used as a stabilizer in ice cream, vegetarian milks and pâté, nori is used to wrap sushi and wakame is used in miso soup. “Try adding kombu [seaweed] to a soup stock to make it flavor-and-nutrient-rich,” Marinaccio suggested. You can also snack on dried seaweed, add dried or fresh seaweed to tossed salads and sauté seaweed for use in pastas and stir-fries.
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While it is often prepared and eaten as a grain, quinoa is actually a seed with a similar nutritional profile to whole grains. One cooked cup of quinoa provides 5 g of fiber and 8 g of protein, making it a protein equivalent to about 1 cup of milk or 1 egg. Protein and fiber help keep your blood sugar levels and appetite control in-check between meals. For enhanced weight control, try replacing processed foods, such as enriched bread and egg noodles, with quinoa. As an added bonus, quinoa requires little cooking time -- about 20 minutes, compared to the hour-plus required for whole-grain rice. For a savory dish, season quinoa with curry blends or garlic, basil and oregano. For a sweet breakfast or dessert, add cinnamon, fruit, slivered almonds and a touch of honey.
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Nutritional yeast is yeast that’s been deactivated (i.e. it’s no longer living). It varies significantly from the yeast used to make beer or bread. Nutritional Yeast is a great source of B-vitamins, including vitamin B-12. This is important for strict vegetarians and vegans, since vitamin B-12 primarily occurs in animal-derived foods. Two rounded tablespoons of nutritional yeast fulfills adults’ daily recommended allowance of vitamin B-12 (2.4 mcg). The same size serving also provides 5 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein. Its cheesy and nutty flavor make nutritional yeast a healthy alternative to powdered cheese, salt and butter on popcorn, potatoes and baked chips.
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If you’re looking for a nutritious, low-calorie yet filling pasta alternative, reach for kelp noodles -- which are made from seaweed. Raw kelp noodles contain rich amounts of iodine, sodium alginate and water, according to Samantha Lynch, registered dietitian in New York City. As a gluten-free food, kelp noodles also provide a great pasta-type option for people with celiac disease. And while research is limited, according to Lynch, kelp noodles may promote thyroid health and weight control while guarding against heart disease and osteoporosis. Kelp noodles contain a mere 6 calories per 4-ounce serving. One serving also fulfills 15 percent of adults’ daily recommended intake of calcium.
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Feeling nauseous? Ginger could help settle your stomach. A report published in the Journal of the Australian College of Medicine showed that ginger syrup, ginger tea, grated ginger and ginger ale (made with real ginger) can safely and effectively reduce pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting. And though research findings are mixed, ginger may also help reduce motion sickness and nausea related to chemotherapy and surgery. Standard dosage to treat nausea is 1 gram of ginger per day and no more than 4 total daily grams. Ginger has also been used to relieve pain, inflammation and symptoms of the common cold. To make a tincture (similar to tea), soak fresh ginger root in hot water. No ailments to treat? Then enjoy ginger’s warm and spicy flavor in soups and casseroles.
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These nutty-tasting seeds offer a significant nutritional punch. A single tablespoon of hemp seeds provide 3.5 grams of protein, more than chia or flaxseeds. Like chia and flax seeds, hemp seeds are also rich in healthy omega-3 fats (2,500 mg in only 1 tablespoon!), which most Americans are lacking. Use hemp seeds as you would flax or chia seeds -- as healthy additions to juices, smoothies, yogurt and baked goods. “With their nutlike taste and texture, hemp seeds are particularly good for sprinkling over casseroles, vegetables or salads,” suggests Monica Reinagel, a licensed nutritionist and professional chef.
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Maca powder comes from a Peruvian root vegetable. It's believed to promote energy, stamina and fertility and sex drive. According to the New York University Langone Medical Center, most of the research on maca has been conducted on animals, but there have been a couple of human trials that yielded interesting findings. One study showed increased sex drive – not function – in males. Another study showed that it can increase sperm count – however this study did not have a control group, thus making the results meaningless in the scientific community. As a rich source of B-vitamins, vitamins C, D and E, iron, copper and potassium, maca powder unarguably provides a simple way to increase your micronutrient intake. Simply add the powder to baked goods, smoothies, yogurt, tea and cereals.
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Aloe vera is a prickly plant with gel-filled leaves that consist of 99 percent water. Aloe vera juice and gel have been used for thousands of years to treat skin irritations and constipation. Aloe juice may help improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes. And while research is lacking, aloe gel may guard against dental cavities by reducing oral bacteria. Another benefit is that aloe vera extract may help reduce liver damage associated with alcohol abuse. The bitter liquid in aloe leaves can stimulate bowel movements, but because it causes painful cramping, it isn’t considered safe for laxative use. Aloe vera is available in juice, cream and supplement forms.
Black garlic is just regular garlic that has been fermented for about a month in a temperature-and-humidity-controlled space. “Black garlic is sweeter in taste,” says Tan Ai Shan, a dietitian in Singapore. “The pungent smell and spiciness in fresh garlic is removed during the fermentation process.” Although research in humans is limited, it does seem to provide benefits. An animal study published in Nutrition Research and Practice in 2009, showed that aged black garlic provides more potent antioxidant effects than regular garlic and may help prevent diabetes complications. Use black garlic as you would white garlic, adding it to vegetable dishes, meat marinades and sauces. You can also bake black garlic cloves for use as a spreadable, dairy-free butter.
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Green tea has been popular for centuries throughout Asia. Of all teas, it has the richest amounts of antioxidants, promoting strong immune function. In recent years it has gained even more popularity because it is said to help people manage their weight. A study featured in American Family Physician in 2009 showed that obese adults who consumed a beverage containing green tea extract for 12 weeks lost significantly more body fat than adults who consumed a placebo. Green tea may help minimize the effects of bladder cancer, esophageal cancer, inflammatory diseases and diabetes. While the tea itself is considered safe, green tea supplements can cause side effects. Before taking green tea capsules, seek guidance from your doctor.
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Goji berries are believed to guard against high blood pressure, diabetes, eye problems and early death. While more research is needed, an animal study published in Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences in 2010, showed that goji berry juice could help protect skin from UV radiation damage. Many of the health claims, however, remain unproven. If you enjoy the taste of goji berries and can afford their somewhat high price tag, they may be a good option. At the very least, eating goji berries will give you antioxidants and fiber similar to what you would get in eating other (more affordable) berries. Otherwise, Alison Hornby, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, suggests aiming for a variety of other better known and available fruits and vegetables instead.
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Americans spent more than $295 million on kombucha tea in 2009, inviting benefits and potential risks, according to a 2010 New York Times piece. Although evidence is lacking, the fermented tea is believed to aid digestive problems, hair loss, fungal infections, insomnia and even cancer. The fermentation process stimulates production of probiotics, which have shown promising effects on various conditions, including yeast infections and the infections behind most ulcers, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Excessive kombucha tea intake has been linked with complications, however, including some deaths. Because some of these effects derive from materials the tea is prepared in, choose varieties not brewed in ceramic, lead or painted containers. Moderate intake of the tea is considered safe.
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A study published in Food Research International showed that cocoa products (including cocoa bean husks, shells and insides) are a good source of antioxidant-rich compounds. But before you start eating chocolate bars daily, you should know that cacao -- chocolate in its natural form -- is devoid of added sugars and high-fat cream. To obtain the benefits of cacao, such as improved blood pressure and a lowered risk for heart disease, choose dark or raw chocolate. Densie Webb, a registered dietitian in Austin, Texas, recommends opting for chocolate consisting of 70 percent or more pure cocoa. Raw cacao tastes bitter, so add it to other foods, such as smoothies, granola, oatmeal or even yogurt, for a tasty, nutritious treat.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THESE SUPERFOODS?
Were you surprised by any of the superfoods on our list? Do you eat any of them? Do you have recipes you want to share? Are there any new ones on this list that you are going to try? Also, did we mention your favorite superfoods? Are there any important superfoods we missed? Let us know by leaving a comment below. We would love to hear from you.
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