Superfoods may bring to mind the image of a superhero—caped and masked, ready to swoop in to save you from bad food decisions. The reality is that while superfoods may not be able to whisk away the evil effects of every dietary supervillain, consuming them regularly can have heroic results: more energy, better skin and less likelihood of developing chronic disease.
Jennifer Iserloh, an integrated holistic health coach and author of The Superfood Alchemy Cookbook (Da Capo Lifelong, 2019), says the term was coined in the early 2000s. “To me, a superfood is a food that is extremely nutrient-dense,” she says. While something like celery may have 1 to 2 percent of the micronutrients a person needs in a given day, a superfood such as kale may have 50 to 100 percent in the same serving size. “It’s a vast difference in terms of nutritional load.”
People have long known that some foods contain vitamins and minerals that are important, says Tonia Reinhard, R.D., a senior lecturer at Wayne State University and author of Superfoods: The Healthiest Foods on the Planet (Firefly, 2014). “What they didn’t know about were the phytonutrients. These are compounds that are mostly in plants, although a few appear in animal products. They’re things like beta-carotene or lycopene.” Phytonutrients are typically found in higher quantities in superfoods and can help ward off disease. They do this by fighting inflammation and oxidative damage, which can be key processes in many illnesses.
Superfoods aren’t a magic cure for all that ails you. But they can exponentially enhance your daily diet. “The more superfoods you eat, the more chances you have for prevention,” Iserloh says. Medicine is great when we have an emergency, but when it comes to protecting the body, good nutrition is the greatest weapon, she explains.
The exotic superfood du jour (acai berries! broccoli sprouts!) often hogs the media spotlight. But there are plenty of affordable choices lining the produce cases and shelves at supermarkets. A group of experts share eight of their favorites.
When it comes to picking superfoods, kale continues to be at the very top, Iserloh says. In addition to being rich in nutrients such as iron and vitamin C, it contains something called glucosinolates, which are compounds that pull toxins out of the body. The fiber in kale also bonds to fat in the gut, which recent studies have shown can reduce cholesterol.
“I always tell people not to steam anything in the cruciferous family,” Iserloh says. “[These foods] benefit from roasting because it compounds the sweetness. That’s one of the reasons kale chips got so popular.” She recommends tossing kale with olive oil and roasting it at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, or until it is crispy and beginning to brown. Combined with mayonnaise and artichokes in the blender, kale also makes a terrific dip.
The powerhouses of the fruit world, colorful berries are sought after for compounds that help the body in multiple ways. At the recent Berry Health Benefits Symposium, an international conference on the latest scientific research into berries and health, Navindra Seeram, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, summed up the pluses of various berries in this way: Blueberries are great for the brain, strawberries benefit the cardiovascular system, cranberries play a role in preventing urinary tract infections, and black raspberries show promising signs of slowing or preventing the growth of certain cancerous tumors.
“Berries can be eaten fresh, but there’s clear data that if you can’t get your berries fresh, they’re just as healthy when they’re frozen or freeze-dried,” Seeram says. The compounds will survive heating and chopping, too. Don’t hesitate to make a blueberry compote to accompany pork chops, a strawberry salsa for chicken or a smoothie with any combination of berries.
Broccoli and Other Brassacas
Broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower all belong to the plant family Brassicaceae (so does kale). Though they differ in appearance, they share a common trait: a high dose of fiber and phytonutrients, including indole-3-carbinols. “They have the ability to sponge up bad estrogen,” Mincolla says. (Just as there is good and bad cholesterol, scientists now believe there is good estrogen, which helps prevent cancer, and bad estrogen, which may cause it.)
All of these vegetables benefit from roasting, which caramelizes the natural sugar and tamps down the bitter flavor of the sulfurous compounds. Roast a batch of veggies and serve them as a side dish for dinner. The next day, toss any leftovers on a green salad with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Chickpeas, soybeans and other beans are high in isoflavones, which are a type of phytoestrogen, a plant-based substance that affects the body in much the same way as human-produced estrogen. Because of that, “beans have the ability to slow down a lot of symptoms of menopause,” says Mark Mincolla, Ph.D., author of The Whole Health Diet (TarcherPerigee, 2015). Women struggling with hot flashes might consider adding more to their diet.
Anyone with an Instant Pot can cook up a batch of beans in almost no time at all. Keep beans around to throw on top of a salad, scramble with eggs and tomatoes, or blend into hummus-style veggie dips.
This leafy green is loaded with vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron and several other nutrients. Getting the maximum nutritional benefit from spinach (and many other leafy green vegetables) requires preparing it correctly and not overcooking it. “When you crack open the cells of these superfoods, it makes them more bioavailable, so blending them raw is actually good,” Iserloh says. That makes greens like spinach a good choice for dishes such as smoothies, dips and pesto.
Several of the nutrients in spinach, including vitamins A and K, are water-soluble. Thus, steaming the leaves can destroy the nutrients. As an alternative, Iserloh recommends pan-searing spinach with a bit of grass-fed butter or olive oil.
Mushrooms were once used as medicine, and when you look at a list of their beneficial compounds, it’s not hard to see why. Protein, fiber, B vitamins, phytonutrients—it seems mushrooms have it all.
Reinhard is a fan of enoki mushrooms, which are the long, stringy-looking fungi from Japan that can sometimes be found in produce departments. “What I like to do is sauté some onions until they’re nice and brown; then I put in some regular mushrooms that are a little cheaper, then put in the enoki and then add a little soy sauce, which also has phytonutrients,” she says. The whole mixture can be served as a side dish or a topping on baked potatoes.
Red Bell Peppers
The nutrient information for red bell peppers reads almost like a vitamin bottle. They are high in folate, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, potassium, manganese and vitamins A, B6 and C. “[The vitamin A] comes in the form of several free-radical-fighting antioxidant carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin,” Reinhard says. This is a great vegetable for people looking to consume more foods with antioxidant properties.
Reinhard recommends putting peppers in soups or egg dishes, such as frittatas and omelets. Iserloh likes to roast them and blend with almonds to make a Romesco sauce that’s delicious on pasta or as a dip.
Reinhard refers to coffee as a laboratory in which all kinds of phytonutrients work together to benefit the body. “Coffee pretty much has zero calories until you start putting stuff in it,” she points out. It is high in antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, can help control blood glucose levels, and is packed with essential B vitamins and other nutrients.
Chlorogenic acid, which is found in green coffee beans and may be retained if the beans are roasted a certain way, is thought to help with weight loss.
There’s no denying that superfoods pack a nutritional punch. Get the most out of them by eating a good variety as part of an overall balanced and healthy “super” diet.