When did we become so hungry for health-miracles and super-cures? Has it always been like this–or is it a more recent desire borne from the fear of ill-health caused by the modern world? All I know is that when I consider the struggle our bodies are up against–air and water pollution, synthetic and processed foods, chemical toxins–I find myself clinging to every last study, report and trend that promotes beneficial health claims!
Which brings me to superfoods. Super foods. What a brilliant concept, and how well it plays into the current health zeitgeist: Simple, healthy foods teeming with antioxidants that patrol our bodies and smack down those villainous free radicals, thus taming cell destruction. My heroes! It makes one want to eat nothing but goji berries and pomegranate juice–take that free radicals!
Many say that the antioxidant action provided by superfoods protects against cancer and heart disease, among a host of other ills–while others point out that few carefully controlled studies have been conducted. All I know is that eating food that has a high ORAC value (the rating system for antioxidants) feels deeply, instinctively right to me. Maybe I have been brainwashed by the hype, but at the very least, I know that eating a wide variety of pure, whole food is a very good thing. The very best thing, in fact. At the very least, it certainly can’t hurt.
I also know that it’s important for the sake of sustainability to eat as locally as possible, which makes eating many of the fresh superfood fruit and vegetables for those of us in colder climes more of a challenge. But this opens the door to preserved foods and winter produce. These are the unsung superstars–the dried, frozen, cold-stored and cruciferous crew–they may not glam up like their bright and shiny summer cousins, but they are clearly the humble heroes here. With that in mind, I went over the USDA list of foods with the highest antioxidant levels and sifted out the ones that work well in the winter months. (The report goes by the catchy title: Lipophilic and Hydrophilic Antioxidant Capacities of Common Foods in the United States–those USDA scientists are just a barrel of monkeys.)
Here are the contenders for the top winter superfoods, all of these scored within the top 20 antioxidant-containing foods according to the USDA:
Cinnamon has one of the highest antioxidant levels on the list, and has an added bonus in that it may help you better regulate your blood-glucose levels. Although I realize that cinnamon’s not exactly a “local” product for those of us not in Indonesia, it doesn’t seem like the worst offender in terms of carbon footprint–one little stick goes a long way. See Cinnamon’s Secret Health Benefit for more on cinnamon.
People always lament that the tasty things are the worst things for our health–case in point: French fries. But how about pecans? Yum! Pecans have shown to significantly lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL. Frequent consumption of nuts is associated with a lowered risk of sudden cardiac death and other coronary heart disease, as well as a lower risk of Type II diabetes in women. A handful of pecans can brighten a meal, but make Vegan Pumpkin Pecan Pie for full-on swooning.
A Penn State-led review of the available evidence from 66 published studies, supports the view that consuming flavonoid-rich chocolate, in moderation, can be associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Chocolate that is minimally processed and has the highest cocoa content (which means the darkest chocolate) has the highest level of flavonoids. With dark chocolate, even eating as little as 30 calories per day can have a moderate effect. (But more can make you really happy.) For more about chocolate, including information about Fair Trade Certification and some fabulous recipes, see: Easy Greening Chocolate.
Pomegranates offer very high antioxidant activity–and research shows that drinking pomegranate juice may help with lowering the risk for hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis. I find eating pomegranate fruit one of life’s simple pleasures, but for a daily dose, pomegranate juice is more accessible. To read more about pomegranates and see recipes, see Prime Time for Pomegranates.
Red Delicious Apples
In addition to high anti-oxidant levels, apples have a huge array of excellent health benefits. Although I’m crazy about heirloom varieties that I can get locally, Red Delicious apples scored the highest for anti-oxidant levels on the USDA list; but I’m sure the USDA didn’t tackle a huge variety of apples for testing. I wonder how my local Esopus Spitzenberg or Hudson’s Golden Gem varieties would have scored? Along with the high antioxidant magic from apples, they are also rich in pectin, a form of soluble fiber known to help lower cholesterol. Read Apples for Your Heart? for more about the healthy benefits of apples.
Blueberries are the rock stars of high-antioxidant fruit and vegetable family–they have a super high ORAC level, are widely available, and easy to eat. Even though freezing can degrade some of the nutrients, frozen blueberries are available year-round and don’t spoil. Frozen blueberries work well plain, on cereal, in smoothies–and incorporate nicely into baked goods like Blueberry Coffee Cake.
I know they generally go by the more rustically-glamorous, marketing-friendly name of dried plums these days, but I say, call a prune a prune. Prunes are very high in anti-oxidants, and are a good source of energy in the form of simple sugars, yet they do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar concentration, possibly because of high fiber, fructose, and sorbitol content. Additionally, the high potassium content of prunes might be beneficial for cardiovascular health. Plums are an important source of boron, which is thought to play a role in prevention of osteoporosis. Pureed prunes make a miraculous substitute for fat in baked goods: Try Guilt-Free Golden Door Chocolate Chip Cookies and a vegan recipe for Peaceful Poppyseed Prune Bread.
Red or Kidney Dried Beans
An excellent source of protein, antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, beans are flavorful, nutritionally dense, inexpensive and versatile. Read about heirloom varieties and cooking tips in Cool Beans.
Potatoes got a bad reputation in modern nutrition lore, most likely because of their high starch content–but potatoes are awesome. They contain no fat or cholesterol, have 3 grams of protein per medium potato, 2 grams of fiber (with skin on), which may aid in weight loss, lower blood cholesterol levels and decrease risk of heart disease. They have 45% Daily Value (DV) of vitamin C and 18% DV of potassium. Russet potatoes are specifically high on the list, but as is the case with apples, I’m sure a limited variety of potatoes were tested by the USDA. I imagine that the deep-hued varieties have even more anti-oxidants, like the Adirondack Red or Peruvian Purple. Read about cool potato varieties and recipes.
A New York Times article in December suggests that cabbage is the most important [vegetable] in the world from the point of view of nutritional benefits and cancer-fighting ability. Cabbage possesses phytochemicals including sulforaphane, which studies suggest protects the body against cancer-causing free radicals, and indoles, which help metabolize estrogens. It’s also an excellent source of vitamins K and C, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin B6, folate, manganese and Omega 3 fatty acids. Slaw is the obvious application for cabbage–this recipe is cumin-spiced which makes it winter-palate friendly: Moroccon Carrot and Cabbage Salad, while this French recipe for Moulin Rouge Cabbage is a great alternative to the basic braised version.