WHAT ARE SUPERFOODS
In the modern world, the nutritional content of the average diet has unfortunately dwindled over time, and most noticeably over the past 100 years. This is due to a combination of factors, a couple of which are considered in more detail below.
Farming methods and soil quality
Farmers today can grow two to three times more grain, fruit and vegetables on a plot of land comparable to that of farmers, say, even just 50 years ago, but according to the report 'Still No Free Lunch', the nutritional levels of modern crops are generally lower-yielding.
In fact, today’s food tends to produce between 10 and 25% less iron, zinc, protein, calcium, vitamin C, selenium and other important nutrients. For example, researchers from Washington State University analysed 63 spring wheat cultivars grown between 1842 and 2003 and found an 11% decline in iron content, a 16% decline in copper, a 25% decline in zinc and a 50% decline in selenium.
So why is this? For one thing, plants cultivated to produce higher yields (to satisfy the demands of growing populations, for the purposes of commercial gain etc) tend to have lower levels of energy for other activities, like growing deep roots and generating phyto-chemicals - health-promoting compounds, such as antioxidants.
And modern farming methods, such as close plant spacing and the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, can result in crops absorbing fewer nutrients, having unhealthy root systems and even developing less flavour – just some of the many reasons that organic produce has grown in popularity in recent years.
Rather than the artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides associated with conventional farming methods, organic farmers use, for example, manure or cover crops to ensure a steady supply of nutrition.
As a result, the plants tend to develop more robust root systems that more aggressively absorb nutrients from the soil and produce crops with higher concentrations of valuable nutrients and phyto-chemicals.
According to chief scientist of the US group The Organic Center, Charles Benbrook, organic food may have as much as 20% higher nutritional content for some minerals, and 30% more antioxidants on average, than conventional fare.
The modern lifestyle
And we can't ignore the impact of the modern lifestyle, with its fast pace, hectic schedules and changes to daily family eating patterns. For example, the relatively new phenomena of eating “on the go” or skipping meals altogether.
As a result, we often have too little time to prepare fresh, wholesome meals three times per day and so rely instead on frozen, processed and convenience foods and snacks. Unfortunately, such foods tend not to offer us the healthy, balanced and broad spectrum of nutrients our bodies need and crave.
Instead, such foods tend to be nutrient-poor, yet high in unhealthy elements such as saturated fat, salt, sugar, artificial additives, colourings, flavourings and preservatives. In fact, many of these undesirables are actually considered to be 'anti-nutrients', which can drain our bodies of goodness.
So what are superfoods and how can they help to potentially boost our nutrition and support our health, bearing in mind the factors mentioned above?
Even if you're not entirely sure what they are, you can't have failed to have at least heard of superfoods if you spend any time watching TV or reading the news. Over the past few years, there has been much hype in the media on this topic.
The phrase “superfood” is now somewhat over-used and can have a variety of meanings and interpretations, but it is generally meant to indicate a natural food that is particularly nutrient-rich and therefore considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.
There are no set criteria for determining what is and what is not a superfood; similarly, they don't have their own food group. Having said that, they are mostly plant-based (although some fish and dairy products have also be known to fall into this category).
A good rule of thumb, if you are trying to identify superfoods for yourself, is to note that they tend to be pigment rich and therefore brightly coloured. Much of the nutritional benefit derived from superfoods tends to stem from this pigment, which can be rich in antioxidants and a variety of other nutrients.
For example, green superfoods (like wheatgrass, pre-sprouted barley grass, wild blue-green algae, spirulina, chlorella and leafy green vegetables) are extremely rich in chlorophyll - the pigment that gives plants their green colour.
Chlorophyll is a powerful substance in health terms; not only because of its unusual resemblance to human blood in terms of molecular structure, but also because of the broad spectrum of nutrients it contains. A typical analysis includes the following:
-vitamins A, C, E and K
-all the B vitamins
Studies show that when chlorophyll is consumed, the production of haemoglobin in blood is increased. This, in turn, means more oxygen-rich blood, which is essential for cells to thrive.
Fruit and berries (such as raw cacao, maca, coconuts, acai berries, blueberries and goji berries), nuts and seeds (such as quinoa, flaxseed, chia, hemp seed, Brazil nuts and almonds), seaweeds (such as nori, kelp, kombu and wakame), seafood (such as salmon, krill and mackerel), and vegetables (such as shiitake mushroom, spinach, nettle and broccoli) are just a few examples of other foods that have garnered the "superfood" label. Of course, there are many others.
Such foods may be nutrient-dense in one or more ways. For instance, extraordinarily rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, dietary fibre, complete plant protein, Omega oils or antioxidants (and other types of phyto-chemicals, such as flavonoids), compared to other foods of a similar type. In this way, they are considered to be better placed to support a particular aspect of health and well-being, or perhaps overall immunity and vitality.
Given the difficulties facing the average person in terms of maintaining optimum nutrition in the modern age, improving the nutritional quality of food on a per-serving basis is an important priority for everybody, not just the health-conscious.
“Less nutrient-dense foods, coupled with poor food choices, go a long way toward explaining today’s epidemics of obesity and diabetes,” says Benbrook. What's more, poor diet can result in high toxic load, digestive disorders and a host of other health conditions.
Incorporating superfoods into your balanced diet can help to detoxify and alkalise your body, achieve your ideal weight and maintain optimal nutritional status. So get those superfoods on your menu! You may be surprised to find that many of them are surprisingly ordinary foods, not just those of the exotic variety.