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What are superfoods?


Whilst there is no standard definition, it is generally accepted that superfoods are foods that are particularly nutrient dense. But what does that mean exactly? And which foods qualify?

In this introduction to superfoods we put things into perspective with some nutrition basics before taking a closer look at the foods that make the superfood list.

 

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

What is nutrient density?
All about nutrients
What are macronutrients?
Why are amino acids important?
What are fatty acids?
Slow release carbohydrates
Why do we need fibre?
What are micronutrients?
What are vitamins?
Minerals in food
What are phytochemicals?
What are antioxidants?
Can nutrient density be measured?
The Superfoods List
Superfood vegetables
Superfood fruits
Superfood grains
Super seeds
Superfood powder

So, what is nutrient density?

Nutrient density is a term used to describe the amount of nutritional value a food can offer in relation to its calorific load. In other words, nutrient dense foods offer maximum nutrition for minimal calories. Berries are a good example. The flip side is the concept of empty calories; foods that offer little nutritional value beyond the calories they provide. A spoonful of table sugar for example.

The importance of nutrient dense foods

Nutrient dense foods are important for a number of reasons. Food may be our source of vital fuel, as any carbo-loading athlete will tell you, but man cannot live on mere calories alone. Quite the opposite in fact. We quite literally are what we eat, and the human body requires a wide range of nutrients to thrive.

Anyone who has ever struggled with their weight will tell you just how easy it is to consume too many calories, and the amount of food needed each day to maintain a healthy weight is surprisingly small. We don’t believe that anything should be off limits (food is, after all, so much more than just nutrition) but it does make sense to include in your diet many nutrient dense foods. Think of it like paying your insurance premiums.

Can nutrient density be measured?

The ‘aggregate nutrient density index’, or ANDI for short, ranks foods based on their nutrient density ratio, on a scale of 1 (least nutrient dense) to 1000 (most nutrient dense). It is based on a simple mathematical equation based on nutrient value divided by calories.

Se we can see, at a glance, that kale receives a top score of 1000. And yes, kale is indeed considered to be one of the most nutrient packed foods on the planet. We can also see that white bread receives a score of 9, and cola receives a score of 1. Also pretty fair.

Yet the ANDI system is a measure of micronutrient density. It fails to take into account the nutritional components of the macronutrients. This means that although it can give us insight into foods that offer the most micronutrients per calorie, it fails to recognise the inherent qualities of some foods that we might still class as a ‘superfood’.

Defining superfoods

It is true that foods from the top end of the list, which is dominated by vegetables and a few berries, come packed with more micronutrients and plant nutrients than those further down. Yet olive oil, packed with nutritional benefits including plant compounds, is considered only one point better than the empty calories of white bread. Avocados, almonds, bananas, and walnuts all receive a comparatively low score, yet each of these foods has a slew of nutritional benefits to offer.

This is why it is so important to eat a wide range of foods AND equally important to put calories into the context of their vital macronutrients.

Maybe a better description of superfoods would be ‘foods that are especially rich in nutrients that have been shown to have positive effects on human health’.

Also, perhaps now would be a good time for a nutrition primer. Understanding the food that you eat, and how it works in the body, will allow you to make your own decisions and reach your own conclusions about your personal nutrition choices and how you might define ‘superfoods’.

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All about nutrients

Nutrient. Now, that CAN be defined. A nutrient is “a substance that provides nourishment essential for the maintenance of life and for growth”. Almost all of our nourishment comes from food. Essential nutrients are those that the body cannot make itself. We can, for example, synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight but we need food and water to provide us with the rest.

There are six major nutrients; carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals, plus water. With the exception of water, which belongs in a class of its own, these are further grouped into macronutrients and micronutrients. Both of these are vital to the concept of nutrient density and superfoods, although superfoods do, by definition, involve a high volume of micronutrients. Don’t dismiss the importance of the macronutrients though. Not only do they provide the energy we require to live, in the form of calories, but they have some pretty important qualities of their own too.

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What are macronutrients?

Macronutrients provide, amongst other things, fuel for the body. They give us energy, measured as calories, that the body uses (or not) as required. They are known as the ‘macros’ because we need them in larger amounts. The macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrate.

All foods are made up of a combination of the three, in varying ratios, but we classify them according to what they provide the most of. Grains, for example, contain a little fat and a little protein yet are classified as carbohydrate foods as this is what they are primarily composed of. It is fairly obvious that meat is made of protein and fat, but without the small amount of carbohydrate in its composition it would never brown on the outside during cooking.

Essentially, carbohydrates provide the major fuel source for the body to burn. Protein and fat also provide fuel, which the body can burn, but they play an equally vital role in growth and repair. Although we measure them in terms of the calories they provide, the macronutrients each have their own superpower.

Let’s begin with protein.

Protein is made up of chains of molecules called amino acids. When we eat protein, our body breaks down the chains into their component amino acids.

Why are amino acids important?

Our body uses these amino acids to build proteins of its own. Just as they make up the proteins we eat, they also make up the proteins that the human body is made of. Skin, hair, tissues, and even cells (right down to our DNA) are made of proteins, that are made of amino acids.

There are 20 amino acids essential to our health. Nine of these are classed as essential. As the body cannot make these itself, we must get them from food.

What are fatty acids?

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats, which are referred to chemically as lipids. They join together in chain like structures, which the body breaks down during digestion. The composition of these chains determines whether the fats are saturated, mono-unsaturated, or poly-unsaturated. As we saw with the macros, most foods that we class as fats or oils are composed of all three types of fatty acids, with one type dominant. Saturated fats are by their very nature more solid than the more fluid poly/mono fats that we tend to identify as oils.

Essential fatty acids

As with amino acids, the body can make some of the fatty acids it needs but those that it cannot manufacture must come from the diet. These are the groups known as omega-3 and omega-6.

Both groups are polyunsaturated fats, and within these groups are hundreds of different fatty acids. The ratio between these two groups is important, yet we often consume way too much omega-6 in comparison to omega-3. This is widely considered to contribute to inflammation.

Omega-3 is a component of our cell membranes and plays a vital part in heart and brain health, as well as metabolism. The aim should be to increase omega-3 intake, rather than decrease omega-6.

That is not to say that omega-6 fatty acids are not beneficial. GLA (gamma-linoleic acid) for example may have anti-inflammatory properties, whilst CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is thought to play a role in reducing body fat. Don’t forget though that the focus should be on the diet as a whole, not on individual nutrients.

Beneficial fatty acids

Another group of fatty acids is omega-9. Although the body can make omega-9 fats itself, it can be beneficial to get it from the diet too.

Slow release carbohydrates

Carbohydrate is the body’s main source of fuel. Whilst we can metabolise fats and proteins for energy, the most efficient route is the breakdown of carbohydrate to glucose. Put very simply, the closer the foods are to glucose, the quicker the glucose hits the bloodstream. Simple carbohydrates, such as table sugar, are really easy to break down into glucose. Complex carbohydrates are much harder to break down, and as such take longer.

Carbohydrates are sugar, starch and fibre. Of these, sugar is the most simple. Starches are more complex and fibre is largely indigestible. Complex carbohydrates are usually whole plant-based foods that contain starch and fibre together.  Wholegrains, for example, or an apple.

Fibre is found in the cell walls of plants and is generally not metabolised by the body. Some fibre, known as soluble fibre, is partly digestible. Oats are a good source of soluble fibre, as are apples.

Why do we need fibre?

Indigestible fibre  (aka insoluble fibre), what we used to call ‘roughage’, is broken down by chewing. Other than that, it passes through the digestive system intact. Insoluble fibre aids ‘peristalsis’, which is the muscle contraction of the bowel that moves food through the system. It is essential for a healthy gut. Fibre also slows down the digestion so that glucose is taken up more slowly, and steadily. Hence, slow release carbohydrates. This is essential for improved blood sugar control.

Soluble fibre dissolves in water. It creates a gel that also slows down digestion. As well as helping to regulate blood sugar levels, soluble fibre is thought to help reduce cholesterol.

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What are micronutrients?

The whole concept of superfoods revolves around micronutrients. But for now, lets examine what these mean in terms of nutrition, and our health and wellbeing.

Micronutrients are the powerful substances that we need in much smaller amounts than the macronutrients, yet are equally essential to life. The body uses micronutrients in the cellular processes that are essential to proper growth and development. It would be impossible for the body to manufacture compounds such as hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters, without the essential micronutrients.

The essential micronutrients are grouped into vitamins, and minerals. Each plays a specific role in the maintenance of health. Deficiency will display as ill health and disease, not all of which will display obvious symptoms.

A balanced healthy diet should provide all the vitamins and minerals we need. However, modern food production, along with our increasingly toxic environment, has led to food sources with depleted nutrients as well as increased intake requirements. Superfoods are a great way to boost intake and ensure optimum levels of key nutrients.

What are vitamins?

Vitamins are organic compounds produced by plants and animals. There are 13 vitamins essential to human health and we get all of them from food, although the body can manufacture some of them to a certain extent.

The fat soluble vitamins A,D,E, K are stored in fatty tissues within the body. We need dietary fat in able to absorb them via our intestines.

The water soluble vitamins C and B are not stored in the body and leave via the urine. A regular supply of water soluble vitamins is required.

Minerals in food

Minerals are inorganic elements that come from the land and water on which plants and animals grow.

The macro-minerals are those we need most of, whilst the trace minerals are those we need in smaller amounts.

What are phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals are the bio-active compounds found in plants that are not essential nutrients for humans yet are increasingly shown to be beneficial to our health.

Each plant can contain hundreds of different phytochemicals, also known as phytonutrients or plant micronutrients, in varying combinations. These powerful plant compounds, of which we have identified well over a thousand, give colour and flavour to the vast range of fruits and vegetables that we eat as food. Which is why the soundest nutritional advice is to eat as broad a range of foods as possible. Plants, especially.

The importance of phytonutrients

Phytonutrients can support our health in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Indigenous peoples have understood the connection between plants and health for thousands of years, but technology has given us greater means to analyse, catalogue, and classify our findings.

Understanding phytonutrients goes a long way to explaining the importance of 5-a-day, although we now understand that 5-a-day is more of a bare minimum than a goal to reach for. This just serves to underline the importance of plants in the diet, with a very simple message. Eat as many fruit and vegetables as you can.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidant compounds are found in varying levels in almost all plants. The term antioxidant means ‘against oxidation’ and describes a particular function of a nutrient, not a specific group of nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, can all have antioxidant properties that fight against harmful oxidation in the body. The antioxidant powers in a particular plant may come from one antioxidant compound, or they may come from many.

The ORAC scale

Levels of antioxidants in foods are measured in ORAC units, which stands for ‘oxygen radical absorbance capacity’. Current guidance suggests a daily intake of at least 5,000 ORAC units daily.

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The Superfoods List

It may come as no surprise that most foods designated the title of superfoods are plants. We may have stressed the importance of all nutrients, and the belief that a healthy diet is a balanced diet, yet the power of plant nutrients cannot be denied. Plants truly are natures medicine.

Superfood vegetables

When it comes to nutrient density, kale and spinach are right at the top of the scale. Green leafy veg are considered to be some of our healthiest foods and are absolutely packed full of phytonutrients. Exceptional sources of chlorophyll, the green life force of plants, both spinach and kale help strengthen bones, fight inflammation and support heart health.

But it isn’t just about green vegetables. The advice to ‘eat a rainbow’ is more than just a marketing slogan. Beneficial phytochemicals are often the very same compounds that give plants their colour. The deeper the colour, the higher the concentration of these pigments.

Carrots, with their deep orange colour, are packed with compounds that support eye health and good vision. Carrots are one of the best sources of beta carotenes. The precursor to vitamin A, these pigments are also powerful antioxidants.

It is hard to imagine a more deeply coloured vegetable than beetroot. The intense pink colour of red beetroot is due to a unique group of antioxidants known as betacyanins. They support liver health, improve circulation, and purify the blood. Beetroot is also thought to strengthen the heart and help with blood sugar control.

Superfood fruits

Berries are widely considered to be the most potent of all fruits. In terms of antioxidants alone, 100g of raspberries provides the recommended daily intake as measured by the ORAC scale. They also contain compounds that are thought to stimulate the metabolism and regulate blood sugar levels. Strawberries are also full of antioxidants, and have a specific compound known as ellagic acid that is thought to have anti-cancer properties. Blueberries also exhibit anti-cancer properties, and some studies have shown promising results in the field of memory and the prevention of cognitive decline. Go, berries!

There are some berries that we are more familiar with in their dried form. Goji berries are a balanced source of protein, fat, and carbohydrate with a huge complement of vitamins and minerals. Acai berries have been at the top of the superfood charts for years now. Not something found in its fresh form outside of its native South America, acai usually comes as a freeze-dried powder. It has over 20 times the antioxidant power of raspberries and is also one of very few fatty fruits that contains high levels of essential fatty acids. Acai also has a great unique flavour.

Superfood grains

Cereal grains have many nutrient qualities, that are often overlooked. Of all the grains, oats are the one that we truly think of as a superfood. Oats are an important part of a healthy breakfast cereal, so why not start here, with our article on what makes a healthy breakfast.

Super seeds

Seeds contain all the life force of the plant that they will grow to become, and as such as full of nutrients. Flaxseed is one of the best seeds for essential fatty acids, and a power source of vitamin E. Full of fibre, flaxseed has compounds that are thought to help with hormonal balance.

Hemp seed is fast becoming a superstar of the superfood world. One of the best protein sources on the planet, with a full quota of essential amino acids, hemp is packed full of omega-3s and hormone balancing GLA. It has a strong mineral profile too.

Chia has gained a reputation as a bonafide superfood, with super high levels of healthy fats, fibre and antioxidants. It is a great non-dairy source of calcium and a meat-free source of iron. It doesn’t matter what colour you choose as they all come with a similar nutritional profile.

Did you know that cacao is from the seeds of the cacao tree? It is a true super seed. Cacao has almost as many antioxidants as acai, alongside off the chart levels of magnesium. You can read more about cacao right here.

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Superfood powder

It is not always easy to prioritise a healthy diet packed full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Time is the most cited obstacle of reaching our healthy goals. There’s the meal planning, the shopping, the carrying, the unpacking…and that’s before you begin chopping it all up and preparing your meal.

Superfood powders are an ideal way to boost your nutrient intake. All the hard work has been done been for, so all you have to do is incorporate them into your smoothies, snacks and shakes. Even your meals.

Greens powders are a great way to add the power of greens to your smoothies, without compromising on taste, yet they can also be stirred into soups and sauces for an extra boost.

Fruit powders make light work of shakes and smoothies, as you can mix them straight into milk or water without all the fuss of chopping it. We often buy fruit with good intentions only to let it fester in the fruit bowl, so fruit powders are an ideal store cupboard staple that won’t go to waste.

 

Why not explore our range of store cupboard superfoods and see how you can boost your nutrient intake today.


This article was reproduced on this site with permission from operafoods.com.au the “Acai Bowl and Smoothie ingredient Suppliers”.
See original article:- What are Superfoods

The post What are superfoods? appeared first on Boost Nutrients.



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