We’re often fed news about superfoods and superherbs — and it’s tempting to want to believe everything we’re told. Some superfood claims are backed by scientific studies, while other enticing claims turn certain foods into fads, though the foods have few proven benefits. We looked at the studies of 10 pantry picks and give you the real goods about their disease-fighting powers.
Rhubarb is frequently regarded as a fruit (based on how we eat it), but botanically it is a vegetable belonging to the same family as sorrel and buckwheat. Championed for its phytochemical lindleyin, this nutritional all-star makes the cut for its potential role in relieving hot flashes in perimenopausal women. How the plant cools hot flashes is not exactly clear. Researchers have identified an extract in the root that may have estrogen-like properties. Need another reason to eat rhubarb? The plant is rich in potassium, vitamin C and dietary fibre.
Dietary uses: Canadian-grown rhubarb is available from February to July in most grocery stores but is most flavourful in the spring. Rhubarb is commonly eaten cooked in jams or spreads; baked in pies, cakes and muffins; and used in sorbet, ice cream and punch. Further studies are needed to determine the safety of medicinal amounts of the extract — in concentrated pill form it may cause stomach cramps and mineral and electrolyte imbalances. Rhubarb root should not be consumed by children, or women who are pregnant or lactating.
2. Pumpkin seeds
This versatile seed, also known as pepitas, has long been treasured by American aboriginal peoples for its dietary and medicinal properties. Now these seeds are receiving the superfood attention they deserve. Of all the nuts and seeds typically consumed as snacks, pumpkin seeds are among the leaders of phytosterols — a naturally occurring compound with an established reputation for cholesterol-lowering properties. Phytosterols are also being studied for their potential role in prostate health. Each 1/4 cup (50 millilitre) serving of the seed provides a healthy dose of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is a good source of minerals, including phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and iron, making it one of the most nutritious and flavourful seeds around.
Dietary uses: Pumpkin seeds are available year-round from grocery stores but are freshest in the fall when pumpkins are in season. They make a good snack, either on their own or mixed with walnuts, almonds, peanuts and dried fruit. High in fibre, they lend crunch and nutty flavour to salads, vegetables, pasta dishes, sauces and casseroles. But watch your portion size; one cup (250 milliltres) packs 750 calories.
3. Goji berries
Hailed as the newest superfood, goji, a Himalayan berry, has inspired a surge of interest for its use in treating diabetes, hypertension, malaria, fever, cancer and other ailments. Gram for gram, goji berries pack more vitamin C than some oranges and more beta-carotene than carrots. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t enough evidence yet to confirm the health claims, since we only have testimonials and animal studies to go by. And goji berries and goji juice are costly.
Dietary uses: Goji berries are similar in taste to raisins but more tart. They can be eaten raw or cooked and are a tasty addition to tea, soup and hot cereal.
Valued in ancient times as currency and once considered more precious than gold, cinnamon — one of the world’s oldest known spices — has made the pilgrimage from spice rack to science lab. Preliminary studies are investigating its role in lowering blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, most likely due to the insulin-like effects of its polyphenols (natural substances found in plants). It’s still too early to know if cinnamon can help curb blood sugars, but with studies suggesting its effects can be seen with a daily dose of just half a teaspoon (two millilitres), it’s worth keeping this spice in mind when reaching into the spice cabinet.
Dietary uses: Cinnamon (the inner bark of the tropical cinnamon tree) comes in the form of sticks and powder. Sprinkle it on toast, add it to oatmeal or use it on desserts. Make cinnamon tea by pouring one to two cups (250 to 500 millilitres) of boiling water over one- to 1-1/2-inch sticks; steep for 10 minutes. Caution: Ingesting four tablespoons (60 mL) of cinnamon oil has been linked to serious side-effects.
Regarded as a sacred food by the Incas, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals. This supergrain seed contains more protein than most cereal grains (22 grams per one cup/250 millilitres uncooked quinoa) and is considered a complete protein because it contains all eight of the essential amino acids we need for tissue development.
Quinoa is higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc, and lower in sodium compared with wheat, barley and corn. This gluten-free grain also receives an honourable mention for being low in saturated fat (one gram of fat per one cup/250 millilitres uncooked quinoa).
Dietary uses: Quinoa can be substituted for most hot cereals and is a good replacement for rice. Cook it like porridge, include it in casseroles or stews, or add it (steamed, toasted or baked) to soups, salads or desserts. You can also use ground quinoa in breads, cookies, puddings, muffins and pasta. It’s available in most grocery and health food stores.
Traditionally, psyllium is renowned as a laxative, since it absorbs water and swells as it moves through the digestive tract. But this all-star soluble fibre has many health benefits: lowering LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, helping control diabetes (it reduces the post-meal rise in blood sugar) and aiding in controlling appetite and weight (it makes you feel full longer). Since psyllium is a concentrated source of soluble fibre (with eight times more soluble fibre than oat bran), it’s easy to eat enough of it during the day to enjoy its potential health benefits.
Dietary uses: Just 1/3 cup (75 millilitres) of Bran Buds with Psyllium, available at most grocery stores, provides 12 grams of fibre (almost half of our daily fibre needs). Caution: Incorporate psyllium and other high-fibre foods into your diet slowly to avoid abdominal pain and bloating, and drink plenty of water to avoid constipation.
This vegetable deserves an award thanks to its active ingredient: fructo-oligosaccharides, a prebiotic that some researchers have chosen as the hottest in food and nutrition research. Prebiotics take centre stage for their potential to promote gut health by encouraging the growth and function of “good bacteria” that live in our digestive tract.
Emerging research is also revealing an important supporting role for flavonoids, antioxidants that are abundant in shallots. Preliminary research is investigating flavonoids for their preventive role in cancer and heart disease, but further research is still needed to support these potential benefits.
Dietary uses: Shallots are more subtle in flavour than their cousins, the onion and garlic, and they do not cause bad breath. Eat them raw or cooked till tender. Add shallots to soups, stews, spreads and stir-fries.
8. Milk thistle
Best known as a liver tonic, the power ingredient in milk thistle is silymarin, which may have protective effects on the liver, due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Differences in research design — variations in the type and extent of liver disease, and dose and duration of milk-thistle therapy — make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions on the effectiveness of this herb.
Dietary uses: Milk thistle is available at drugstores and health food stores; take as directed.
Curcumin — the active ingredient of the Indian curry spice turmeric — may ease aches and inflammation. In Ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India), this herb has been used for thousands of years to treat arthritis and other ailments. Some research suggests that turmeric may help relieve some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis; however, the evidence to date, while encouraging, is still far from conclusive.
Dietary uses: Turmeric is sometimes substituted for saffron. Use in Indian curries or dishes such as chicken tangine and chicken tandoori.
10. Borage oil
Borage oil, which is produced from the borage seed, has made the nutritional spotlight for its high content of gamma-linolenic acid — an omega-6 essential fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties. Evidence suggests that specialty formulas that contain borage oil may reduce inflammation of the lung in critically ill, hospitalized patients with respiratory distress.
Dietary uses: Borage oil is a component of Oxepa — a specialty formula used in the critical-care unit to reduce lung inflammation. In concentrated (oil) form, borage can cause liver toxicity; pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid using borage oil. The medicinal plant can be eaten raw or cooked. Use fresh borage leaves to add flavour to cream cheese and vinaigrettes.