Healthy Eating: The New Superfoods on the Block

Out with the old and in with the new – from safflower oil, to mushrooms, to chia seeds and acai berries, find out what these incredible foods can do for you.

Acai berries (photo credit: Reuters)
Acai berries
(photo credit: Reuters)
Some foods are good, some are better and others are just super – the superfoods.
Low in calories, superfoods are jam packed with vitamins, minerals anti-oxidants and essential nutrients – nutrients that we need but that our bodies cannot produce. In fact, superfoods are becoming increasingly recognized as the number one way to maximize the body’s potential and prevent many illnesses, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes.
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However, like all things concerning our health, this list is constantly being updated to include new members. So move over blueberries, move over olive oil, move over spinach and salmon too, because there is a whole new set of superfoods in town.
Chia Seeds
Packed with protein, complex carbohydrates, essential fats and many vitamins as well as minerals, it’s no wonder that chia seeds have found their way to the top of the super food list. Indigenous to South (and Central) America, Chia seeds were once considered a staple food item amongst the Aztecs and Mayans, as these ancient populations heavily relied on the seed as a  main source of their nutrition. However, when these civilizations fell, so did the Chia and over time the importance of the seed was lost. But now Chia seeds are back, full throttle and today they can be found in almost every health food store.
So what exactly makes this tiny seeds all so powerful? For starters, they are low in cholesterol and sodium, while rich in phosphorus, manganese and calcium. In fact, one serving (1 tbsp.) contains as much calcium as two glasses of milk. Another unique quality of the chia seed is its ability to absorb more than 12 times its weight in water. This ability to retain water can prolong hydration and retain electrolytes in body fluids, especially during physical exercise.
Chia seeds
Chia seeds
Chia seeds are also an incredible source of  the heart and brain healthy fat, Omega -3 – an essential fatty acid that the body is unable to produce on its own, but requires to function properly. While walnuts and flax seeds are both celebrated for their high omega-3 content, they have nothing on chia seeds, which have more than double the amount. In fact, chia seeds have the highest percentage of alpha-linolenic acid, the plant base form of Omega-3, of all fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Moreover, while plant based sources of omega-3 are typically less abundant than animal sources (i.e. cold water fish), gram for gram chia seeds have eight times more of this essential fatty acid than salmon, one of the richest sources of Omega-3 on the planet. These seeds also exhibit an optimal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 3:1.
Moving across the list of macro-nutrients, we come to protein. Each ounce of these seeds contains 4.4 grams of protein, and while this may not be an overwhelming amount, chia seeds are a complete protein. A complete protein contains an adequate amount of all of the essential amino acids that need to be incorporated into one’s diet. For a protein to be considered complete, it must not lack even one essential amino acid. Now while many grains, legumes, seeds and even vegetables contain protein, they lack or do not have enough of, one or more of the essential amino acids and are therefore incomplete protein. With 19- 23 percent of their weight from protein, Chia seeds are one of the few plant based products that contain all the necessary amino acids.
Lastly, but certainly not least, Chia seeds are also extremely high in soluble fiber, which helps to slow the rate at which carbohydrates are converted into sugar thus stabilizing blood sugar levels. This not only allows us to sustain our energy, but it also prevents those unwanted sugar cravings, resulting from drops in blood sugar. So the next time you grab a yogurt, pour yourself a bowl of cereal or make a salad  sprinkle on one to two tablespoons of one of nature’s most powerful foods.
Safflower Oil
Olive oil has received a lot of publicity for being one of those miracle foods. Rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and loaded with antioxidants, there is no doubt about it, this Mediterranean staple food is extremely good for you. However, olive oil isn’t the only oil with multiple health benefits. New research has shown that the oil derived from the seeds of the safflower plant deserves a rightful spot amongst the superfoods.
Safflower comes in two different forms, depending which type of fat predominates: monounsaturated fat or polyunsaturated fat. The monounsaturated version is high in oleic fatty acid (like olive oil) and is mostly used for cooking as it remains stable at high temperatures. Like all foods rich in monounsaturated fats, it lowers LDL “bad” cholesterol, while raising HDL “good" cholesterol, and thus helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
However, it is the second type of safflower oil - the polyunsaturated version - that has the most interesting health benefits, including reducing excess fat and weight loss. Sounds odd that eating a fat can help burn fat, right? So here’s how it works: when consumed, the linoleic acid (commonly referred to as Omega-6) found in safflower oil is converted into gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which stimulates the activity of brown fat and triggers it to start burning unwanted calories. Brown fat? While white fat accumulates from consuming an excess amount of calories, brown fat, rather than storing this excess energy, actually burns through it. All babies are born with brown adipose tissue (aka brown fat), as it helps them generate heat;  however until recently it was believed that as we age, the amount of brown fat stored in our bodies begins to dwindle, as we no longer need to keep warm. Now, new research has show that most adults do retain significant amounts of this fat; so when this tissue is activated (by the linoleic acid) it starts to burn through unwanted white fat.
However, as this is a super food, the health benefits associated with the consumption of safflower oil, extend far beyond weight loss. For instance the high amounts of polyunsaturated fats found in this oil help to create prostaglandins, a hormone like compound that aids in reinforcing the cell membranes, and thus revitalizes skin (link with skin article), hair and nails. Linoleic acid has also been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels, may help to prevent cancer and may help to reduce high blood sugar levels (when consumed with Omega-3 fatty acid). Safflower oil has also been shown to reduce premenstrual syndrome as well as help regulate the menstrual cycle.
But before you go rushing to buy yourself a bottle of this miracle food, make sure to look at how the oil was prepared. There are two methods used to extract the oil from the safflower seed plant: a chemical and a mechanical process. While the mechanical process preserves all the nutrients and is completely safe for humans, the chemical process eradicates all the beneficial nutrients contained in the oil as well as adds chemicals that are harmful to our bodies when consumed. So make sure to study the label carefully.
When we are told over and over again that the more color a fruit or vegetable has, the more nutrients it contains, it is almost too easy to overlook the colorless mushroom. However, the next time you are in the grocery store, stop and take a closer look at this humble food. Not only are they cheap and easy to cook with, but they are chock-full of important nutrients. Low in calories, fat, and salt, mushrooms are stuffed with dietary fiber and significant quantities of the B Vitamins, including: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxin and folate. They are also rich in many minerals including iron, phosphorus, magnesium and copper and selenium as well as contain more potassium than most fruits and vegetables. It has long been known that mushrooms are one of the healthiest foods around, but now new research has upped this food from merely healthy to “superstar” status.
To start off, crimini mushrooms are one of the few non-meat sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a unique type of fatty acid that blocks aromatase, the  enzyme responsible for the biosynthesis of estrogen. Since about 70% of breast cancer tumors are estrogen based, blocking aromatase may control and even reduce the risk of this type of breast cancer.
Next, mushrooms are potentially one of the best sources of Vitamin D, which is very exciting news as this micro-nutrient is one of the hardest vitamins to come by.  The most abundant source of Vitamin D is of course our very own sun. Sitting outside for 15 minutes a day (without sunscreen lotion) allows our skin to soak up enough UV rays to create this vitamin. However, this is nearly next to impossible for those of us who live in cold weather countries (and not all that healthy for those who live in warm weather countries either, as unprotected exposure to the sun can lead to many skin problems. Therefore, most of us need to rely on food sources to receive adequate amounts of this vitamin. Unfortunately, with the exception of certain fatty fish and fortified milk in the US, Vitamin D is scarcely found in food. However, now new studies have indicated that when white button mushrooms are exposed to UVB radiation for short periods of time, they convert a chemical called ergosterol, found abundantly throughout them, into Vitamin D. While this research is exciting there are still many obstacles to overcome before Super-D Mushrooms are featured in your local grocery store. But don’t be too disappointed, even ‘sans’ Vitamin-D, mushrooms are still one of the most magical foods around.
Acai Berries
Everyone knows blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries are extremely healthy; but what about acai berries? Grown on the acai palm tree in the rain forests of Brazil, Trinidad, and Panama, are a dark purple fruit that bear a striking resemblance to a grape. However, unlike a grape (and many other fruits for that matter) each acai berry (pronounced Ah-sigh-ee) contains 8 grams of pure protein. While this is quite impressive, the acai berry’s super powers extend far beyond this. To begin with, these berries are packed full of dietary fiber. In every 100 grams, there are 43 grams of carbs of which 27 grams are pure fiber. Fibre, while a carbohydrate, takes a long time to digest, this not only means that we stay full longer, but it also does not have a roller-coaster effect on our blood sugar levels – which is important for proper brain function.
Acai berries
Acai berries
So they are high in protein, rich in fiber, but what about the third macro-nutrient group, fat? While fat typically has a negative connotation, these berries are rich in the “good” heart healthy monounsaturated fat, oleic acid. Also referred to as Omega-9, oleic acid improves the heart function, circulation, lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising the “good” HDL cholesterol as well as reduces hardening of the arterial wall (arteriosclerosis)– all actions that help decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases.  Also, like safflower oil, acai berries are rich in linoleic acid. Commonly referred to as Omega-6, linoleic acid is one of the two essential fatty acids. While consumption of linoleic acid can lead to many health benefits (see safflower oil above), a deficiency of this essential fatty acid can lead to slow wound healing and hair loss.
Moving on to the micro-nutrients, Acai berries are rich in Vitamin A, B1 and E as well as manganese, copper, chromium, boron, calcium as well as phytosterol, which helps in the metabolism of fat. In fact beta-sitosterol, a type of phytosterol found in acai berries, is thought to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Last, but certainly not least, we come to anti-oxidants. As acai berries are a member of the berry family, you would probably assume that they are rich in anti-oxidants, just like blueberries and strawberries; but you would you have ever guessed that they would have one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants of any fruit, or any food for that matter? To put this in perspective, acai berries contain thirty times more antioxidants than a glass of red wine, ten times more antioxidants than red grapes and twice as many as blueberries.
So where can one find this super fruit? As acai berries spoil 24 hours after being harvested, it is next to impossible to find the fresh version of this fruit outside its natural habitat. So for those of us far from  the amazon, the best alternative is frozen acai berry pulp, as the flash freeze process preserves most of the nutrients.
Unfortunately for the acai berry, many companies have derived diet pills from the fruit, claiming that the pills lead to rapid, and even extreme weigh lose. While the acai berry is indeed one of nature's wonders, it is no miracle food and does not promote rapid weight loss.
So enjoy acai berries, and the all superfoods, for what they really are: a step towards a healthier lifestyle.