By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition
In the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in our consumption of kale, blueberries, quinoa, and green tea. Whether you are reading the back of a food package, leafing through a health magazine, or watching television, you have undoubtedly been exposed to the either the marketing of or discussion around superfoods. While many of these food celebrities are in fact noteworthy, they are not necessarily the only representatives of nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich, disease fighting plants. In fact, if I were hard pressed to choose two plants from the seven food categories of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, these might be my top choices. Most of these will be familiar but will also most likely be rare entries on a shopping list. Give some of these a try and you may become a fan for more than one reason.
- Berries. Berries are one of the best fruits because they typically have the least amount of fructose and are very high in antioxidants. I spent 3 years of my life looking at how blueberries affect women’s health. While they are excellent, there are many choices in this remarkable family of food. Two of the most exceptional berry types are black currants and raspberries. Both are loaded with unique phytonutrients such as ellagic acid and anthocyanins, at levels that exceed all other berries. Additionally, the fiber, potassium, and vitamin C offered by these, with very low sugar content, makes each a very valuable addition.
- Herbs. Too often we limit these herbs as a garnish on our plate or in a salad. Parsley and watercress deserve much more room in recipes and in our diet overall. While watercress is a member of the Brassica family and contains many of the same phytonutrients as bok choy, kale, and broccoli, it is more concentrated in nutrients and has the highest overall antioxidant content of any member of the family. Parsley is unparalleled when it comes to anticancer properties in a green leafy herb. Volatile oils such as myristicin and limonene give it both its unique smell and its ability to inhibit tumor growth. Additionally, myristicin activates glutathione-S-transferase, which helps our liver detoxify our blood. There are many more powerful substances in parsley, such as apigenin and crisoeriol that can help us in numerous other ways as well. The key is to add more parsley to your salads, soups, or other recipes. One cup of watercress or ½ cup of parsley is a good amount to try and weave in whenever you can.
- Root Vegetables. While I think that raw carrots and baked sweet potatoes should be required offerings in every school lunch program, there are also other varieties of root vegetables that bring an entirely different set of qualities to the diet. Purple sweet potatoes have as much or more health benefits than any other starchy root vegetable. The variety of phytonutrients contained in that vibrant purple color have been shown to work synergistically against a variety of cancers, insulin resistance, hypertension, and brain inflammation. It is better to steam or boil sweet potatoes than to fry or bake them at higher temperatures in order to maximize this nutritional/medicinal benefit. Daikon radishes are one of many radish family members that contain raphanins. Raphanins are phytonutrients that help the body adapt to various stressors. Research with animals has also shown that the type of fiber found in Daikon’s is possibly the best for feeding the microbiome and fostering great gut health.
- Green Vegetables. Give kale’s cousin, mustard greens, a try for even more potassium nitrate, one of the most cardiovascular protective substances known to researchers. The ability of mustard greens to help lower blood pressure is well documented. Mustard greens lose their spicy flavor when boiled for a while, and unfortunately they also lose most of their antioxidant qualities. It is best to sauté mustard greens with water until wilted and then add some olive oil or coconut oil and a sprinkle of red chili flakes for a few more minutes on low heat. Beet greens, on the other hand, share the same potassium nitrate content but lack the intense mustard green flavor. Beet greens can be eaten raw as part of a salad, especially when they are young. They are also great steamed and then splashed with raw apple cider vinegar.
- Spices. Turmeric and cumin go together well for many recipes. Each have different medicinal qualities – so much so that each is recognized by Germany’s Commission E (the equivalent of, or more like better than, the FDA) for the treatment of various conditions/symptoms. Turmeric needs to be cooked in a small amount of oil for at least a few minutes, whereas cumin can be added to soups, stews, or stir fries at any time, with or without oil. Each has great benefits with respect to brain inflammation and various aspects of fighting cancer. These are true superstars when it comes to both prevention and the treatment of particular conditions. ½ to 1 teaspoon of each per day, if possible, will provide the types of dosage used in clinical trials and animal research.
- Seasoning Vegetables. Leeks and arugula may or may not stand alone on your plate. Usually they are an integral part of recipes or dishes for their great flavor. Considering what they offer, we could benefit from using more of these when possible or trying them on their own. Leeks have possibly the greatest variety of fermentable fiber and can act as an incredible prebiotic for the families of bacteria that we want well represented in the lower GI. Leeks are also one of the least manipulated vegetables. As plant breeders attempted to homogenize, sweeten, or decrease the bitterness in most vegetables, this plant has been, for the most part, left alone. Leeks contain all of the phytonutrients found in garlic and onions, plus others. Try having freshly sliced leek tops or bottoms in salads in place of or in addition to red onion. Leeks are also great cut into medallions and served with goat cheese. Arugula is also a green vegetable typically used in small quantities to add zest to spinach or a Mesclun mix. It is so much more nutrient dense than either and can add an incredible amount of phytonutrients if you are willing to make it the main event in a salad’s foundation. Try to add a few cherry tomatoes if you need to mellow out its bite and avoid arugula leaves that are large or look stressed, those will be exceptionally hot and/or bitter.
- Teas. Although high quality green tea remains to be the single most researched anti-cancer and medicinal variety of tea to date, Earl Grey tea with its traditional lavender and bergamot content has a level of synergy with its ingredients that are also noteworthy. In research, Earl Grey tea shows remarkable anti-angiogenesis effects on tumors and has also been shown to improve insulin resistance. This tea should be steeped for at least 5 minutes at 185° F for maximum benefits. Lesser known in North America and Europe, but gaining popularity, is the traditional South African tea known as Rooibos, which contains high levels of both antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. These red berries and choice leaves give it a somewhat berry-like flavor. It can be enjoyed cold or hot.
Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.