Vibrant, functional foods that lead to good health and healing. Photo: Johnny Miller
In a healthy whole-food kitchen, so many of the foods stocked in the pantry and fridge can be categorized as superfoods. These are functional foods that have been used to promote health and healing by traditional cultures for millennia; they are often from remote regions at high altitudes and have only recently become more widely available. Here is a short list of items that are particularly dense in nutrients, with abundant antioxidants, minerals, phytochemicals, and vitamins. Since many of these foods come from developing nations, be sure that the products you purchase are certified fair trade.
BEE POLLEN: Bee pollen is a potent, nourishing food that has been used throughout history to increase energy and vitality and to promote growth and development. Bee pollen provides nearly all the nutrients necessary to humans, including protein, B vitamins, antioxidants, and amino acids. Because it comes from the pollen of trees and flowers, eating local bee pollen can be an effective treatment for seasonal allergies. Bee pollen has a strong, bittersweet, honey-like taste, and as with honey, its flavor and color vary depending on the plant pollen from which it originates. To incorporate bee pollen into your diet, try sprinkling it over smoothies, fruit, yogurt, or your favorite breakfast dishes.
CHIA SEEDS: Chia seeds are the second highest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids (after flax); one of the most digestible plant proteins; and an excellent source of amino acids, minerals, and antioxidants. They were used by ancient Native American civilizations as an energy-boosting endurance food. Chia seeds should be eaten raw after being soaked in liquid to “bloom.” They thicken any liquid they are added to, creating the luscious consistency of my most popular dessert, Vanilla Chia Pudding, and my summer breakfast staple, Soaked Oats and Chia. Being mucilaginous seeds (those that thicken the liquid they’re soaked in), they’re great for intestinal health, and unlike flax, you don’t need to grind them to benefit from their nutritional value.
DRIED MULBERRIES: Mulberries originate from the Far East and were used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to strengthen the liver and kidneys and to build blood. Like wine, mulberries contain the heart-healthy and antiaging antioxidant resveratrol. They also contain iron and calcium and have a sweet, caramel-like flavor when cooked. I use mulberries in my Superfood Oatmeal and Golden Amaranth Superfood Bars. They also make a tasty addition to trail mixes.
FLAX SEEDS: Flax seeds are the highest known plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help support cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, strengthen immunity, and contribute to healthy brain function. The seeds need to be ground for their nutrients to be absorbed—for the best flavor, grind half a cup at a time in a clean coffee or spice grinder, store it in a jar in the fridge or freezer to prevent oxidation, and use it within a couple of weeks. Enjoy their nutty flavor daily sprinkled over oatmeal, granola, fruit salads, and steamed vegetables. Whole flax seeds can be soaked in water overnight and added to smoothies for a thicker texture and nutritional boost. Ground flax seeds can be mixed with water and used in place of eggs in vegan baking. If you are purchasing pre-ground flax seeds, look for sprouted flax powder.
GOJI BERRIES: Goji berries are one of the most nutrient-rich foods available. Packed with antioxidants, trace minerals, essential amino acids, vitamin C, and beta-carotene and loaded with immune-boosting and antiaging properties, goji berries have been used in Asian herbal medicine for thousands of years to preserve youth and promote well-being. Earthy, slightly astringent, and mildly sweet, goji berries have a peculiar flavor that grows on you, especially when you know how potent they are—eating an ounce a day will allow you to benefit from all their nutrients. I stock goji berries in a few forms: dried berries for cooking in daily breakfasts or soaking and adding to smoothies; a soft-dried berry that’s moist and chewy, making it perfect for snacking or adding to granola and muesli; and a goji powder that dissolves in cool or warm water for a vibrant orange immune-boosting drink.
GOLDEN BERRIES: Sometimes called cape gooseberries or Incan berries, golden berries can be found fresh in summer and fall at farmers’ markets and are also available sun-dried. They taste sweet when eaten fresh and have a bright, sour flavor when dried. Golden berries are rich in antioxidants and beta-carotene and unusually high in protein. I keep dried golden berries on hand for snacking and enjoy them added to trail mixes and granola for a tangy surprise.
HEMP SEEDS: Shelled hemp seeds, also known as hemp hearts, are rich in digestible protein and contain all essential amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and gamma-linoleic acid (GLA)—an omega-6 fatty acid that helps reduce inflammation, improve brain function, maintain bone health, and facilitate weight loss. Hemp seeds have a great creamy texture and mild grassy flavor that complements both sweet and savory dishes. Sprinkle them over your daily breakfast, blend them into smoothies, or try the Simple Green Salad with Tangy Hemp Seed Dressing. To preserve the integrity of their polyunsaturated fatty acids, only consume hemp seeds raw. Like all hemp products (hemp oil and hemp butter), they should be stored in the fridge. Hemp seeds do not contain phytic acid; therefore, they don’t need to be soaked before they are added to meals or made into seed milk.
MACA ROOT POWDER: Maca is a potent superfood root native to Bolivia and Peru, where it was traditionally used as an endurance food to increase stamina and combat fatigue. Maca has adaptogenic properties that help our bodies adjust to stress, and the alkaloids in it support and nourish the endocrine system (thyroid, adrenals, and glandular system). It provides abundant minerals, vitamins, and fatty and amino acids and is also used to balance hormones and boost fertility. Maca root is eaten as a powder and can be purchased raw or gelatinized—gelatinized means that the starch is removed, which concentrates the active ingredients and makes it easier to digest. I really like the malty flavor of maca sprinkled over breakfast. Maca can also be added to smoothies and nut milks; start with a little until you get used to the flavor and then build up the amount to a teaspoon a day to enjoy all its benefits.
POMEGRANATE: Revered for millennia in traditional healing systems, pomegranates have been used to promote longevity and fertility. They contain abundant antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties and are high in vitamin C, minerals, and amino acids. In the fall, when pomegranates are in season, add the seeds to salads or yogurt, or use them as a garnish for everything from breakfast to dessert. You can juice the fruit like you would an orange and drink it fresh, or use it to make Pomegranate Kanten. During winter, spring, and summer you can purchase pure, unsweetened organic pomegranate juice—not from concentrate—to drink as a health tonic. Freeze-dried pomegranate powder is handy for dissolving into warm or cool water for a refreshing drink or for adding to smoothies.
WHEAT GERM: Wheat germ is the most nutrient-dense part of whole wheat and is what is removed when whole-wheat kernels are refined into white flour. It contains a concentrated amount of essential nutrients: folic acid, magnesium, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, and B vitamins. I enjoy the light, nutty flavor and include it in my Superfood Breakfast Sprinkle. Wheat germ can be purchased raw or toasted; toasting increases its flavor, but the process causes it to lose some of its nutritional value. Keep either kind in the fridge to preserve freshness and nutrients.
From Yahoo Food’s Cookbook of the Week: At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen: Celebrating the Art of Eating Well