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Superfood Profiles

About “Superfoods”

Usually in the Superfood Profile we’ll discuss the health benefits of a particular food. Garlic, Pumpkin, Tea and Broccoli have all featured in the past – you can find a list of 12 superfoods and their health benefits here. We’d like to take the opportunity in this edition to set some context for the series.

The term “superfood” is actually meaningless. There is no official criteria. It began life as a term loosely applied to foods that have been shown to offer profound health benefits; but before long, cynical marketers got hold of it and it lost all meaning. The use of the term in marketing has now been banned by the EU.

Unfortunately, intensive farming techniques and a shift toward convenient foods has made it very difficult for people to get what they need from their food. Food now has less goodness in it than it ever has; and a larger proportion of the foods available have toxic elements due to processing and other ingredients added. Some of the pressure against the use of the term “Superfoods” actually comes from some of the people involved in the production of what we would view as compromised or toxic foods, on the grounds that defining some foods as “Super” implies that others are less than super.

It may not make us popular to say it (cue another call from a jumped-up lawyer…) but to say that some foods are less super than others is a huge understatement. Some foods that these people try to sell to us are positively poisonous. And that includes many of the foods that are marketed as “healthy options”.

To quote Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food.” There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that good food is the foundation of good health. Food is the resource from which your body gets what it needs in order to function properly; and to function properly is to enjoy good health. Treat your body well and it will treat you well. Most food, providing that it would have been recognisable as food prior to industrialisation, can be considered to have medicinal properties in one way or another. You won’t go far wrong so long as you enjoy these foods. The Superfood Profiles we publish detail just a few of the benefits that just a few foods have to offer you, for your interest. They are merely presented as examples, to help keep you mindful of the incredible health-giving power of food.

Garlic

Garlic has been used for both culinary and medical purposes for hundreds of years. The key medicinal ingredient in garlic is allicin, which is known to have powerful anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-oxidant properties.

A recent study at the University of East London claims that garlic has the ability to not only kill many of the antibiotic resistant strains of MRSA, the “hospital super bug”, but is also able to destroy the newer super-super bugs that are resistant against the most powerful antibiotics used against MRSA. Another recent study has shown that eating raw garlic after heart surgery may help to limit the damage done to the heart, due to its strong anti-oxidant properties.

Garlic has been used to treat high cholesterol, parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy. Studies suggest that regularly eating garlic helps lower blood pressure, controls blood sugar and blood cholesterol, and boosts the immune system.

Numerous clinical trials have shown garlic to be an excellent cancer fighter, suggesting that it has the ability to prevent development of cancers of the breast, colon, skin, prostate, stomach and oesophagus. By encouraging the growth of natural killer cells, it directly attacks cancer cells. It also has the ability to kill the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, a major cause of ulcers and stomach cancer.

Broccoli

If the other foods we have covered in this section of the newsletters of previous months can be described as “super” foods then broccoli should probably be named a “mega-super” food.

Researchers are finding a wealth of healthy compounds in this vegetable, which include two powerful anti-cancer substances, sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol. Sulforaphane destroys any carcinogenic compounds that you have ingested and then it creates enzymes that eat up any carcinogens left over from that reaction. Sulforaphane also kills the bacteria Helicobacter pylori which causes stomach ulcers and greatly increases the risks of gastric cancers (according to a study at the John Hopkins University, Baltimore). Indole-3-carbinol helps your body to metabolise oestrogen, potentially protecting against breast cancer. The 3,3’-Diindolylmethane found in broccoli is a potent modulator of the innate immune response system with anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-cancer activity.

Broccoli is also a good source of beta-carotene and potassium, which helps lower your risk of heart disease. Broccoli is high in vitamins C (a half-cup provides 52 mg), K, and A, as well as dietary fiber. Many therapists suggest eating broccoli at least three times a week and now we know why. The benefits of broccoli are greatly reduced if the vegetable is boiled more than ten minutes. We recommend steaming it for just a few minutes, so it is cooked but remains firm.

The Beet

Beets are not only low calorie and low G.I. but they are also packed full of nutrients, including phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, calcium,iron, and potassium, as well as fiber, vitamins A and C, niacin, and biotin. Many people juice beetroot for its cleansing and detoxifying properties.

Beets contain high levels of carotenoids and flavonoids, the consumption of which has been linked to lower mortality from a number of chronic illnesses – including cancers (The particular pigment that gives beets their distinctive color – betacyanin – is a powerful cancer-fighting agent); and heart disease. Additionally, anti-oxidants in beets could help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The Beet is one of the richest sources of folic acid, which helps to protect unborn babies from spina bifida, and is also thought to help lower homocysteine levels in the blood. Higher levels of homocysteine are associated with cardiovascular disease and higher risk of bone fractures. Beetroot also contains the mineral silica, which helps the body to utilise calcium, so is therefore important for musculo-skeletal health and reducing the risk of osteoporosis.

The Avocado

Each month we bring you a profile of a different item of super-healthy foods. This month, we look at the Avocado.

Pound for pound, avocados provide more heart healthy monounsaturated fat, protein fibre, vitamin E, folic acid and potassium than any other fruit. They are high in antioxidants and extremely easily digested. This makes them ideal for anyone with digestive troubles.

As if this was not enough, they are also the number one fruit source of beta-sitosterol, a substance that can reduce total cholesterol. They also supersede other fruits in the antioxidant lutein, which has shown to protect people from cataracts. Lutein has also been linked with protecting your cardiovascular system and preventing prostate cancer. Avocados have also been associated with protective properties against strokes, diabetes and aging.

This information is presented purely for your interest – they key to lasting health is, of course, a balanced diet of fresh good quality food along with lifestyle factors.

Apples

Each month we bring you a profile of a different item of super-healthy foods. This month, we look at the apple. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is a saying we all grew up hearing. But is this myth or can the humble apple really be described as a “superfood”?

It is now known that apples contain the phytonutrient quercitin. This prevents the oxidation (damage) of LDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of damage to our arteries. This in turn reduces the risk of heart disease.

Apples also contain pectin, a soluble fibre that seems to be very effective in lowering levels of blood cholesterol (pectin also binds to heavy metals in our body, such as lead, and removes them from the gut); and a flavanoid called phloridzin than can help prevent osteoporosis and may increase bone density. They have also been associated with benefits against asthma and cancer.

Almonds

In our new monthly newsletter feature, we will profile a different superfood each edition. This month, it’s almonds.

If you feel like a snack, go nuts and try almonds. Almonds are one of nature’s super foods. They are a good source of plant protein, fibre, healthy unsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals and antioxidants.

In particular, they contain high levels of calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamin E, and contain smaller amounts of folic acid and vitamin B2. The monounsaturated fats help to keep our arteries supple.

This multi-pronged attack helps us fight against cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and strokes, osteoporosis and they regulate blood pressure; as well as helping you maintain a healthy weight. They are also alkaline. Eating alkaline foods will help alkalise your body.

Stick to the unroasted, unsalted nuts for the maximum hit of vitamins and minerals.

Ginger and Turmeric

Ginger root has long been used for medicinal purposes. It has traditionally been used to fight colds, coughs, congestion, headaches, fatigue, indigestion, sickness and inflammation. As is often the case with these things, scientific research is now catching up with traditional wisdom.

Ginger contains several antioxidant plant chemicals including gingerol and zingerone. In preliminary studies these antioxidants have been shown to fight cancer, heart disease and diarrhea. One study found that gingerol was as effective as aspirin at preventing blood clotting, making it a potential aid against heart disease (although it is not recommended for people who are already taking anti-coagulants). Ginger has effective antimicrobial effects on wounds and sores and is also thought to fight inflammation, cleanse the colon, and stimulate circulation.

Ginger is related to Turmeric, another superfood. Studies show that curcumin, the Turmeric’s yellow pigment, inhibits tumor growth and can prevent a host of cancers. Recently, researchers at the Cork Cancer Research Center in Ireland treated esophageal cancer cells with curcumin and found it started to kill cancer cells within 24 hours – the cells began to digest themselves. Turmeric has also been shown to improve cardiovascular health and prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. It promotes bile, relieves a congested liver and gallstones and aids digestion. U.S researchers said in 2007 they had found curcumin may help stimulate immune system cells in the Alzheimer’s disease.

The Tomato

The Tomato, technically a fruit and not a vegetable, is in season July to September. Although you can buy tomatoes year-round, look for fresh local tomatoes in these months.

Starting with the basics, tomatoes contain large amounts of vitamins C, A, and K; as well as potassium, iron and and beta-carotene. They are great for supporting the immune system, as well as keeping skin healthy. What’s really interesting about tomatoes is their lycopene content.

Lycopene, a carotenoid found in tomatoes (and everything made from them) has been extensively studied for its antioxidant and cancer-preventing properties. An expanding list of cancers against which lycopene has been shown to protect currently includes colorectal, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung, and pancreatic. Italian researchers have found that those who consume more that 7 servings of raw tomatoes lower the risk of developing rectal colon or stomach cancers by 60 percent.

Tomatoes have also been shown to be effective against cardiovascular disease and general cell damage, not only because of their lycopene content, but also as a result of the synergy of lycopene with other phytonutrients naturally present in whole tomatoes. Lycopene levels actually increase when the tomatoes are cooked (although other nutrients may decrease) and you can increase absorption of the goodness by eating with fat-rich foods, such as avocado, olive oil or nuts.

Olive Oil

Olive Oil is a prime component of the famous Mediterranean Diet. As the only vegetable oil that can be consumed freshly pressed and as it is, the taste, aroma, nutrients and healing properties of the olive fruit are all preserved.

Olive oil is the greatest exponent of monounsaturated fatty acids, also featuring a high content of antioxidative substances, vitamins E, K, and A; as well as polyphenols, squalene, oleocanthol, triterpenes and hundreds more micronutrients. It is an excellent source of oleic acid, which has inflammation reducing effects (one study in the journal Nature found that olive oil is as effective as Advil at reducing inflammation).

First and foremost, a diet rich in olive oil is noted to be extremely good for your heart health. But it has also been shown to reduce the incidence of colon, breast and skin cancers. Studies now indicate that it may help to lower blood pressure, and have beneficial effect on ulcers and gastritis: it activates the secretion of bile and pancreatic hormones much more naturally than prescribed drugs. Consequently, it lowers the incidence of gallstone formation. It also stimulates metabolism, promotes digestion and lubricates mucous membranes. So it’s excellent for your digestive system.

With olive oil, you needn’t be concerned about upsetting the critical omega 6 to omega 3 ratio because most of the fatty acids in olive oil are actually an omega-9.

When buying olive oil you will want to obtain a high quality EXTRA VIRGIN oil. The oil that comes from the first pressing of the olive is extracted without using heat (by cold press) or chemicals. Heat and light damage olive oil.

As well as using it on your food, ou can take 1 tablespoon of olive oil on an empty stomach to stimulate digestion and relieve upset stomach, flatulence and heartburn. For constipation, take 1 teaspoon of olive oil mixed with lemon juice first thing on an empty stomach. Ancient civilizations used olive oil to heal wounds. Today it is considered a good remedy for skin problems and an effective moisturiser – you will find all kinds of exciting applications for olive oil in hair- and skin-care.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms have been used for thousands of years both as food and for medicinal purposes. While there are over 14,000 mushrooms, only about 3,000 are edible, about 700 have known medicinal properties, and fewer than one percent are recognized as poisonous.

Mushrooms are an excellent choice for diabetics, or people following weight control or hypertensive diets. They contain about 80-90% water, have zero cholesterol, sodium, fats and calories. 8-10% of their dry weight is fibre, which – along with certain enzymes and high lean protein content – help lower cholesterol levels. They contain natural insulin and enzymes which help breaking down of sugar or starch of the food; and are known to contain certain compounds which help proper functioning of liver, pancreas and the other endocrinal glands, thereby promoting formation of insulin and its proper flow.

One medium portabella mushroom has even more potassium than a banana or a glass of orange juice. Potassium helps lower blood pressure and the risk of stroke. One serving of mushrooms also provides about 20 to 40 percent of the daily value of copper, a mineral that has cardio-protective properties. Mushrooms are a rich source of riboflavin, niacin, and selenium. Selenium is an antioxidant that works with vitamin E to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Male health professionals who consumed twice the recommended daily intake of selenium cut their risk of prostate cancer by 65 percent. In the Baltimore study on aging, men with the lowest blood selenium levels were 4 to 5 times more likely to have prostate cancer compared to those with the highest selenium levels.

Mushrooms are also very effective in preventing cancer of breast and prostrate due to presence of Beta-Glucans and conjugated Linoleic Acid. Out of these two, Linoleic Acid is particularly helpful in suppressing effects of oestrogen. They also inhibit an enzyme in the body called aromatase (oestrogen synthase) that is necessary for the production of oestrogen. This oestrogen is the prime reason for breast cancer in women after menopause. The Beta-Glucans, on the other hand, inhibit growth of cancerous cells in cases of prostrate cancer.

Ergothioneine, a powerful anti oxidant present in mushrooms is very effective in giving protection from free radicals and abnormal cellular growth or replication as well as boosting up immunity. Mushrooms contain natural antibiotics (similar to penicillin, which itself is extracted from mushrooms) which inhibit microbial and other fungal infections. They also help heal ulcers and ulcerous wounds and protect them from infections. A good combination of vitamins A, B-Complex and C, found in mushrooms also strengthens immune system.

Shiitake mushrooms have been used for centuries by the Chinese and Japanese to treat colds and flu. Lentinan, a beta-glucan isolated from the fruiting body of shiitake mushrooms, appears to stimulate the immune system, help fight infection, and demonstrates anti-tumor activity. Most of the research completed on the health benefits of mushrooms has focused on the shiitake, maitake, reishi, and crimini varieties. However, more recent research indicates that common white button mushrooms provide just as much potential to fight cancer and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol as fancier varieties. This includes Portobello mushrooms (an oversized Crimini), the popular vegetarian meat alternative.

While the health benefits of mushrooms are amazing, they might pose potential health hazards for certain people. Only those with an expertise in botanical identification should collect mushrooms from the wild since some varieties are toxic. In addition, mushrooms contain purines, an organic compound and precursor to uric acid. Therefore, individuals with a history of developing gout, kidney stones, or other disorder related to impaired uric acid conversion, should avoid or limit purine-containing foods, including mushrooms.

Tea

The health effects of tea have been examined ever since the first infusions of Camellia sinensis about 4700 years ago in China. The legendary emperor Shennong claimed that Camellia sinensis infusions were useful for treating conditions including tumors, abscesses, bladder ailments, and lethargy.

Black, green, white, and oolong teas derive their leaves from the warm-weather evergreen tree Camellia sinensis. The leaves from this tree contain polyphenols. The more processing tea leaves undergo, the darker they will turn. Green tea and white tea are the least processed tea. They are simply steamed quickly. White tea is derived from the young new leaves from the Camellia plant in early spring. These young leaves contain no chlorophyll, so they are silvery white. Black and oolong teas are partially dried, crushed and fermented.

Teas have all primarily been hailed for their antioxidant properties. The polyphenols in tea are powerful antioxidants known as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). They are 100 times more effective than vitamin C, and thought to be the reason that, according to epidemiological and animal evidence, green tea (in which EGCG levels are much higher than in black tea) protects cells from free radical damage and a number of cancers. (Controversially, one study stated that EGCG found in green tea can lead to the inhibition of HIV binding and may be used as a complementary therapy for HIV patients).

EGCG has also been found to pass through the blood-brain barrier, which is thought to be the reason for decreased cognitive decline in tea drinkers. In fact, elderly Japanese people who consumed more than 2 cups of green tea a day had a 50 percent lower chance of having cognitive impairment, in comparison to those who drank fewer than 2 cups a day, or who consumed other tested beverages.

The consumption of tea has been linked to innumerable health benefits unrelated to EGCG or its antioxidant properties. It has been linked with higher bone density (protecting from osteoperosis). It has been found to improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, which may help prevent (or control) diabetes. The amino acid L-theanine, found almost exclusively in the tea plant, actively alters the attention networks of the brain, increasing alpha brain-wave activity, bringing about a calmer, yet more alert, state of mind. Theanine has also been linked with boosting the body’s immune system response when fighting infection. In fact, tea – especially white tea – has been found to be effective in treating bacterial and fungal infections too. The polyphenols in green tea have been shown to reduce bowel inflammation, inhibit the growth of bacteria that causes bad breath

Tea has also been found to lower stress hormone levels, which in itself presents huge health benefits. Fifty minutes after being subjected to challenging tasks, subjects who had been drinking 4 cups of black tea daily for 6 weeks had a 20% greater drop in cortisol (the stress hormone) than a placebo group. Another Japanese study found that more frequent consumption of green tea was associated with a significantly lower prevalence of depressive symptoms. A separate study conducted at UCLA found that drinking three or more cups of tea per day can reduce the risk of suffering a stroke by as much as 21% as well. Blood platelet activation, which is linked to blood clotting and the risk of heart attacks, was also lower for tea drinkers. Black tea has been found to improve heart health by improving blood vessel reactivity and reducing both blood pressure and arterial stiffness.

Of course, these “discoveries” are just science catching up with what we have always known. But it doesn’t hurt to have another good reason to enjoy a cup of tea!

The Pumpkin

More than just a decorative Halloween candleholder or a pie filling to be eaten only once a year, pumpkin is one of the most nutritional foods available year round. Rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, both the flesh and seeds of the pumpkin provide many health-boosting nutrients.

Pumpkins (and squash) are packed full of beta carotene (only carrots and sweet potatoes have more) and are the number one source of alpha carotene, a cancer inhibitor potentially more powerful than beta-carotene. Research of 100,000 people found that those that consumed the most alpha carotene had as much as 63% lower incidence of lung cancer. In addition, it has been found to help protect against heart disease, cataracts and blindness, as well as helping fight the effects of aging.

Pumpkins also provide high levels of vitamin C (for immune function, cellular protection and healing); vitamin E (for skin health, aging and vitamin A regulation); Magnesium (for formation of bones and teeth and many normal biological functions); Potassium (helps regulate heart function and blood pressure); Zinc (for reproductive health and the prostate); and fibre (for digestive health, weight control and protection from heart disease).

And don’t throw the seeds away. Subtly sweet and nutty with a malleable, chewy texture, the roasted seeds from inside your Halloween pumpkin are one of the most nutritious and flavorful seeds around. They are an excellent source of vitamin E, Manganese, Magnesium, Iron, omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids, and are full of plant protein.

While you can buy pumpkin seeds in the shops, it’s easy and fun to prepare your own. Once you’ve removed the seeds from the pumpkin, wipe them off with a paper towel to remove excess pulp that may have stuck to them. Spread them out evenly on paper and allow them to dry overnight.

Place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and light roast them in a 160-170ºF (about 75ºC) oven for 15-20 minutes. By roasting them for a short time at a low temperature you can help to preserve their healthy oils. You can snack on them as they are (or salted); you can add to sauteed vegetables or burgers; you can sprinkle on salads; you can grind with garlic and herbs and add to a salad dressing; add them to your cereal or home-made snack bar… just store in an airtight container and enjoy as you wish!

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