Real food heroes – the super foods in your kitchen!

Real food heroes – the super foods in your kitchen!

HFG senior nutritionist Rose Carr discovers the ‘ordinary’ foods that punch well above their weight.

If you’re sick of hearing sensational claims about so-called ‘superfoods’, you’re not alone: the term was so overused in Europe that regulators banned its use by manufacturers. We see a lot of hype and misinformation about  foods such as goji berries and wheatgrass. And some of these foods are more likely to have a detrimental effect on the health of our budgets rather than providing any real health benefits.

While it’s great to have lots of variety in our diets, and foods such as pomegranate or chia seeds are nutritionally good, there are other less hyped foods that are economical, easily available, and also pack an amazing nutrition punch. Here we highlight some real food heroes.


(and other brassicas)

Why we love them

It’s no coincidence that our first two food heroes are dark green vegetables. Broccoli is packed with nutrients including vitamins C, B6 and folate plus fibre. It is also rich in a number of phytochemicals, in particular, sulphoraphane — a compound which helps inhibit the development of several cancers. In laboratory testing sulphoraphane has also been shown to kill the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which causes stomach ulcers and can lead to stomach cancer. With lutein and zeaxanthin, it’s good for eye health, too.

As Professor Lynn Ferguson of Auckland University’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences points out from her research: “It’s important to include some brassica vegetables in the range of vegetables we eat, as they do have these particular cancer-protecting compounds we don’t get from other vegetables. While broccoli is the most studied, the other brassicas also have these compounds.”

Brassicas include the different cabbages, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, turnips and swedes.

Make the most of them

We love broccoli for its versatility. As a year-round vegetable, broccoli can be eaten raw or lightly cooked. It’s great by itself with a little lemon juice and lemon zest, broccoli makes a crispy salad with carrot and celery, and it is just as happy (and tasty) in a stir-fry or a frittata. Don’t waste the sweet stem: peel the outside, chop the stem in sticks and add to stir-fries or salads.


(and other dark leafy greens)

Why we love them

Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and silver beet add vitamins A, C, E and folate as well as fibre. They are one of the main sources of lutein and also contain zeaxanthin. Many studies have shown that higher amounts of these carotenoids are associated with a decreased likelihood of developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration which is the leading cause of blindness in older people.

Make the most of them

These must be the easiest vegetables to grow, making them even more economical. They can be harvested year- round and used raw in salads, or quickly steamed if you prefer. Our favourite recipes include Creamed silver beet and Warm green salad.


Why we love them

For heart-healthy and budget-friendly it doesn’t get much better than oats. Many of us are not consuming enough fibre or whole grains in our diets and upping our oat intake is an easy and cheap solution. While all wholegrain cereals provide much needed fibre, along with vitamins, minerals and various phytonutrients, oats are unique in being high in the soluble fibre, beta-glucan. It’s thanks to this that regularly eating oats can lower total and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels. There is also some evidence oats are more sustaining than some other foods.

Make the most of oats

Some people can’t go past traditional porridge but if that’s not for you, try a Bircher-style muesli prepared the night before with oats, grated apple, low-fat yoghurt, a little juice and chopped nuts. Use oats in muesli for a blend of soluble and insoluble fibre, add oats to smoothies, and use it in baking.


Why we love them

We included eggs in our list of real food heroes because we suspect they might be taken for granted and underappreciated. Eggs are a protein source and have been shown to have high satiety so they keep us feeling full for longer than many other foods. Apart from liver, eggs are the richest source of the essential nutrient choline; they also contain iodine, which we now fortify our bread with because in general we need more. Both of these nutrients are especially important during pregnancy. And the yellow yolks of eggs contain highly bioavailable lutein and zeaxanthin, critical for eye health.

Make the most of eggs

What can’t you do with eggs?! If we have eggs in the house we always have a quick solution for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Low-fat milk and yoghurt

Why we love it

While not as cheap as it has been in the past, and we appreciate people with lactose-intolerance can consume only relatively small amounts, low-fat dairy is highly nutritious for relatively few kilojoules and it is an important staple in most diets. Low-fat milk and low-fat yoghurt provide protein, B vitamins and the most bioavailable calcium.

A number of studies have shown higher dairy intakes increase bone mass during growth and reduce bone losses in older age. Milk intake has been linked to a reduced risk for colorectal cancer which is one of the big killers in New Zealand. Unlike sugar-sweetened drinks, which promote dental caries, milk has no effect on the incidence of dental caries.

Make the most of low-fat dairy

Many people struggle to reach the recommended amount of calcium but calcium-rich low-fat dairy can be included in any meal and snack. Low-fat yoghurt is great at breakfast with cereal, in smoothies, as a snack by itself or with fruit for dessert. Trim milk is a great recovery food after exercise — providing protein, carbohydrate and fluids — or as an anytime snack.


Why we love them

A 2010 report in Nutrition Journal entitled ‘The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide’ found that berries and berry products contained the highest antioxidant content, by weight, compared with all other food categories (and supplements). Antioxidants can eliminate free radicals and reactive groups which contribute to most chronic diseases. Along with their extraordinary antioxidant content, berries contain different amounts of vitamins A, C, E and folate as well as fibre. While blueberries have received a lot of research attention, other dark berries such as blackberries and boysenberries are also very rich in healthful anthocyanins.

Make the most of berries

Eat as a snack or add to fruit salads and smoothies. When they are out of season frozen berries are just good as fresh but their antioxidant capacity is reduced when berries are made into jam.

Salmon and other oily fish

Why we love them

New Zealand King salmon is not only a delicious protein source but it is one of the richest sources of the essential long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA. These omega-3s have been widely studied and are thought to reduce our risk for heart disease and possibly diabetes, asthma, dementia and age-related macular degeneration. Just 120g of King salmon contains around 3000mg of long-chain omega-3, the same amount as nine or ten standard fish oil capsules.

Make the most of salmon and other fish

The simplest way to increase our intake of omega-3s is to eat fish several times a week, especially oily fish. Depending on the budget use fresh salmon or other fresh fish, or use canned fish, which is pretty economical. Canned salmon, sardines, mussels, tuna, herring and some mackerel are all good sources of long-chain omega-3 fats. And cans are great for your at-work lunch kit.


(and tomato products)

Why we love them

In addition to the basics, such as adding vitamins A and C as well as fibre and potassium to your diet, tomatoes are one of the main sources of lycopene, an antioxidant which has been shown to reduce inflammation. Processed tomato products such as canned tomatoes or tomato juice, sauce or paste contain especially high amounts of lycopene. According to the expert report from the American Institute for Cancer Research, foods containing lycopene have been shown to reduce risk of prostate cancer.

Make the most of tomatoes

Eat fresh tomatoes in season during summer and use processed tomatoes the rest of the year. These must be one our most versatile vegetables: use in summer salads, winter comfort food, Mexican, Italian and Mediterranean dishes. For the healthiest processed tomato products, compare the nutrition labels and choose products with the least amount of sodium per 100g.

Lentils and beans (legumes)

Why we love them

These nutritional gems are cheap and often underutilised in a typical New Zealand diet. Low GI, low in fat and high in both soluble and insoluble fibre, legumes contain carbohydrate, protein, minerals and vitamins. The relatively high mineral content in legumes, such as iron, can be misleading as they also contain phytates which limit the bioavailability of minerals. However, it is thought these phytates may play a role in reducing cancer risk. Similarly, the trypsin inhibitors, which lower protein digestion (causing wind problems for some people), have also been studied as anti-cancer agents. Legumes also contain important prebiotics which stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. Legumes are a key component of a traditional Mediterranean diet and higher amounts of legumes can benefit cholesterol and glycaemic control.

Make the most of lentils and beans

If using legumes as your main protein source, ensure you’re getting complete protein by marrying legumes with grains. Think of ethnic cuisines such as Mexican kidney beans with tortilla, Indian dhal with rice, Middle Eastern lentils with rice or even good old baked beans on toast. As well as making soups even more nutritious, legumes can be added to extend meat dishes such as casseroles or spaghetti Bolognese. For super-cheap legumes buy dried beans. Soak the beans then cook on the stove top. Canned legumes are especially convenient but in a salty brine they can be high in sodium so limit the excess sodium by rinsing canned legumes well. To avoid wind problems, increase your legume intake slowly: they are worth the effort.

Try these delicious dishes made with pulses

Red lentil vegetable dhal
Split pea kumara chowder
Baked lamb with chickpeas and spinach
Brazilian bean stew


Why we love them

Nuts have been described as nature’s own vitamin pill but they’re tastier than tablets. While different nuts contain varying nutrients, in general, it’s their combination of healthy fats, plant-based omega-3 (ALA), fibre, vitamin E and other antioxidants that makes them so beneficial. Nut consumption has been associated with good cholesterol control and reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes. Studies also point to regular nut eaters having the same or lower body weights than people who don’t eat nuts. Among the stars, almonds are high in vitamin E, walnuts are high in ALA, and Brazil nuts are high in selenium. New Zealand soils are low in selenium compared to many countries but one or two Brazil nuts each day will improve our intake of the antioxidant selenium just as effectively, and for about half the price, of a supplement.

Make the most of nuts

Nuts are high in kilojoules so a small handful a day is as much as we need. Roughly chop and add to fruit and yoghurt for breakfast or dessert; keep a container of mixed nuts at work for a regular snack; add walnuts, dry-roasted slivered almonds or other nuts to salads. Always choose unsalted nuts and when dry roasting only prepare as much as you want to use straight away.

Get a super diet

At Healthy Food Guide we’re not keen on the term ‘superfood’ as it’s often overhyped and unrealistic. There’s no single food we can add to our diets to ‘make us healthy’. We think the ideal is a super diet, which would be based on eating a wide range of nutrient-rich foods. These are the foods that provide substantial amounts of essential nutrients relative to their energy (kilojoule) content. This is in contrast to energy-dense foods which are high in energy but nutrient-poor. Vegetables and fruits are the superstars: they simply are the most nutrient-rich foods. Low-fat dairy products, eggs, fish, lean meats, nuts and seeds, legumes and whole grains are also all nutrient-rich. It’s no coincidence that these foods are also low in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.Having a super diet doesn’t mean we can’t add some energy-dense treats. But it does mean that when we eat energy-rich foods such as chocolate, we understand we’re eating it for pleasure and not because it’s a ‘superfood’ that’s going to miraculously make us healthier.

What makes a real food hero?

How HFG defines a super food:

  • Rich in nutrients relative to the energy (kilojoule) content
  • Credible science shows the food enhances our health when consumed in realistic amounts
  • Versatile, tasty and easy to find
  • Great value
Author: Rose Carr

Healthy Food Guide

First published: Jun 2012

2017-04-03 16:52:16

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