Superfoods 101: An Introduction

12 foods you'll want to get to know
small bowls of seeds, avocado, bowl of arugula on wooden table
© Can Stock Photo / marilyna

What are Superfoods?

Superfoods are a posse of once not-so-commonplace plant-foods that are super nutrient dense. They are typically power-packed with phytonutrients that provide for enhanced blood sugar control, mental performance, physical stamina, and energy. Many of these foods are particularly high in protein and omega-3s (good anti-inflammatory fats), which are critical building blocks for growing kids. They also give us a generous dose of either B vitamins (to support our nervous system and stress hormone glands), or fiber (to help balance our blood sugar, and aid digestion and elimination). And they are primed to feature prominently on a plate (or in a smoothie) near you. Oh—and they’re all gluten free! Breakfast is a great time to introduce chia and hemp seeds to your warm porridge, for example. Or, you might even consider giving the old oats a break and instead cook up some protein-rich quinoa or amaranth to “amp-up” your breakfasts, fueling you and your family that much longer.

Where to source Superfoods?

The superfoods in the following list are largely “old” foods made new by calling them “superfoods” and selling them in our now very "globally flavoured" grocery stores. I love Michael Pollan’s work, and his concept of down-to-earth “Food Rules” really resonates with me. I particularly like this pithy seven-word statement that sums up those rules: "Eat food, Not too much, Mostly plants." To this end, all of the following foods are plant-based. Another of his attainable ideas is that you shouldn’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Most of the superfoods that I talk about were used by someone’s grandmother in some wise land (e.g. amaranth and chia traditionally from Mexico, quinoa from Peru, miso from Japan…) before they were sold in alluring vacuum-packed packages that appeal to the time- and tradition-starved consumer of today. If you live in a large enough centre to support a great bulk food or health food store, you may just find these in bulk, saving you on cost and packaging. Most stores now carry hemp seeds, chia seeds, and organic quinoa as well. Finally, be mindful of the farmers who traditionally survive by producing "Superfoods" and try to purchase Fair Trade certified brands.

flax seed

Flax seed

A tried and true favourite!

  • These are your best source of lignans—an important detoxifying phytoestrogen.

  • High EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) profile (57% of their total fat--the good kind of fat!).

  • Anti-inflammatory and high in potassium—important for fluid balance.

  • Contains lots of fiber—both soluble AND insoluble.

  • Try sprinkling on cereals, in smoothies, yogurt, as an egg substitute for baking. Most easily digested when ground.

seaweed

Seaweeds

Salty tasting goodness!

  • Omega-3-dense, mineral-rich sea vegetables, these are the richest sources of minerals in the vegetable kingdom, and a great source of iron and iodine.

  • Can remove toxic heavy metals from the body.

There are many more delicious seaweeds besides the nori that we know of from sushi rolls!

Dulse 

Sauté in a little coconut oil and it is great for munching-on straight-up, but is also wonderful sprinkled on salads (in place of bacon!) and on top of soups as a crispy, healthy garnish.

Kombu 

Contains glutamic acid, a safe and natural form of MSG. It’s great for adding a flavour boost to stocks, soups and stews, and also tenderizes beans (use in soaking and cooking), making them more digestible (read: less flatulence!).

Arame 

Noodle-thin, like short pieces of purple-black spaghetti, it rehydrates quickly and is great mixed in salads, and tossed in stir-fries.

chia seeds

 

Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica)

  • Contains the highest level of omega 3 (EFA) in the plant kingdom.

  • 20% high-quality protein: 2 grams per 2 tbsp.

  • High fiber: 7 grams per 2 tbsp.

  • Packed with antioxidants, it is especially high in magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron.

  • Try sprinkling them on cereals, use in baking, or make pudding as explained in this blueberry banana parfait recipe.

goji berries

Goji berries

Antioxidant stars

Also known as “wolfberries,” they are nutritionally similar to our blueberries.

These have one of the highest ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) ratings, meaning that they are jam-packed with antioxidants – particularly the carotenoids that are important for eye health and the immune system. Goji berries have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine in healing soups and teas for supporting blood sugar, vitality and immunity. I find these chewy red berries taste a little like dates. I like them in cereals (hot cooked cereals and granola), soups (a colourful addition), snacks (make your own trail mix with nuts/seeds and dried fruits) and they are really great in baking where you would use cranberries or raisins.
quinoa

 

Quinoa

A vegetable that acts like a grain! 

Pronounced k’een-wa, this is the seed that cooks like a grain and it’s gluten-free!

  • Contains high levels of protein, B vitamins, lysine, iron, and potassium.
  • Has a light delicate flavour that lends itself well to every meal of the day.
  • Wonderful as a fluffy warm breakfast cereal, as a grain side dish instead of rice, in pilaf, as tabouli, and in savoury loaves. In baking I use it a lot in cookies and bars.
  • Remember to rinse before cooking to remove the saponin resin on the outside of the kernels.
spirulina powder

Spirulina

A blue-green algae

  • Most abundant food source of the amino acid tryptophan that helps generate the feel-good neurotransmitter seratonin that regulates sleep, mood, and appetite.

  • High in protein, spirulina is 65-71% complete protein, while beef is only 28%!

  • Rich in chlorophyll, which also means it is high in magnesium—a mineral important for bone health and the nervous system. Our agricultural soils are often depleted of this crucial mineral.

  • Use in smoothies (1 tsp - 1 tbsp), juice and drinks, healthy desserts. I put it in cookies and bars and it looks like green tea matcha!

amaranth

Amaranth 

It’s gluten-free!

  • Higher in calcium than milk, and higher in iron than spinach, amaranth is also high in potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C.

  • 17% protein and rich in the amino acid lysine—rare in plant foods!

  • Great as a creamy breakfast cereal, I have made some delicious recipes for amaranth risotto and amaranth “caviar,” and use it half and half with cornmeal in polenta.

nutritional yeast flakes

Nutiritional yeast 

Grown on molasses!

  • Complete protein with 9 grams in 2 tbsp.

  • Rich source of B vitamins, especially B12 content, which is rare in plant sources.

  • Nutty tasting, and very satisfying as a “cheese-like” alternative.

  • Try sprinkling on popcorn or mixing half and half with hemp seeds, some sea salt and fresh ground pepper for a dairy-free nutrient-rich parmesan, or mix into cauliflower mashed potatoes for a savoury addition.

  • Can't find it? Try looking for "good tasting yeast."

coconut oil

Virgin coconut oil 

A good fat!

  • Great for high temperature cooking as it contains a large percentage of saturated fats that are stable and undamaged with heat.

  • Antimicrobial benefits: contains anti-fungal caprylic acid and lauric acid—both antiviral and antibacterial.

  • Comprised of primarily medium chain triglycerides (MTCS) which are utilized by the liver to produce energy rather than being stored in the body as fat.

  • A wonderfully rich addition to sweet treats!

miso paste

Miso 

A traditional Japanese fermented paste

  • As a fermented food, it contains beneficial probiotics.

  • Don’t boil it, or you’ll destroy its excellent source of live enzymes and friendly immune supportive and digestion enhancing bacteria.

  • Made primarily from soybeans*, miso also contains rice, barley, or other grains. The darker misos are fermented longer and tend to be saltier; the lighter misos are on the milder, sweeter side and may be more appealing to a younger palate.

  • Great source of low caloric protein with 2 grams of protein in a 30 calorie (roughly 2 tsp) serving. Use as a soup base—it’s so quick and easy! Or try a teaspoon or more in salad dressings and gravies.

*For those avoiding soy, look for chickpea miso.

hemp seeds

 

Hemp seeds

A versatile superfood!

  • Contains 5 grams of protein per tbsp. Its protein is complete, containing all 9 essential amino acids!

  • In its whole food state, it has a high pH, making it more alkaline than most proteins.

  • Try sprinkling them on salads, cereals, on greens, stir-fries, bars, and cookies, or add them to smoothies.

avocado

Avocado 

A creamy fruit with a cool nature

  • A natural source of powerful “brain food” lecithin, along with fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E which are important for growing kids!

  • 80% of an avocado’s caloric content is easily digested fat primarily in the form of monounsaturated oils.

  • Use to make creamy smoothies, in salads, spread on crackers, sandwiches, guacamole, or cubed on top of just about anything!

  • Blend it with cocoa, a sweetener, and vanilla to make delicious avocado pudding desserts and icings.

*Originally published March 10, 2013