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Wednesday, April 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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These antioxidant-rich foods have the power to change your life

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Blueberries are brain food.

If there's one good-for-you food that has cut through the din of conflicting and controversial diet headlines, it's the tiny indigo berry native to North America, which scientists have discovered contains powerful disease-fighters that may improve memory, intelligence and coordination.

But blueberries aren't the only food with bragging rights.

Pomegranates, kiwi fruit and, yes, even dark chocolate are the latest buzz, joining such everyday foods as broccoli, spinach, wild salmon, sweet potatoes, soy, oats, walnuts and tomatoes. Together these nutrient-dense foods containing health-promoting phytonutrients are dubbed "super foods."

"Super foods are foods that have longevity and contribute to good health," says Steven Pratt, an ophthalmologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., and co-author of the best-selling "SuperFoodsRx" and "SuperFoods HealthStyle" (William Morrow, 2005, $24.95).

How super foods measure up


How can you tell which foods have the most phytochemicals?

Scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston have developed the ORAC scale that measures the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity of various foods. Blueberries score 3,000 units, while dark chocolate tips the scales at 13,000 units.

Although you will not find ORAC numbers on a nutrition label, it may be only a matter of time. "To remain competitive, I think anything that touts antioxidants will need a comparison of where they are on the ORAC scale," says Rachel Kenney, education manager for Naked Juice, a California-based company that markets a line of "super-food" and antioxidant beverages.

"It's foods that are available in markets around the world and make up part of a dietary cuisine," Pratt says. "It's also food that has been studied, and the scientific studies have been peer-reviewed."

Cruise the aisles of any supermarket in America and broccoli is ubiquitous for three reasons: It's easy to buy, it's inexpensive and it's easy to cook. It's also one of the most studied, which is how we know it's one of the most nutritious foods on the planet.

Beyond the traditional vitamins and minerals Mother told us about, scientists have discovered broccoli is also a good source of lutein, an antioxidant available in colorful fruits and vegetables that helps prevents macular degeneration, a condition that can cause blindness in older adults.

Nutrition experts agree we've only begun to scratch the surface in our efforts to discover how foods prevent disease in the body. Pratt's first book featured 14 super foods, a term he believes he coined but could not trademark. His second book adds 10 more to an ever-growing list, and there are "sidekicks" galore — related foods that provide similar health benefits.

One of the most surprising super foods to hit the headlines is dark chocolate. It is loaded with health-promoting polyphenols — antioxidants that may help lower blood pressure and promote vascular health. Cocoa has more polyphenols than red wine or green tea. But to qualify, the chocolate must contain at least 70 percent cocoa solids.

Super lingo


Phytonutrients: These natural compounds are found in plants. They appear to be potent disease-fighters because of their antioxidant properties.

Antioxidants: Think of antioxidants as rust fighters. They protect the body from rust (oxidation) by free radicals. Oxidation is the enemy because it speeds up aging and leads to disease.

Carotenoids: Found in the red, orange and yellow pigments in fruits and vegetables, carotenoids include beta-carotene, one of the best-known antioxidants, as well as lutein, lycopene and zeaxanthin.

Polyphenols: A large group of antioxidants, including anthocyanins, catechins, ellagic acid, quercetin and other substances.

With the $640 million premium juice market projected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2008, it's no surprise that Naked Juice is already marketing grab-and-go bottles of juice made from the obscure Brazilian berry known as acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee), which is touted to have 10 times the antioxidants of red grapes.

But typically Brazilians pour an avalanche of sugar on acai to tame its tartness. Naked Juice chose to combine the tart berry juice with sweeter apple, banana and white grape juices. "Sometimes with the higher-antioxidant fruits, you need to find the right mix of fruits," says Rachel Kenney, education manager for the California-based company.

In "12 Best Foods Cookbook" (Rodale, 2004, $21.95), Dana Jacobi highlights foods that are not only loaded with phytonutrients but also have what she calls a certain "voluptuousness." After all, if a food doesn't taste good, most of us won't eat it, no matter how good for us.

"I tried to look at foods beyond what its headline fame might be," says Jacobi, a New York-based food writer and chef who developed the recipes for her book. "What these 12 foods do — besides providing phytonutrients — is they cover the whole range of what a balanced diet is and include variety."

To that end, she made a choice to leave apples out of the cookbook, even though they taste great, are easy to buy and rate high on the USDA's list of 20 top antioxidant foods. And she chose chocolate over red wine and walnuts instead of almonds, even though red wine and almonds are delicious and possess plenty of proven health benefits.

"What I hope [readers] take from the book is the things that are good for them and have a good time with them. Not to have them feel like this is a duty or a sacrifice," Jacobi says.

Food, after all, should taste better than a spoonful of medicine.

12 super foods

When it comes to super foods, there's a lot of compulsive list-making going on. Some lists focus on a half-dozen foods; USDA scientists have focused on 100 foods and spotlighted 20. But you can forget the numbers game and feel good about adding any of these to your grocery cart:

1. Beans

Why? High in folate, fiber and antioxidants, beans can help lower cholesterol and LDL levels, scavenge free radicals, moderate insulin levels and reduce cancer risk.

How much? Eat two -cup servings a day of cooked or canned beans.

2. Blueberries

Why? A true nutritional powerhouse, blueberries provide more antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable. Phytonutrients include anthocyanins, chlorogenic acid, ellagic acid, catechins and resveratrol, substances that fight cancer, heart disease and age-related memory loss.

How much? If possible, eat 1/2 cup fresh or frozen or 1/4 cup dried blueberries every day. Eat any type of berry at least three times a week.

3. Broccoli

Why? Cruciferous vegetables are loaded with antioxidants. Broccoli contains cancer-fighting sulforaphane, indoles and carotenoids plus beta-carotene, lutein and zeathanin that promote eye health and ward off macular degeneration.

How much? Eat 1/2 cup raw or 1 cup cooked broccoli every day.

4. Oats

Why? Oatmeal's mighty nutrition profile.

How much? Eat at least three servings of whole grains a day. A serving equals one cup cooked oatmeal, 1/2 cup uncooked rolled oats or 1/4 cup steel-cut oats.

5. Soy

Why? An important source of vegetable protein, soy also contains isoflavones, estrogenlike substances that protect and maintain bone strength. Soy also contains important omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health.

How much? Eat one serving of soy foods a day. The size depends on the form of the food. Try edamame for snacking out of hand.

6. Spinach

Why? Spinach contains more than a Popeye-sized dose of iron. When it comes to antioxidants, it's packed with carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein for eye health.

How much? Eat at least 1 cup cooked spinach or other dark leafy green vegetable a day.

7. Sweet potatoes

Why? Loaded with beta-carotene, sweet potatoes boost the immune system. They also reduce cholesterol buildup in the arteries and help fight age-related macular degeneration and a variety of cancers.

How much? Eat at least one 1/2-cup serving of sweet potatoes or other beta-carotene-rich produce (carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin and orange bell peppers) a day.

8. Tomatoes

Why? Tomatoes contain lycopene, plus a range of beneficial phytochemicals that protect against heart attack, cancers and age-related macular degeneration. Cooked tomatoes contain more lycopene than raw tomatoes.

How much? Eat one serving a day with a little bit of healthy fat, such as olive oil, to help absorb the lycopene. Serving sizes are one medium raw tomato, about 1 cup cherry tomatoes, 1/2 cup sauce, 1/4 cup puree, 2 tablespoons paste or 6 ounces juice.

9. Walnuts

Why? If you're looking for an excellent source of "good" polyunsaturated fats, walnuts are one of the few plant sources high in omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts are the only nuts that contain ellagic acid, a cancer-fighting antioxidant. The amino acid arginine can reduce the risk of heart attack.

How much? Eat 1 ounces of nuts per day. One ounce equals 14 walnut halves.

10. Wild salmon

Why? Wild salmon contains large amounts of omega-3, a fatty acid that reduces the risk of heart disease and heart attack by lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol. Omega-3s also reduce inflammation that triggers arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

How much? A serving is just 3 ounces, roughly the size of a deck of cards, or 1/4 cup canned. Eat 12 ounces a week.

11. Extra-virgin olive oil

Why? The monounsaturated fats of olive oil are considered "good" fat that reduces cardiovascular disease, lowers blood pressure and prevents some types of cancer.

How much? Eat 1 tablespoon most days.

12. Dark chocolate

Why? Dark chocolate has the highest antioxidant content of any food. The darker the chocolate, the higher the count.

How much? Eat a 1-ounce serving daily. Also, try grapes, red wine and green tea, which are high in polyphenols, which boost good cholesterol. In addition to dark chocolate candy, try raw cocoa nibs. Although somewhat bitter, they have an intense, tannic flavor, like wine.

Some new superstars

When it comes to phytonutrients, experts say we've only scratched the surface. With each new study, watch for more antioxidant-rich foods to arrive at a store near you. Here are a few creating new buzz:

Pomegranate: The newest research points to pomegranates as the next great super-food powerhouse, with three times more antioxidant power than green tea and red wine. Pom, the marketing machine behind pomegranates, has trademarked the term "The Antioxidant Superpower."

Acai (ah-sigh-ee): Touted to contain 10 times more antioxidants than red grapes and 10 to 30 times more anthocyanins than red wine, the little berry from the Brazilian rainforest is poised to samba its way into American hearts and diets. The acai contains vitamin A, vitamin C and omega fatty acids 6 and 9.

Gogi or goji (go-gee): A berry from Tibet that is high in antioxidants, goji is described at www.livesuperfoods.com as a cross between a cherry and a cranberry. "There's not a lot of science on it, but you know there's no bad berry on the planet," says Steven Pratt, author of "SuperFoods HealthStyle" (Morrow).

Gold kiwi fruit: An odd-looking, fuzzy fruit originally from New Zealand, it has become a mainstream supermarket item. Rich in vitamin C, it has more vitamins and potassium than a banana and more fiber than a bowl of bran flakes, according to Zespri Kiwifruit.

Quinoa (keen-wah): With the whole-grain emphasis in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, watch for less-familiar grains to make it into the mainstream. A staple of the ancient Incas, quinoa is considered a complete protein because it contains all eight essential amino acids.

Sources: "12 Best Foods Cookbook" and "SuperFoods HealthStyle"

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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