Many herbs and spices double as surprisingly effective disease-fighting superfoods. Plus they’re potent, delicious, and far more affordable than many other foods being marketed as superfoods.
Any health-conscious individual worth their weight in kale will tell you that your morning super smoothie just isn’t complete without acai berries, maca, or chia seeds. But there are plentiful lesser known superfoods that are just as nutritious, more affordable, and – since you can grow some of them in your backyard – carry a far lower carbon and social footprint.
A superfood is a food with high nutrient or phytochemical content that may confer health benefits, with few properties considered to be negative. You may already be familiar with some everyday superfoods; last year I wrote an article listing some famous everyday superfoods, including citrus, seaweeds, dark green leafy vegetables, berries, oily fish, and cacao. But I skipped some lesser-known, equally (or more) deserving superfoods that are not only high in antioxidants, but are so powerful they can be used as adjuncts to cancer therapy and to slow the ageing process.
Many of the following superfoods are actually super herbs that keep you young, well-oxygenated and digestively very healthy. You can include them in your cooking, as teas, and in smoothies. The terrific news is you need only small amounts of these super herbs to have proven antioxidant, anti-cancer or antimicrobial effects, and they add flavour and depth to your diet.
Turmeric (Curcurma longa)
This superpower-packed rhizome may be growing in your own backyard. Turmeric contains curcumin as an active constituent, making it an effective antioxidant. It said to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and is used as an anti-cancer herb. It’s a wonderful blood cleanser and adjunct to any detoxification program, and you can enjoy turmeric freshly pressed into your vegetable juice. Turmeric also increases circulation, helps digestion, protects the gut, and is highly anti-inflammatory, making it a great addition for those with osteoarthritis. Turmeric’s cousin ginger (Zingerber officinale) is also a fantastic carminative, anti-inflammatory, and increases peripheral circulation – a must for winter soups and stews.
Schisandra berry (Schisandra chinensis)
This is a barely-known super berry that comes to us from China. Like the more famous goji berry (Lycium barbarum) but more affordable, schisandra is an effective antioxidant, meaning it inhibits oxidative processes (most diseases have an oxidative effect on the body including obesity). Schisandra is also an adaptogen, which means it helps you to deal with stress – physical, emotional, environmental and biological – and improves physical, exercise and mental performance and concentration. Another great detox superfood, this berry enhances detoxification by the liver. Enjoy a teaspoon of the powdered berry in your morning super smoothie and experience the complex taste of schisandra berry, also known as wǔ wèi zi, literally ‘five flavour berry’.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Medicinal mushrooms are a vastly underrated immune modulating, anti-cancer food. My mum is Chinese and when I was a kid she would throw handfuls of these flavourful mushrooms into her immune-boosting soups, along with other strong immunity contenders like astragalus root, goji berries (before they were popular) and Korean ginseng. These guys are a great adjunct therapy in cancer, during chemotherapy or radiotherapy to mop up the damage of those treatments. Reishi is also said to slow ageing.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
That yellow-flowered weed that grows along your back fence was deemed by the USDA as the second most nutritious plant ever tested, trumped only by parsley. Half a cup of dandelion leaves has more calcium than a glass of milk. But perhaps just as significant as its nutritional status is its ability to aid digestion as a bitter tonic. As a culture we shy away from bitter tastes besides those in coffee and dark chocolate, which is a great loss to our digestive health. The bitter quality of dandelion leaves will stimulate the production of your body’s digestive secretions (saliva, pancreatic enzymes, bile) and prime your body to digest your food better. Plus it never hurts to get more greens into your diet. Sincemany health problems have their roots in an impaired digestive tract or an overworked liver, bitters are a monumentally important part of your diet. Throw dandelion leaves in salads. The root can also be used as a coffee replacement. Other bitter greens such as arugula, kale, mustard greens, and watercress are lovely additions to a starter salad at the beginning of your meal.
Chilli (Capsicum spp.)
Chilli induces sweating, which facilitates detoxification, increases metabolism, and stimulates blood flow, making them libido enhancers and pain relievers. Chilli is also a potent antimicrobial – good news if you live in a developing tropical country with limited food refrigeration. The capsaicinoids, carotenoids and flavonoids in chilli make it a fantastic superfood for those who like it hot – in more ways than one! Red chilli substantially increases the uptake of non-heme iron from other ingredients in a meal, such as beans and grains – good news for vegetarians who love spicy food.
Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)
You may be familiar with the ORAC rating used to rate the antioxidant capacity of a food. On this scale, ground cloves are the highest rated substance of any other antioxidant superfood, including açaí, maqui, and other ‘sexy’, heavily marketed South American superfoods. But cloves have far more credit to claim than their ORAC rating alone. Cloves are a carminative, antimicrobial, and anti-helminthic, i.e., they help the body get rid of worms. Try a pot of home brewed chai tea containing cinnamon (also a great carminative and aromatic digestive) to soothe an upset stomach.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis)
Green tea contains hydrolysable tannins and phenoilc acids. Don’t underestimate the power of a cup of green tea! An antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral, it has been shown to bring down cholesterol and is said to be great for preventing heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, as well as being a helpful adjunct treatment in cancer. And yes, it assists with weight loss and slows the ageing process.
Oregano, rosemary and thyme– the Italian triumvirate
As if it weren’t enough that these yummy herbs take your pasta to the next level, they are all antioxidants in themselves, and due to the carminative essential oils they contain, they soothe an upset tummy. Oregano is helpful for gastrointestinal candida, chronic bronchitis and bronchial asthma. Rosemary calms the gut and is also a wonderful memory enhancer, and slows the ageing process by acting as a cerebral antioxidant (thus helpful in preventing Alzhiemer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease). Thyme is one of the greatest antimicrobial herbs known. The next time you enjoy an authentic Italian meal with a glass of wine, keep in mind that you’re probably getting more superfood action from your pasta sauce than from all the antioxidants in your wine.
Is ORAC everything?
ORACis short for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, and is a measure of how strong an antioxidant effect a food may have. Walk into any health food store, take a look at the packaging on any popular superfood powder and you will probably see an ORAC scale comparing the superfood to others seemingly far below its calibre. Numerous health food and beverage companies and marketers have capitalised on the ORAC rating by promoting products claimed to be ‘high in ORAC’. However, according to the USDA, “many of these ORAC values have not been independently validated or subjected to peer review for publication in scientific literature, so they remain unconfirmed and are not scientifically credible.” This caused the Nutrient Data Laboratory (NDL) to remove the USDA ORAC Database for Selected Foods from the NDL website.
Keep in mind that antioxidant molecules in food have a wide range of functions, many of which are unrelated to the ability to absorb free radicals. The superfoods listed in this article contain a number of bioactive compounds which scientists predict have a role in preventing or ameliorating various chronic diseases such as cancer, coronary vascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. However, the associated metabolic pathways are not completely understood and it’s important to remember that non-antioxidant mechanisms, still undefined, may be responsible. Plants in their wholefood form are incredibly complex and, just because we don’t understand the chemistry of their many constituents and don’t yet understand how they prevent certain diseases, the evidence remains that they do – we just don’t know exactly how. Such is the magnificent complexity of wholefoods from nature.
USDA Agricultural Research Service website: http://www.ars.usda.gov, accessed 23/8/14
Bone, K 2007, The Ultimate Herbal Compendium: A Desktop Guide for Herbal Prescribers
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