We're often fed news about superfoods and superherbs -- and it's tempting to want to believe everything we're told. Some superfood claims are backed by scientific studies, while other enticing claims turn certain foods into fads, though the foods have few proven benefits. We looked at the studies of 10 pantry picks and give you the real goods about their disease-fighting powers.
Rhubarb is frequently regarded as a fruit (based on how we eat it), but botanically it is a vegetable belonging to the same family as sorrel and buckwheat. Championed for its phytochemical lindleyin, this nutritional all-star makes the cut for its potential role in relieving hot flashes in perimenopausal women. How the plant cools hot flashes is not exactly clear. Researchers have identified an extract in the root that may have estrogen-like properties. Need another reason to eat rhubarb? The plant is rich in potassium, vitamin C and dietary fibre.
Dietary uses: Canadian-grown rhubarb is available from February to July in most grocery stores but is most flavourful in the spring. Rhubarb is commonly eaten cooked in jams or spreads; baked in pies, cakes and muffins; and used in sorbet, ice cream and punch. Further studies are needed to determine the safety of medicinal amounts of the extract -- in concentrated pill form it may cause stomach cramps and mineral and electrolyte imbalances. Rhubarb root should not be consumed by children, or women who are pregnant or lactating.
2. Pumpkin seeds
This versatile seed, also known as pepitas, has long been treasured by American aboriginal peoples for its dietary and medicinal properties. Now these seeds are receiving the superfood attention they deserve. Of all the nuts and seeds typically consumed as snacks, pumpkin seeds are among the leaders of phytosterols -- a naturally occurring compound with an established reputation for cholesterol-lowering properties. Phytosterols are also being studied for their potential role in prostate health. Each 1/4 cup (50 millilitre) serving of the seed provides a healthy dose of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is a good source of minerals, including phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and iron, making it one of the most nutritious and flavourful seeds around.
Dietary uses: Pumpkin seeds are available year-round from grocery stores but are freshest in the fall when pumpkins are in season. They make a good snack, either on their own or mixed with walnuts, almonds, peanuts and dried fruit. High in fibre, they lend crunch and nutty flavour to salads, vegetables, pasta dishes, sauces and casseroles. But watch your portion size; one cup (250 milliltres) packs 750 calories.
3. Goji berries
Hailed as the newest superfood, goji, a Himalayan berry, has inspired a surge of interest for its use in treating diabetes, hypertension, malaria, fever, cancer and other ailments. Gram for gram, goji berries pack more vitamin C than some oranges and more beta-carotene than carrots. Unfortunately, though, there isn't enough evidence yet to confirm the health claims, since we only have testimonials and animal studies to go by. And goji berries and goji juice are costly.
Dietary uses: Goji berries are similar in taste to raisins but more tart. They can be eaten raw or cooked and are a tasty addition to tea, soup and hot cereal.
Valued in ancient times as currency and once considered more precious than gold, cinnamon -- one of the world's oldest known spices -- has made the pilgrimage from spice rack to science lab. Preliminary studies are investigating its role in lowering blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, most likely due to the insulin-like effects of its polyphenols (natural substances found in plants). It's still too early to know if cinnamon can help curb blood sugars, but with studies suggesting its effects can be seen with a daily dose of just half a teaspoon (two millilitres), it's worth keeping this spice in mind when reaching into the spice cabinet.
Dietary uses: Cinnamon (the inner bark of the tropical cinnamon tree) comes in the form of sticks and powder. Sprinkle it on toast, add it to oatmeal or use it on desserts. Make cinnamon tea by pouring one to two cups (250 to 500 millilitres) of boiling water over one- to 1-1/2-inch sticks; steep for 10 minutes. Caution: Ingesting four tablespoons (60 mL) of cinnamon oil has been linked to serious side-effects.
Regarded as a sacred food by the Incas, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals. This supergrain seed contains more protein than most cereal grains (22 grams per one cup/250 millilitres uncooked quinoa) and is considered a complete protein because it contains all eight of the essential amino acids we need for tissue development.
Quinoa is higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc, and lower in sodium compared with wheat, barley and corn. This gluten-free grain also receives an honourable mention for being low in saturated fat (one gram of fat per one cup/250 millilitres uncooked quinoa).
Dietary uses: Quinoa can be substituted for most hot cereals and is a good replacement for rice. Cook it like porridge, include it in casseroles or stews, or add it (steamed, toasted or baked) to soups, salads or desserts. You can also use ground quinoa in breads, cookies, puddings, muffins and pasta. It's available in most grocery and health food stores.
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