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The importance of superfoods

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Latest forecasts predict that the worldwide market for superfoods is expected to grow around 6.2 per cent over the next five years, set to reach some US$224bn in 2024, up from US$176bn last year, according to a new Global Info Research study.

Closer to home, such growth is evident in UK health food shops, with many retailers establishing superfoods as a popular category in-store. But the market moves fast, new trends come to the fore, and we are seeing new products launch all the time purporting to be the latest wonder superfood.

The most important aspect remains being able to root out those that are faddy and those that are true nutrient powerhouses, and to educate consumers on the most effective way to incorporate quality superfoods into their regime.

Alice Bradshaw, Head of Nutrition Education and Information at Terranova Nutrition, advised: “Consumers are looking for natural ways to improve their health and they recognise the many nutritionally-rich foods that are found in nature. There is a lot more awareness regarding the incredible properties that superfoods have and their increasing availability to the consumer means that it’s easier to incorporate them into any diet.”

The expert view

It has always been the case that there are mixed opinions on what actually makes a superfood, and why – and certainly, without any accepted term, it has in the past been used mainly as a marketing tool.However, the nutrition experts highlight that true superfoods remain an excellent product recommendation for retailers to make.

“Superfoods are foods that provide a wide range of nutrients, phytonutrients and other health-promoting compounds. These active compounds do not work in isolation, but rather in a synergistic manner that create an effect that exceeds the potential of any individual compound. Although the perception of a superfood is something exotic from distant shores, simple foods such as nuts, seeds, broccoli, kale and berries possess health-promoting properties that make them worthy of the superfood status,” Bradshaw commented.

Sebastian Pole, Co-founder and Master Herbsmith at Pukka Herbs, continued: “The term ‘superfood’ can be used to describe foods that are nutrient-rich, with a higher-than-average phytochemical profile. They are perfect examples of nature’s incredible vitality.

“Superfoods have earned their special status because of the concentrated amounts of health-enhancing phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that they contain. They typically offer antioxidant and immune protection, ultimately resulting in us remaining in a better state of whole-body health.”

Morgan Hargrave, National Sales Manager at Coyne Healthcare, added: “Superfoods are foods that are exceptionally nutrient dense. They are usually high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which can help prevent disease, lower cholesterol, reduce risk of heart disease, help improve immunity and decrease inflammation.

“No single superfood can provide all the nutrition, health benefits and energy needed to nourish the body. However, superfoods, incorporated into a healthy diet (which excludes processed foods and those high in sugar) may help balance blood sugar levels, maintain a healthy weight and fight chronic diseases, like diabetes and even cancer. The nutrients in superfoods may help improve energy and promote a healthy complexion, hair and nails.”

In terms of what should be assessed as a superfood, there are various criteria it’s advised you take into account.

“The high vitamin and mineral content found in superfoods can help your body ward off diseases and keep you healthier. When incorporated into a well-balanced diet, these foods can promote heart health, improve energy levels and even reduce the effects of ageing. Additionally, the phytochemicals found in superfoods have numerous health benefits, including reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. Superfoods are also known to protect your organs from toxins, help lower cholesterol, regulate metabolism and reduce inflammation,” Pole advised.

Hargrave added: “Superfoods contain a variety of nutrients, such as antioxidants, which are thought to ward off cancer. They also have healthy fats, thought to prevent heart disease, fibre, thought to prevent diabetes and digestive problems, and phytochemicals – the chemicals in plants responsible for deep colours and smells – which can have numerous health benefits. Consuming foods that are packed with nutrients (as many so-called superfoods are) is certainly good but the key to a healthy diet is to consume a variety of nutritious foods in the right quantities.”

In-store choice

New products within the superfood category launch on a weekly basis, and with limited shelf space, how do you know what are the truly innovative brands to stock and those that can stand up as a superfood?

“There are so many amazing superfoods available to us. Pretty much all fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds possess nutritional qualities that qualify them as superfoods. Additionally, herbs and spices, such as ginger, garlic and turmeric, also contain numerous health-giving properties,” Bradshaw advised.

She highlighted certain fruit and veg items that are nutritionally rich.

“Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli and their sprouts, kale, watercress, and Brussel sprouts. They are all rich in many nutrients and dietary fibre, but cruciferous vegetables also contain sulphur-containing phytochemicals known as glucosinolates. These compounds have been found to be protective to the health of the body’s cells, as well as help to regulate inflammation. They have the ability to support the liver’s role in detoxification and studies show that this can contribute to the regulation of hormones that influence women’s reproductive health,” she explained.

“Berries are amongst the richest sources of nutrients in the natural world and boast some of the highest ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity – a measurement of total antioxidant capacity within foods). As well as vitamins and minerals, berries are rich in flavonoids and anthocyanidins, which are responsible for the blue purple and red pigments and exert exceptional antioxidant activity. Their nutrient profile generally includes exceptionally high levels of vitamin C, ellagic acid, polyphenols, as well as soluble and insoluble fibre. Berries are generally much lower in sugar than many other fruits, so are a healthy addition to any diet.”

Hargrave added: “Broccoli is a great source of fibre, potassium, antioxidants and vitamin C, which aids iron absorption. It helps control blood pressure, reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system and builds strong bones. Dark leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach and Swiss chard are excellent sources of folate, zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin C and fibre and anti-inflammatory carotenoids, which can help reduce the risk of chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.”

The most historically used superfoods include the various grasses that boast a hugely rich nutrient profile.

“Wheat and barley grasses are an incredibly rich source of many nutrients. Their green colour is an indication of their high chlorophyll content, which contributes to their cleansing and detoxifying properties. They are also rich sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidant compounds and enzymes. These are consumed as juice shots or as dried powders made from the juices,” Bradshaw suggested.

Pole turned his attention to those superfoods that come from the water and boast a huge variety of nutrients. “Chlorella is one of the earliest photosynthesising microscopic freshwater plants evolving over two billion years ago. It is one of the most nutritionally dense foods in the world, packed with antioxidants, amino acids, proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and nucleic acids. Chlorella has an incredible ability to absorb solar energy, which has given it the highest known concentration of chlorophyll of any plant at three per cent,” he explained.

“Chlorophyll has numerous benefits, but those at the top of the list are its antioxidant and oxygenating properties. Chlorella contains a unique compound known as Chlorella Growth Factor, which nourishes and supports the functioning of the immune system; more specifically, boosting the production of interferon. Chlorella also contains the full spectrum of B vitamins and is 58 per cent protein, making it invaluable for cellular growth, repair and renewal.”

He continued: “Spirulina is a blue-green algae rich in a pigment known as phycocyanin, which is a powerful antioxidant that scavenges free radicles. Like chlorella, it is nutritionally dense, replenishing amino acid and protein levels, nourishing the blood and building immunity. Spirulina is 60 per cent protein, containing all the amino acids and, gram for gram, has 300 per cent more proteins than animal meat, in addition to being 80 per cent more digestible for humans. In addition, spirulina both supports the production of red blood cells and is a good source of iron, containing 58 per cent more iron than spinach. Spirulina is the second highest source of gamma linoleic acid (GLA) after breast milk, supporting nerve regeneration and repair throughout the body.”

Turmeric has been one of the wonder ingredients in recent years, for good reason and its superfood status has certainly been earned.

“Turmeric is a herb which I think should be noted as an incredibly important superfood. It is the super spice par excellence; pungent, bitter and astringent, it is both slightly heating and drying. High in flavonoids and with over 6,000 clinical studies attesting its ability to protect and nourish the body, it has been studied for its impact on ageing, circulation, inflammation, the liver and digestion,” Pole advised.

“This golden yellow root is full of the potent flavonoid, curcumin, and a range of essential oils that act as protectives and systemic rejuvenatives. It has been used traditionally for over 2,000 years and has recently gained the reputation of one of nature’s most potent remedies for many of today’s health challenges.”

Hargrave added: “Curcumin, the extract of turmeric, is proven to have anti-inflammatory health benefits, helping reduce the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and depression.”

Hargrave also highlighted fermented foods, commenting: “Rich in probiotic bacteria and enzymes which help improve gut health, the digestive system and immune system. Try kefir, kimchi, miso and kombucha.”

And he emphasised green tea. “Green tea and green tea extracts are rich in polyphenolic compounds, antioxidants such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), liver-supporting detoxifiers known as catechins and nutrients that help fight disease. It also helps improve brain function, maintain a healthy weight, improve metabolism and strengthen the immune system,” he advised.

Matt Steele, from manuka honey brand, Honey New Zealand, also put forward manuka honey as an effective choice in terms of its rich nutrient content.

“Manuka honey is one of the great superfood successes, with proven differences to normal table honey. Happily, science into the benefits of manuka is moving at a steady rate, the recent Newcastle University study into wound care being just one example of a positive trial. And while other more unusual superfoods can hit the scene with an air of suspicion, manuka honey has been a hit with millions of customers worldwide since the 1980s and continues to grow in popularity.

“Customers feel good when they make a healthy choice, and switching to manuka honey is a simple upgrade which is easy to do. It doesn’t require forming a new habit or compromising in some way. That’s one of the reasons why it’s a growing superfood choice.”

Manuka honey is a large market and with a number of varying standards. And so Steele recommended: “With manuka, this is made very easy for the customer as there is an independent certification body. By using the UMF stamp, customers and retailers can be sure their manuka honey has been tested for several naturally occurring chemical markers that prove the honey’s anti-microbial properties. UMF provides a simple rating scale, which helps customers navigate the category and trade up to a strength level they can afford that suits their needs,” he explained

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