Local Rules

This year in superfoods
By Adam Swenson

There was a lot to like in the food projections at the beginning of this year. After perusing many different sources some distinct commonalities emerged—simple, healthy, farm-to-fork, hyper-local sourcing, and sustainability all rang out resoundingly across the food forecasts.

Functional foods vs. superfoods

The idea of “functional foods” came up frequently, and this is a development we should be applauding. Functional foods is a term that has some degree of overlap with superfoods. Functional foods are foods that are thought to confer a health benefit to the eater beyond that of simple nutrition. Superfoods, then, are also functional foods, but they are the best of the best. If functional foods are the team, then the superfoods are the All-Stars. But, to continue the analogy, no team is made up entirely of All-Stars—likewise any diet needs a foundation of good old whole functional foods.

If more mainstream food sources—from restaurants to grocers to manufacturers—embrace functional foods, that means offering a real alternative to the overly processed foods that have been a cash cow for years. For this trend to continue to gain momentum, we must keep voting for healthy food with our wallets.

The notion of emphasizing functional foods (like aboveground veggies) may be less exotic or glitzy than seeking out the latest superfood, but it’s still very much a worthwhile pursuit. If we can continue to emphasize fresh and local produce (organic when possible) as a daily habit, gradually replacing our least healthy food vices, health will certainly benefit.

Past present

Britain’s Innova Market Insights, a food research group, sees a revival of interest in heirloom veggies like parsnips, artichokes, kale, and salsify. (Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what salsify is … there is, after all, a reason it needs a revival in interest. A root vegetable belonging to the dandelion family, salsify is long and thin with an oyster taste when cooked. It tends to be more available in the winter months.)

We currently get 90 percent of our plant calories from 12 species of plants, and those 12 are not necessarily the healthiest options, just the easiest to grow, commoditize, and distribute. I am consistently amazed as I research new produce and find out that almost every new species I run across has some unique and tremendous health-enhancing properties. Getting a wide variety of foods is critical. It is the micronutrients that make a superfood a superfood.

Just like nature herself, our bodies abhor a monoculture. As Joel Fuhrman, MD, said in a recent interview, “there are thousands of intricate and fragile substances [in plant foods] that are important for human health.” The best way to be sure you are getting all the nourishment your body needs is to be an adventurous eater.

Focusing on the food chain

Eating local is big and should continue to grow: It was on numerous top 10 lists. Much of the rationale for eating local derives from sustainability concerns: If you eat one of those prewashed, salad-in-a-bag salads in New York and it was grown in California, that salad required 56 calories of fossil fuel energy burned for every calorie of lettuce you are consuming.

But just as importantly, if you eat local, you are keeping a local farmer in business. And if you eat local you are likely to get fresher and better-tasting produce. Eating local almost inevitably means minimal processing, and minimal processing means that the nutrition in the whole foods is still there. Lastly, a recent study found the tertiary benefit of socialization. During the study only nine percent of shoppers in a supermarket had an interaction with another shopper, but 63 percent interacted with a fellow shopper at the farmers’ market.

Trending superfoods

COCONUT After getting a bad rap for years due to its saturated fat content, coconut has finally been acknowledged as the superfood that it is. Coconut oil has myriad health benefits: helping our bodies resist illness-causing viruses and bacteria; warding off yeast, fungus, and candida; improving our blood sugar control; boosting thyroid function; increasing digestion; and finally helping our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Coconut is healthy any way you get it: You can eat the meat, cook with (or eat) the coconut oil, or drink coconut water, which is an excellent source of hydration. Coconut has long been a darling of the paleo set (among others), and it is finally getting the mainstream recognition it deserves.

JICAMA Jicama is a very large—up to 50 pound—root vegetable that is also known as Mexican yam and Mexican turnip. Like Jerusalem artichokes and dandelion root, Jicama is a very good source of inulin, a prebiotic soluble fiber. Inulin (and other prebiotics) are quite important in the digestive scheme of things, because they sustain the probiotics (good bacteria) in your GI tract.

Jicama can be cooked, mashed, or baked, but also can be served raw after you peel the skin. It is not too widespread yet, but you can find it at farmers’ markets or at Mexican grocery stores. Hopefully as its benefits catch on, it will become easier to find. If you grow it yourself it’s important to note that, while the root is healthy, the rest of the plant is poisonous.

CHIA In a recent survey of 500 registered dieticians, 32 percent said chia would make waves as an ingredient this year—and with good reason. Indigenous to Mexico and Guatemala, chia seeds are now grown in Mexico, Central and South America, and Australia, which is now the world’s largest chia producer. Chia is best known nutritionally as being an excellent source of ALA omega-3 fats, fiber, and antioxidants, things most Americans definitely need more of in their diets.

Finally, Innova Market Insights also predicted “alternative alternatives,” meaning new competition and further segmentation of the healthy foods category. But largely this is a good thing: The change in this arena has been driven by an ever-growing knowledge base among the consumers who care enough to seek out the healthiest foods.

Progress and the passing of time bring an ever-growing array of products in any industry, and food is no different. In this case, we are continuing to drive the movement to whole, unprocessed or lightly processed, good-for-you foods. Or, as some call them, superfoods.