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Superfood Alternatives That Are Just As Healthy

Mar 03, 2017

Goji berries. Kale. Wheatgrass. Chia seeds. These are just some of the fashionable foods that have attracted the ‘superfood’ label. 

But it’s an expensive way to eat. And many people assume healthy eating will cost more.

Researchers from Ohio State University recently found that the healthier a food’s image, the more people expect to pay for it.

The participants in the study were told about a new product called ‘granola bites’. 

Those who were told it was very healthy thought it would be expensive, but when the food was given a lower health rating, the participants thought it would be cheaper.

Commenting on the findings, Michelle McGuinness, from the British Dietetic Association, said: ‘This is a common misconception and the health food industry is capitalising on the opinion that healthy food is more expensive.’

She added that Brussels sprouts, for example, ‘can be better for you than kale, though not as fashionable or expensive’.

In other words, price does not reflect a food’s health qualities.

Even when the hype surrounding an exotic new food seems compelling, there can often be more familiar alternatives that are far cheaper and just as good.

Here, we round up some superfood swaps that give you similar health benefits, but without the hefty price tag.

Resembling tiny dried chillies, goji berries are grown in parts of Asia and are available in most supermarkets.

They can be eaten just like raisins — used on top of porridge or in rice dishes, for example. 

They are said to be packed with zeaxanthin, a compound thought to help prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of sight loss.

There is between 100mg and 150mg zeaxanthin per 100g of dried goji. But peppers are a cheaper, more reliable source.

Though they are lower in the compound (at 37mg zeaxanthin per 100g), we eat peppers in larger quantities.

Goji berries also contain a polysaccharide (a complex carbohydrate) that research on mice has suggested may help stop tumour growth and regulate blood sugar.

But most studies use purified extracts of these active ingredients in far higher quantities than in the fruit.

Coconut oil is said to promote thermogenesis, which is the process where calories are burnt off as heat, rather than stored as fat.

In 1981, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that unusual medium-chain triglycerides — a form of saturated fat — found in coconut oil could promote this process.

Other claims that have been made include that it can fight Alzheimer’s disease — it’s said to contain compounds that act like brain food, though there is very little evidence to support this, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

The saturated fat in coconut oil may be a healthier type, but it contains more than 90 per cent saturated fat, compared with less than 60 per cent in butter.

And it has as many calories as any other oil (135 per tablespoon).

‘If you do eat coconut oil, I’d recommend still trying to keep your overall saturate intake within the recommended guideline of 20g,’ says dietitian Helen Bond.

‘For everyday use, try a monounsaturated oil such as rapeseed or olive. The benefits of these — for heart health, in particular — are much better documented.’ 

Supermarket oils that are simply labelled ‘vegetable oil’ are invariably rapeseed oil, as is the case with this inexpensive Tesco one.

Chia seeds — which can be sprinkled on baked goods, salads, yoghurts or porridge — come from a flowering plant typically found in South America.

They are rightly promoted as super seeds, as chia is a rich source of vitamins and minerals and very rich in fibre.

Yet sesame seeds are even more nutritious. 

Gram for gram they are five times higher in the cell-protective antioxidant vitamin E, twice as high in the B vitamin folate, vital for red blood cell formation and richer in calcium, magnesium, iron and copper — associated with healthy bones, blood and immune system.

Sesame does not boast the heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory omega-3s that chia seeds do, but if you eat one or two portions of oily fish a week, this is not an issue.

Plus, oily fish provides the long-chain form of omega-3s that we need, while the form from plant sources has to be converted to this form, a process which the body does not do efficiently.

Cacao and cocoa are derived from the cacao bean, but cocoa powder is the more processed form. 

The health benefits derive from flavonols — components in the bean thought to contribute to cognitive function and heart health.

Cacao is a buzzword for a ‘healthier’ version, but it depends on how it’s been processed.

Most purveyors of ‘raw’ cacao (such as this Bioglan product) say they leave the beans unroasted and that this lack of heat treatment leaves higher levels of flavonols.

But it’s a confusing area. ‘Raw cacao could mean anything and might just be an excuse to market a hugely expensive product with no extra benefits to a normal cup of cocoa,’ says Helen Bond.

What’s more relevant is whether the cocoa or cacao powder has been ‘alkalised’ — washed with a chemical that reduces its acidity.

Reputable studies, including one published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2008, suggest that alkalising, or ‘Dutching’, to reduce bitterness, lowers levels of flavanols. 

The colour gives a clue — very dark powders, whether raw cacao or standard cocoa, are alkalised and those with a browny-red hue are not.

But choose unsweetened cocoa such as this Bournville one.

Wheatgrass is the dark- green juice squeezed from young shoots of wheat.

It’s usually dried into a powder and available from health stores, sold as a shot from trendy juice cafes or on the internet (you can also buy the grass and then juice it yourself). 

However, according to Helen Bond, this is based on the incorrect logic that because chlorophyll and haemoglobin have similar chemical structures, they will have similar effects in the body.

‘Chlorophyll is broken down by our digestive system,’ she says.

In fact, the British Dietetic Association says that gram for gram, the nutrient content of wheatgrass juice is roughly equivalent to common vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli.

But unlike wheatgrass, broccoli counts as a vegetable portion, so you’d be better off having a side of broccoli with your meal or a handful of spinach in a salad.

Shiitake mushrooms contain a compound called lentinan, which, according to Chinese medicine, can stimulate the immune system and even fight cancer.

However, studies have generally been carried out using large doses of the purified compound injected into mice.

This is unlikely to translate into benefit for human beings eating the mushrooms, according to a review of the health benefits of ‘medicinal’ mushrooms published in the journal Fungal Biology in April.

Standard white mushrooms are actually better than shiitake for levels of selenium — an important mineral that may help improve the immune system’s ability to deal with viruses.

They’re also higher in potassium, for healthy blood pressure and the B vitamin pantothenic acid that helps to release energy from food.

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae farmed in ponds — in India and Hawaii, for example — and then harvested and dried.

It trades on its per 100g nutrition information, but falls down when you realise the average dose (in a daily smoothie) is no more than around 10g, or 1 tbsp.

This amount of Naturya spirulina provides 33mg calcium and 30mg magnesium (4 per cent and 8 per cent of the recommended daily amount, RDA, of these bone-friendly nutrients).

But you get 17 per cent of your calcium RDA and 12 per cent of your magnesium from a salad containing 80g of spinach (which will also count as one of your five-a-day and provides more iron).

There is insufficient evidence to rate claims that blue-green algae, including spirulina, can help with fatigue, diabetes, anxiety and depression, according to a review funded by the U.S. government last year.

Spirulina does contain vitamin B12, which is important for a healthy nervous system.

Non-vegans can get this vitamin from dairy, eggs, fish and meat instead.

Almonds are packed with magnesium (important for healthy bones and nervous system). 

They also contain iron (which helps protect against fatigue) and calcium (important for bone health).

Therefore, people may assume that almond milk has the same qualities, but, in fact, it is only 2 per cent almond (its biggest ingredient is water).

Plant-based milk alternatives are vegan and arguably more eco-friendly than cow’s milk and some people may prefer them if they are intolerant to lactose (a sugar found naturally in cow’s milk), but almond milk is actually less nutritious than dairy. 

Semi-skimmed milk has 7g of protein per 200ml glass, versus only 1g in the same amount of almond milk.

This Alpro product is also sweetened with added sugar, while the lactose (sugar) in cow’s milk is not considered as harmful to teeth.

While almond milk is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, it is not the good source of iodine (important for a baby’s brain development) that dairy milk is.

Sold in ration-hit Fifties sweet shops, tiger nuts are making a comeback as a snack.

They aren’t nuts at all, but wrinkled root vegetables that have a natural coconut-like flavour, and hail from North Africa and the Mediterranean.

The superfood claims hinge on their resistant starch — a type of fibre that helps nourish gut bacteria, to maintain intestinal health — and a good content of iron and magnesium, which can help reduce fatigue in people deficient in these nutrients. 

However, cashews are also a good source of resistant starch and have even higher levels of iron and magnesium (including in the roasted salted sort).

Tiger nuts and cashew nuts have high levels of ‘good’ (unsaturated) fats that benefit cholesterol levels.

This southern hemisphere fruit, also called the cherimoya, tastes like bubble gum and has been hailed as protecting against diabetes and obesity.

However, these claims don’t stand up to examination — the one, inconclusive, study relating to cherimoya fruit pulp and blood glucose was in rabbits more than ten years ago, while the anti-obesity claim seems to stem only from the fact that the fruit is popular among the long-lived (and slim) people of Okinawa Island in Japan.

Dietitian Helen Bond says: ‘Enjoy this fruit as one of your five-a-day, but I’m not convinced it has specific diabetes preventive or weight-control effects compared with eating a wide variety of fruit and veg.’

Cherimoyas are similar in sugar content to bananas, but bananas, especially those that are only just ripe, have a lower glycaemic index, so are less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar levels.

Bananas are higher in potassium (for healthy blood pressure) and the stress-managing nutrients vitamin B6 and magnesium.

Spelt, an ancient wheat species, can be used as a substitute for wheat flour because it has similar properties. It has a rich and nutty taste.

Many people think that spelt flour, an ‘old’ grain commonly used until bread wheat replaced it in the 20th century, is more like what our ancestors ate and healthier than normal wholemeal flour.

In fact, the two grains have very similar vitamin and mineral content, with wholegrain wheat containing more selenium and fibre than wholegrain spelt.

Spelt is higher in natural sugars, but lower in protein and gluten — many take this to mean it’s easier to digest than wheat flour, but it’s a mistake to think you can tolerate spelt if you can’t tolerate wheat.

‘Spelt does still contain a substantial amount of gluten and is unsafe for anyone with coeliac disease,’ says Helen Bond.

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