Superfoods. It’s a term that gets bandied about a lot these days, particularly in health food circles. But what exactly does it mean? What is a superfood?
Although there’s no official legal definition for the term, the consensus is that superfoods are exceptionally nutritious foods that provide a host of benefits, while at the same time having very few negative side effects. The Oxford English Dictionary defines superfoods as “a food considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being.”
Based on this definition, we’ve rounded up our picks for the Top 15 Vegan Superfoods — the ones we think most enhance an animal-free diet. Check them out below!
Also known as the wolfberry, this Chinese fruit is a nutritional powerhouse. Rich in antioxidants (which fight free radical damage) and vitamin A, there have been some studies that suggest goji berries can help fend off Alzheimer’s. And according to Navitas Naturals, one of the leading purveyors of the berries, gojis contain 18 amino acids (including the essential 8), as well as more than “20 trace minerals and vitamins including zinc, iron, phosphorus, riboflavin (B2), vitamin E, and carotenoids which include beta-carotene.”
And, per ounce, the little red powerhouses also contain “more vitamin C than oranges, more beta carotene than carrots, and more iron than soybeans or spinach.” In the U.S., goji berries are typically available in dried form, and are readily available in health food stores.
Quinoa and Amaranth
Quinoa was first cultivated in the Andes mountains more than 5,000 years ago, by the Incas. Although it’s commonly referred to as a grain, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is actually a seed that’s related to spinach and beets. Quinoa comes in a variety of colors, and has two excellent things going for it: 1) It’s gluten-free, and 2) It’s a vegan source of complete protein. According to the folks at Livestrong.com, “Quinoa is a complete protein, which means that it contains all the amino acids necessary for our nutritional needs. Complete proteins are rare in the plant world, making quinoa an excellent food for vegetarians and vegans, or for anyone looking for healthy protein source. It’s also high in iron and calcium, and is a good source of manganese, magnesium and copper, as well as fiber.”
Quinoa is readily available in grocery stores, and is easy and quick-cooking, making it a nice alternative to rice. It’s also great in salads, but one word of advice. Rinse it very well before cooking — the seeds are coated in a protective resin, and will taste bitter if not fully rinsed.
Another awesome gluten-free grain is amaranth. This Central American grain was a staple for the Aztecs, thanks to its high in protein, folate and B6 content. It also boasts an impressive fiber content, and is one of the few grains to offer the amino acid lysine. An article in Forbes notes that amaranth is second only to quinoa in terms of iron content (for grains), that it has been shown to reduce cholesterol, and that it is the only grain that contains vitamin C.
These brightly colored tubers are chock full of vitamins and minerals. They’re high in B6, which reduces homocysteine (a disease risk factor) in the body. They also contain vitamins C and D, potassium and are a vegan source iron. Sweet potatoes are also high in magnesium, which, according to Care2.com, “is necessary for healthy artery, blood, bone, heart, muscle, and nerve function, yet experts estimate that approximately 80 percent of the population in North America may be deficient in this important mineral.”
Sweet potatoes, like many other yellow foods, are also an excellent source of beta carotene. Not only can beta carotene help improve eyesight and boost immunity, but it can also help fight cancer. Care2 says that carotenoids are “powerful antioxidants that help ward off cancer and protect against the effects of aging. Studies at Harvard University of more than 124,000 people showed a 32 percent reduction in risk of lung cancer in people who consumed a variety of carotenoid-rich foods as part of their regular diet. Another study of women who had completed treatment for early stage breast cancer conducted by researchers at Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) found that women with the highest blood concentrations of carotenoids had the least likelihood of cancer recurrence.”
This autumn fruit has been around for centuries; in fact, pomegranates are even mentioned in Greek mythology as the reason the goddess Persephone was bound to hell. Nowadays, they have a much better reputation. Health guru Dr. Mehmet Oz touts the benefits of pomegranates, saying that the “juice in pomegranate seeds contain ellagic acid and punic alagin which fight damage from free radicals and preserves the collagen in your skin. It’s also a powerful source of phytonutrients that promote healthy skin.”
Pomegranates are high in vitamins C and B5 and phytochemicals. In 2000, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published details on an experiment that found that men who consumed pomegranate juice raised their antioxidant levels and concurrently lowered their levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol by 90%.
Commonly referred to as the Queen of Fruits, the mangosteen has only recently become available stateside. Although there is some debate about the health properties of this Indonesian fruit, Dr. Oz recommends it. He says, “Hidden inside a thick purple rind that you cut open, is a white, creamy flesh full of vitamins A and C as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. If you can’t find the fruit, the juice of the mangosteen, which is more widely available, is the next best thing. This is also available in tea form.”
Shape magazine also supports the fruit, saying that the peel contains one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. ““Xanthones, a mega phytonutrient, has been linked to remarkable cardiovascular benefits, cancer prevention, and healing skin infections. Plus, it is a natural antibiotic,” says the mag.
In his book “The Fruit Hunters,” author Adam Leith Gollner describes mangosteens as, “the most flavorful fruit I come across…the interior taste[s] refreshingly majestic…I could say that it tastes like minty raspberry-apricot sorbet, but the only way to truly know a mangosteen is to try one.”
Mustard Greens and Swiss Chard
It’s no secret that dark leafy greens are good for us, but you may be surprised to learn just how healthy they really are. Not only are they low in calories and high in fiber, but dark greens provide a plethora of vitamins and minerals, as well as a surprising amount of protein. In his book “Eat to Live,” Dr. Joel Fuhrman extensively discusses the high protein content in vegetables, pointing out that a cup of cooked spinach is 51% protein, as compared to a Burger King cheeseburger, which clocks in at only 21%.
So what makes chard and mustard greens so special? Dr. Oz is a fan of mustard greens because of their high vitamin K content. He says, “In Icaria, Greece, 1 in 3 people lives to the age of 90, making the Greek island one of the areas designated as a ‘blue zone,’ where people enjoy superior longevity. There are also no cases Alzheimer’s disease reported there despite many people living to a ripe old age. One of the nourishing foods they enjoy are mustard greens. High in vitamin K (most Americans are deficient in this nutrient), the spicy greens are good for your blood and bone strength. Try them as the Icarians do: boil and then toss with a little virgin olive oil and lemon.”
Swiss chard is also high in vitamin K, as well as vitmins A and C. It’s been shown to boost skin health, maintain healthy blood vessels, combat osteoporosis, and improve eyesight. Its iron content can help prevent anemia, and some research suggests that it can ward off Alzheimers and certain cancers.
This yellow spice, commonly found in Indian cooking, contains a wealth of beneficial qualities. Curcumin, which the compound that gives turmeric its distinct color, is considered to be both antibiotic and anti-inflammatory, and studies have shown that it can help fight cancer and Alzheimer’s.
CanadianLiving.com recommends cooking with turmeric, saying, “Curcumin…may ease aches and inflammation. In Ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India), this herb has been used for thousands of years to treat arthritis and other ailments. Some research suggests that turmeric may help relieve some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis; however, the evidence to date, while encouraging, is still far from conclusive.”
Dr. Oz suggests getting your daily does of curcumin via turmeric tea, like Japanese septuagenarians do. He says, “You usually see the yellow spice turmeric in Indian curries, giving them their characteristic color. But [the] long-lived ladies of Okinawa slurp this spice in tea daily (and they have one-fifth the rate of breast cancer than their American counterparts). Studies have shown that turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that can help fight cancer.”
These fuzzy, slightly sour fruits prove that big things come in small packages. According to WebMD, “One large kiwi supplies your daily requirement for vitamin C. It is also a good source of potassium, fiber, and a decent source of vitamin A and vitamin E, which is one of the missing nutrients, and kiwi is one of the only fruits that provides it.”
Health magazines also tout the benefits of the kiwi. According to Shape, “When Rutgers University scientists analyzed 27 different fruits, they found that kiwifruit was the most nutritionally dense, meaning it had the highest concentration of vitamins and minerals per calorie. Compared with an orange, for example, a large 56-calorie kiwi contains 20 percent more potassium. And next to dark leafy greens, kiwis are one of the top sources of the antioxidant lutein, which is important for your vision and heart health…In fact, Norwegian researchers found that healthy adults who ate two kiwifruits a day for a month lowered their triglycerides—blood fats that can lead to heart disease—by 15 percent. Experts say that the effect may be due to the fruit’s high levels of antioxidants.”
Self magazine also got in on the action, saying, ” Loaded with 94 percent of your daily vitamin C quota – more than an orange! – these little green cuties increase collagen production and brighten skin. Additionally, kiwis pack a vitamin E punch as well, which acts as an antioxidant in the body to fend off free radicals and smooth skin. The antioxidants in kiwis can help banish blemishes, too. ”
These little green fruits also offer phytonutrients, folic acid, calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
There’s a fungus among us, and that’s a good thing. If you can get past the gills and squishy texture, mushrooms will do your body good. Mushrooms are one of the few vegan sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to block aromatase, a protein that causes estrogen development in women. By helping to block this protein, CLA, and therefore mushrooms, may help prevent the development of breast cancer.
As if that weren’t enough, mushrooms offer a lot of additional benefits. NaturalNews.com says that they “are low in carbohydrates, calories, and sodium and are cholesterol and fat free. High in fiber and protein, mushrooms are also rich in B vitamins to help maintain a healthy metabolism. Mushrooms are an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that helps lower elevated blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke…Mushrooms are a rich source of riboflavin, niacin, and selenium. Selenium is an antioxidant that works with vitamin E to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals.”
Dr. Oz recommends white button mushrooms for cancer-fighting, creminis for weight-loss (particularly as a meat alternative) and maitakes for heart health.
Flax and Chia Seeds
If the last time you saw a chia seed it was sprouting out of a chia pet, then get yourself to the supermarket. Once used almost exclusively for the kitschy 80s figurines, these little seeds are finally being recognized for their healthy attributes. Chia seeds originated in Mesoamerica, where the Aztecs used them for both food and currency. And while they won’t buy much these days, there are still plenty of reasons to stockpile them. First and foremost, chia is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 is the acid found in fish, and the reason that fish oil is so popular. If you abstain from meat, then chia is a great source of this healthy acid, which enhances immunity and synaptic activity in the brain.
According to Care2, chia seeds are also “rich in protein, vitamin B complex, biotin calcium, potassium and fiber. They…contain immune activating mucopolysaccharides and the antioxidant quercetin…[and] help to regulate blood sugar levels, thus curbing the desire to overeat.”
Chia seeds are immensely popular in vegan puddings and oatmeal dishes. Because they can absorb up to seven times their weight in water, soaked chias create a gelatinous base to which you can add nuts, dried fruit, oats, honey and even chocolate to create inventive and healthy breakfast dishes.
Flax seeds are another important component in your superfood arsenal. Available in both whole and ground forms, flax is high in fiber, omega-3s, and lignans, “which have both plant estrogen and antioxidant qualities. Flaxseed contains 75-800 times more lignans than other plant foods.”
Studies suggest that flax seeds can help fight cancer, both by inhibiting tumor growth and by reducing hormone metabolism. They may also help prevent inflammation in the body, thereby reducing the risk of developing conditions such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
Dark Chocolate and Cacao
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: chocolate is good for you! The trick is to avoid the heavily sweetened, high fat, dairy-laden milk chocolate and go for the dark stuff, which is rich in antioxidants. In fact, WebMD states that, “Researchers found the antioxidant activity of dark chocolate and cocoa powder was equivalent to or higher than that found in some other so-called ‘super fruit’ powders or juices, including acai berry, blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate.”
Non-alkalized cocoa contains two particular types of antioxidants: polyphenols and flavonols. “These substances help keep the arteries healthy and are protective against cardiovascular disease,” says WebMD. “When looking for a sweet snack, a square of dark chocolate might, in fact, be your healthiest choice!”
Want to do even better? Reach straight for the cacao, the fruit and bean from which chocolate is made. Another Central and South American food, cacao is high in antioxidants, dietary fiber, iron and magnesium, and is typically unsweetened, which means you won’t get a dose of sugar with your antioxidants. Although not as satisfying to the sweet tooth, cacao powder can be used in baking, and cacao nibs can be sprinkled in cereals and granolas for a little chocolatey boost.
There you have it, folks: our top superfood picks for a vegan diet. Although these are all great choices, they’re by no means the only ones out there. So we’d like to know: what are your superfood preferences? Have you tried any of these? What are your favorite superfood recipes? Hit us up in the comments and let us know!Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals, and these recommendations may not be right for everyone. Please do your own research to determine which foods best suit your needs, and discuss dietary changes with your doctor or a nutrition professional.