Type the word “superfoods” into any search engine, and you’re likely to find numerous lists of foods we should all be eating that are beneficial to our health, especially as we age. But while some lists tout the benefits of exotic ingredients like moringa and matcha, others focus on commonly found foods such as blueberries, avocado and kale.
So what exactly makes a superfood, well, super? Superfoods aren’t regulated, so there is no formal criteria, but most nutritionists agree that these foods tend to be plant-based and colorful, and are always extremely nutrient dense.
“My definition of a superfood is a food that has high nutritional value, prevents disease, supports overall health, slows aging and fights free radicals,” says Neka Pasquale, who is the founder and president of Marin-based Urban Remedy, which makes organic, ready-to-eat meals based on the fundamentals of modern holistic nutrition and traditional Chinese medicine. “These brightly pigmented foods contain phytonutrients and powerful antioxidants that have potent anti-cancer and anti-heart disease properties. And research shows that these colorful foods are associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, and may protect against certain types of cancers.”
Beyond colorful veggies and fruits, many spices, seeds and grains are considered superfoods as well. It can help to think of superfoods in categories based on their specific benefits, many of which become even more important as we age, says Barbara Sobel, a clinical nutritionist trained in functional medicine who works with many clients who are suffering from chronic diseases.
“Antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, strawberries, dark chocolate, tomatoes help us reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease, arthritis, memory and joint issues, muscle recovery,” she says. “Other superfoods — flax and chia seeds, raspberries, ancient grains — have fiber in them, which supports our gut and immune function, decreases cholesterol levels, provides extra estrogen and detoxification, regulates blood sugar, and promotes brain health and our mood.”
Additional superfood categories include foods that are rich in polyphenols, which are compounds that occur naturally in plants and act as antioxidants to reduce inflammation, such as spices and herbs like cloves, peppermint, rosemary and thyme. Probiotic and fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha and kimchi are good for gut and brain health and overall immune support. Finally, foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like avocado, wild-caught salmon, and many nuts and seeds support the brain and cholesterol levels and help prevent cardiovascular disease.
As research uncovers even more health benefits surrounding different foods and how the compounds in plants interact with each other, superfoods have also become big business in the food industry, with many manufacturers adding the term to their packaged goods. Eating these foods does not provide the same benefits as eating the raw ingredients themselves, however, Pasquale cautions. “Eating a handful of fresh blueberries is much different than eating blueberry ice cream or soda,” Pasquale says. “Superfoods should mostly be organic, so they aren’t laced with pesticides, and they should be eaten as close to their natural state as possible.”
Incorporating superfoods into your diet is easier than you think, Pasquale and Sobel assure, and the more variety of healthy foods you eat, the better. “Smoothies are an easy way to consume nutrient-dense superfoods in one sitting,” says Pasquale. Sobel advises adding superfoods to meals you’ve already planned, for example adding different spices, herbs and seeds to vegetables, protein and dressings. She often encourages clients to make a goal of eating 50 different powerful plant foods in a week. “Become a kitchen explorer,” Sobel says. “Open up your spice cabinet; brew your own tea with fresh herbs; visit the farmers’ market and see what’s in season and what’s new that you’re not normally eating. It doesn’t have to be hard.”
Looking for some ideas? Summer’s bountiful harvest is the inspiration for this bright, colorful collection of recipes packed with powerhouse superfood ingredients. Dig in!
Korean Tofu Buddha Bowl
Serves 3 to 4
Dig into this healthy bowl loaded with nutrient-rich superfoods. Leafy greens, whole grains and kimchi are drizzled with fiery umami-rich gochujang, a Korean chile and fermented soybean paste. Salmon or chicken can be substituted for the tofu.
1 (14-ounce) block extra-firm tofu, drained, cut in 1-inch cubes
Marinade and Sauce
- 1/4 cup gochujang
- 1/4 cup soy sauce or tamari
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 cup long-grain brown rice
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
- 6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems trimmed, sliced 1/2-inch thick
- 2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves (about 3 ounces)
- 1 large carrot, julienned or cut into matchsticks
- 1/2 cup kimchi
- 1 to 2 scallions, white and green parts sliced
- Toasted sesame seeds, for sprinkling
- Arrange the tofu on a plate lined with a kitchen towel. Fold the towel over the tofu and press down with a cutting board or plate. Let stand for 15 minutes to drain.
- Whisk the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside about 1/3 cup for serving. Add the tofu to the bowl with the remaining marinade and stir to coat. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.
- Rinse the rice in a fine mesh sieve. Place it in a medium saucepan with 1 3/4 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a boil, then cover the pan, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice steam for 10 minutes, without removing the lid. Fluff with a fork.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and season with salt. Sauté until they begin to release their juices, about 3 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the reserved marinade and sauté 1 minute more. Transfer to a plate.
- Add 1 tablespoon more oil to the skillet. Add the tofu and cook until browned on all sides, turning as needed, about 10 minutes.
- To assemble, divide the rice between three to four serving bowls. Place a handful of spinach on the side of each bowl. Arrange the tofu, mushrooms, carrots and kimchi around the rest of the bowl over the rice. Garnish with the scallions and sesame seeds. Serve with the remaining sauce for drizzling.
Who knew that slurping a bowl of this cold soup would check so many superfood boxes? Gazpacho is loaded with fresh summer vegetables and herbs. Its roster includes tomato, peppers, cucumber and even a drizzle of olive oil — all of which are touted for their nutritional benefits.
- 4 cups tomato juice
- 3 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 2 celery stalks, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 English cucumber, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped
Combine all of the gazpacho ingredients, except the cilantro, in a large bowl and stir to blend. Taste for seasoning. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours to let the flavors develop. Before serving, stir in the cilantro.
Avocado Panzanella Salad
Avocado toast is upended, literally, in this salad. Inspired by Italian panzanella, this salad shines the light on avocado, which is a superfood star, and rightly so. Avocados are rich in nutrients and antioxidants, including vitamin E, folic acid, potassium, magnesium and fiber.
- 1/2 loaf country-style bread or pain au levain, torn into bite-size pieces (about 2 cups)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 to 1 1/4 pounds Early Girl or heirloom tomatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
- 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 ripe but firm avocados, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 to 2 cups baby arugula
- 1/4 cup basil leaves, torn
- 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
- Heat the oven to 375°F.
- Place the bread in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, lightly season with salt and toss to combine. Spread the bread on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment and bake in the oven until golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes.
- Whisk 1/3 cup oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper in a small bowl.
- Combine the tomatoes, onion and bread in a large serving bowl. Drizzle with about 1/4 cup of the dressing and toss to combine. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving.
- When ready to serve, add the avocado, arugula and basil. Drizzle with additional dressing to your taste and toss to combine. Garnish with sunflower seeds.
Almond Olive Oil Cake With Summer Berries
Makes a 9-inch cake; serves 8
Can you call dessert a superfood? Well, perhaps not, typically, but this cake embraces a notable list of superfood ingredients, including olive oil, almonds and berries. We’ll call that a win and grab a fork.
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup almond meal
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 large eggs
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 cups mixed berries, such as blueberries, blackberries and/or raspberries
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch spring-form pan. Line it with parchment and butter the parchment.
- Combine the flour, almond meal, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
- In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until light in color. Add the olive oil, orange and lemon juices, zest and almond extract; stir to blend. Add the dry ingredients and stir to combine without over-mixing. Pour into the prepared pan.
- Bake until the cake is golden brown on top and a knife inserted into the center comes clean, about 50 minutes.
- While the cake is baking, combine the syrup ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
- When the cake is ready, remove it from the oven and transfer it to a wire rack. Lightly brush the top of the cake with some of the syrup. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes, then remove pan. Brush the cake with more syrup and cool completely.
- For the berries, combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Let stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally as they release their juices.
- Serve the cake with whipped cream and the berries.
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Lotus Abrams has covered everything from beauty to business to tech in her editorial career, but it might be writing about her native Bay Area that inspires her most. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Peninsula, where they enjoy spending time outdoors at the area’s many open spaces protected and preserved by her favorite local nonprofit, the Peninsula Open Space Trust.