The term “superfood” is used a lot, but what does it actually mean? The official definition just means a food that is nutrient dense but watch out because that can mean different things to different people.
Some of the foods that marketers and ill-informed journalists reference as “super” are anything but. Or, they just have mediocre nutrition that is over-hyped.
A good example of an overrated food is kale. That may bring grasps, because it seems to be everywhere these days. You know the hype has climaxed when even McDonald’s is testing it out in Canada and Southern California.
So why do we say kale is overhyped? Because the measure of its antioxidant content (known as ORAC) is 1,770 per 100 grams. Sure that’s good, but it’s by no means amazing. Red leaf lettuce is 2,426 and you don’t hear anyone talking about that.
What follows are the 10 best superfoods not based on hype, but rather on measurable antioxidant content.
We’re not listing the all-time top 10 here, because those aren’t always economically feasible or practical to eat in large quantities. For example, chaga mushroom extract has tested as high as 146,000, but 100 grams costs $100 and it can have poor bioavailability.
Our list are the top foods that balance the antioxidant content with price and availability. Both men and women, endurance athlete and desk jockey, whoever you are you can benefit by adding these to your diet. All are vegan, gluten free, and raw (or can be obtained raw).
1. Indian gooseberries (amla)
We all hear the hype about acai – which yes – does qualify as a superfood. Why then do we not ever hear about Indian gooseberries which have over 2x the antioxidants of acai?
Probably, the reason is that no one sells them.
They are not commercially cultivated in the United States or North America for that matter. Until they are, don’t expect you local 5 o’clock news to hype this one.
So where and how do you buy them? Fortunately you can buy the powder of Indian gooseberries, which are more commonly called amla. Since it’s shelf-stable when stored in a zipped bag, it’s a versatile nutritious food you can have handy at home or work to healthify your meals by sprinkling it on.
2. Coffee cherry (cascara)
You’ve heard the health benefits of coffee, and probably the drawbacks like acrylamide in coffee. That’s a suspected carcinogen created during the roasting process.
The best way to benefit from coffee may not be from drinking it. Surrounding the beans (which are not true beans) is a fruit shell which is normally discarded during production.
That’s too bad, because it’s chock full of antioxidants. Dried cascara powder has 250% more antioxidants than acai powder. Outside of South America it’s nearly impossible to find for sale, though you can buy the dried fruit on Amazon.
Keep in mind those test results are based on pure cocoa. So we’re not talking about the highly processed crap. Actually, most of the antioxidants in chocolate are destroyed when heated during the stages of processing them for candies and other junk food.
And cocoa powder in dairy milk? That’s another no-no. The polyphenols in chocolate become inactive when they bind with milk protein.
Your best bet, when not consuming the powdered form, is to stick with organic – and ideally raw – dark chocolate bars. As in, the darker the healthier. And if you want to mainline it, raw cacao nibs could be an even better consumption route, though certainly not as sweet!
4. Ceylon cinnamon
A substance in it – coumarin – damages your liver. Not everyone is particularly susceptible to this liver damage, especially if consumed in typical quantities. But with superfoods you probably want to eat more of them than the average folks, right?
In fact, many European health regulators warn about the dangers of cassia cinnamon. Germany advises that anyone who eats more than 2 grams per day could be at risk for side effects. It’s not that you need to freak out about everyday foods and beverages (like Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte) that have cinnamon – consuming those in moderation is fine.
But if you want to start supplementing with cinnamon for health benefits, go with the ceylon variety because the amount of coumarin is minuscule in comparison. Plus, since its taste is so much more mild, almost anyone can handle a teaspoon (or more) on their oatmeal/cereal.
Because they’re not an exotic nut, you don’t hear them raved about like other health foods. That’s too bad, because pecans are the highest antioxidant nut. How does it compare? Just take a loot at the ORAC values for the 10 top highest antioxidant nuts:
Since pecans – like all nuts – are calorie-dense, this is not a superfood for weight loss. But whether you’re looking to maintain or lose weight, consuming them carefully in moderation shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s astronomically high ORAC value of 127,068 isn’t the only reason this superspice should be on your list.
Turmeric is one of, if not the most, studied superfood. The reason? Curcumin – the activeingredient/compound in turmeric – has been linked to a number of health benefits.
It has been said that inflammation causes or contributes to almost every major diseases, according to Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, professor of medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. he says “Wherever inflammation is a problem, curcumin may be helpful” (1).
Perhaps that is why studies have suggested turmeric might be beneficial for heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, infections, and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Multiple Sclerosis (2).
When supplementing – either with turmeric in your food with with curcumin supplements – here’s how to ensure you get the most absorption.
7. Baobab fruit
If we had to pick one would that we’d expect to dethrone the hype of acai, it would be baobab.
For juices, desserts, and breakfast foods, the flavor of acai works great, but it’s not something you’re going to add to a hearty entree. Contrast that to baobab, which is for lack of a better word, tasteless. It does have a slightly sweet and sour taste if you eat it alone, but when you mix it with other ingredients, its taste fades to the background. This gives it ultimate versatility – you can include it in many breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes.
You’ll recognize the baobab tree, pictured to the right. Growing natively throughout the continent of Africa, its fruit, seeds, and leaves have been used for traditional food preparations. Only recently has the western world taken notice – the European Union didn’t authorize it as an ingredient until 2008 and a year later, the U.S. FDA did the same.
And the nutritional benefits? For starters, with a value of 140,000, it’s ORAC is about 40% higher than acai. More than 6x the vitamin C of oranges, 2x the calcium of milk, and high in potassium and phosphorous. Because it is so rich in soluble fiber, this isn’t one of those superfoods you want to eat too much of. A laxative effect would be the repercussion of doing so!
8. Chia seeds
Yes, this is one that has gotten a lot of buzz over the last decade, but it’s fully deserving of that.
A noteworthy benefit of chia seeds is that they contain more omega 3’s than salmon (and for a much cheaper price to boot). It’s been hailed as an ideal superfood for endurance athletes because of its ability to help with hydration – these seeds absorb up to 27x their weight in water. But unlike a Gatorade, you’re not going to pee it out right away, as it takes time for your body to break down these seeds and absorb the water.
Athletes also respect chia’s high protein content and excellent amino acid profile (containing all 9 essential). That makes it one of the best raw vegan superfoods for protein. But the stories about it having weight loss benefits are false, at least according to one study (3). That said, including them as a part of an overall high-fiber diet, you may find yourself losing weight by eating less.
An ancient grain originally from Africa, sorghum is as versatile as wheat. It can be prepared like rice, ground into flour for baking, malted to make beer, and even popped like popcorn. But unlike wheat, sorghum is gluten-free and allergies to it are rare. It’s another good vegan source of protein.
What makes it even more special are its nutritional benefits. On per calorie basis, it has protein content that’s comparable to quinoa, but it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Like most grains, it’s vitamin and mineral rich, but its ORAC value is an outlier. The most common, white sorghum, is quite good (2,200 – higher than kale). That’s impressive, but what really gives it superfood status are the red and black varieties, with values of 14,000 and 21,900, respectively.
10. Purple corn
Last, but certainly not least, on our top 10 list is a specific type of corn.
Yellow corn has an ORAC of 738. Blue corn is 2,960. Because of its high amounts of anthocyanins, raw purple corn has up to 10,800!
The most ancient variety, Kculli, was a staple in the Incan empire in Peru. It’s still widely grown there today, with purple corn juice and flour for bread being popular food items throughout South America. On a commercial scale, it has only been sold in the United States for around a decade. A couple cereals, tortilla chips, and other products now use this ingredient.