Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Big Question: What are superfoods, and are they really so good for our health?

Why are we asking this question now?
The term superfoods entered the language in the 1990s to denote foods packed with nutrients that supposedly have health-giving properties. Some are exotic, such as alfa alfa, spirulina and wheatgrass, and some prosaic such as broccoli, beans and beetroot.
The latest addition to the pantheon - watercress - was announced by scientists yesterday. Researchers at the University of Ulster, who fed large quantities of the peppery salad leaf to 60 men and women daily for eight weeks, showed it increased antioxidants in their blood and decreased DNA damage to their white blood cells. They concluded, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "The results support the theory that consumption of watercress can be linked to a reduced risk of cancer."
Are the watercress claims credible?
Not really. The research was funded by British watercress suppliers. Karol Sikora, professor of cancer medicine at Imperial College, delivered a delicious putdown yesterday.
He said: "The real problem is that it's not watercress specific - there's nothing magic there. The press release, from what is essentially a marketing association, is grossly overstated. We know that fruits and vegetables all do affect DNA damage, hence the five-a-day strategy to prevent cancer. There is absolutely nothing special about watercress."
What does the term superfood mean?
There is no definition of a superfood - and no definitive list. New candidates are regularly put forward, usually backed by a large dollop of marketing hype. Among the best known are oily fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, etc) for omega 3 fatty acids, blueberries for vitamin C, brazil nuts for selenium, carrots for beta-carotene, tomatoes for lycopene, olive oil for the anti-inflammatory compound oleocanthal, red wine for resveratrol and garlic.
Health claims range from improving IQ to preventing cancer and heart disease, increasing sporting ability and enhancing appearance. Although their benefits are often overstated there is little doubt that they are a worthwhile addition to any diet.
Why not take vitamin pills and nutritional supplements instead?
Because eating is a pleasure - swallowing pills is not. Research on vitamins has also yielded confusing results with claims showing they protect against heart disease or cancer soon contradicted by new studies showing the opposite.
The argument for superfoods, which contain the vitamins in their raw unprocessed state, is that they are natural food sources, safe and easily absorbed. Calcium, for example, sold as calcium carbonate - chalk - is difficult to digest. In a glass of (low-fat) milk it is easily absorbed.
Does designating something as a superfood have an effect?
Yes. Sales of blueberries soared a couple of years ago after claims the fruit could help protect the body from a range of illnesses. Nutritionists say blueberries are bursting with vitamin C and offer one of the best sources of the antioxidant anthocyanin, believed to help keep the heart healthy and maintain youthful skin. In summer 2004, the US Department of Agriculture researchers revealed blueberries contained pterostilbene, which could be as effective as prescription drugs in helping lower cholesterol. Blackcurrant growers in the UK hit back with a campaign to promote the benefits of their "forgotten fruit", saying the berries contained more antioxidants than their foreign-grown rivals.

Source - Independent

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Superfoods: are they merely a fad?

FROM blueberries and broccoli to tea and tomatoes, the widely-lauded "superfoods" are credited with a host of amazing powers - from helping us look younger to protecting us from deadly cancers and heart disease. But does the constant expansion of the list of must-eat items compromise the claims of food manufacturers that these should be an essential part of a healthy diet?
A study by researchers at Ulster University yesterday revealed that the watercress diet, favoured by celebrities such as Liz Hurley, can dramatically cut the risk of cancer.
The research - funded by the Watercress Alliance - found the salad leaf can inhibit the growth of cancer cells and even kill them. But nutritionists yesterday expressed scepticism that the results were any use to shoppers. The trial involved 60 men and women eating an 85g bag (a cereal-bowlful) of watercress a day for eight weeks.
"That's completely impractical for a normal person," said Carina Norris, a Fife-based nutritionist. "Watercress has quite a peppery taste, so while it might work as an extra ingredient in a salad or a sandwich, there is no way any sensible person would consume that much. You are better getting your nutrients and vitamins from a range of sources."
She added: "The worrying aspect of this obsession with superfoods is that consumers hear too many claims of this kind and will simply get bored of the notion and go back to eating less healthy food."
Karol Sikora, professor of cancer medicine at Imperial College, said the watercress claims were "grossly overstated". He added: "Fruits and vegetables all affect DNA damage, hence the five-a-day strategy to prevent cancer. There is nothing special about watercress.
"I don't think people will seriously convert to eating 85g of the stuff each day. That's an awful lot of cress! You might even turn green. Much better to look holistically at your diet and ensure that there's plenty of fruit and vegetables, fibre and as little fat as possible.
"The other weakness in the study is that it doesn't actually show a reduction in cancer incidence - it's only a long-term surrogate that's changed." He said a long-term study would take 20 years, "by which time the investigators and their subjects would be rather bored".
Although their benefits can be overstated - a large dollop of retailer marketing goes towards promoting them - superfoods are a worthwhile addition to any diet.

Source - Scotsman

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Superfoods: Oats

Rolled oats and also oatmeal, the milled grain, are both high in protein, contain essential fats and are rich in minerals including zinc, calcium, magnesium and iron. Vitamin C, found in orange juice for example, assists the absorption of iron, so a bowl of muesli or steaming porridge and a glass of orange juice make an ideal breakfast.
B vitamins, also found in oats, are needed not just for healthy skin, nails and hair but also to nourish nervous systems and to help keep energy levels up - particularly useful for stressed or grumpy teenagers.

Oats are also a wonderful source of soluble fibre, essential for ensuring that our digestive systems work efficiently. This is particularly important with constipation becoming increasingly problematic among young children. The soluble fibre also helps to reduce cholesterol levels.
Oats have a very low glycaemic index, which means that they release sugar into the blood very slowly. This can have a positive impact on how we feel and behave and it can improve our concentration levels. It also means that oats can play a key role in the active prevention of diabetes, a condition we are now seeing in growing numbers of young people. In fact oats have such a remarkable impact on stabilising blood sugar levels that before insulin was discovered, oats were used as one of the few effective treatments for diabetes.
As oats take a long time to digest, they are an ideal food for anyone trying to lose weight as they leave you feeling satisfied for longer. Oats can also help skin complaints such as eczema and psoriasis. For these conditions, put four tablespoons of oats in a muslin bag whenever you have a bath. You can also use the bag as a sponge and it can be re-used about four or five times.
I prefer to eat my oats and I cook a big pan of creamy porridge most mornings and vary the toppings. A handful of frozen berries are always popular with children as they cool the porridge down slightly and turn it a pale shade of pink or blue. Chopped dried fruits, pureed apple or chopped banana are quick and easy too. You can also add oats to crumble toppings, biscuits and flapjack-style bars, and use them as a coating for oily fish.

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