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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Recipes: A Simple Superfood Salad

Beetroot and Watercress Make a Great Salad
The peppery, slightly bitter taste of watercress goes very well with the strong, earthy flavours of raw beetroot (beet).  Together, simply drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and lemon juice, they make a fantastic side dish and a great base for more complex salads. As well as being incredibly healthy and tasting divine this dish, with its combination of greens and purples, looks great on the table.

Beetroot and watercress are both low calorie, nutrient dense foods. Beetroot is rich is vitamin C and folate. It also contains betaine, a bioactive pigment that is thought to reduce homocysteine levels in the blood. Watercress is high in antioxidant vitamins and iodine and has potential anti-cancer properties. By combining these two superfoods in a raw salad you are consuming a potent dose vitamins and antioxidants as well as healthy fibre. Using extra virgin olive oil as a dressing brings additional benefits; quality cold pressed olive oil has a host of scientifically proven health benefits.


One cup watercress shoots and leaves
One medium raw beetroot
Extra virgin olive oil
Lemon juice


Choose watercress with plenty of crisp green leaves and remove any tough stalks. Wash well to remove any grit and pesticides.

Peel the beetroot and either grate with a broad gauge grater or slice finely with a mandolin into matchstick sized batons.

Mix the watercress and beetroot in a bowl and season to taste with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt. You could also add a crushed clove of garlic but I find that this overpowers the flavours of the other ingredients.

If you find the taste of raw beetroot to be too strong for your taste simply roast or boil it whole with the skin still on until soft and then peel and slice finely.


If you want to make this dish into more of a main dish than a starter, consider one of these healthy embellishments:

A handful of toasted pumpkin seeds adds an extra taste and texture and is loaded with healthy oils.

Add half a ripe avocado (the Has variety with wrinkled black skin are best) and some finely sliced red onion. Or, add punchy anchovy fillets, smoked salmon or grilled mackerel instead of the onion for a dose of omega-3 fatty acids.

Add walnuts and sliced red apple or pear for a fresh taste and a little crunch. Walnuts and feta cheese also go well and the sharp taste of the feta sets off the earthiness of the beetroot.

Add a handful of cooked spelt or barley grains for texture and healthy carbohydrates. 

For a warm salad, cook the beetroot and top the salad with a poached egg. 

© 2010 Alex Bramwell. Photo Credit; avlxyz

Monday, 27 September 2010

Olive Oil: Food Gold or Fool's Gold

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

That olive oil is "good" for you has moved from marketing message to established popular fact. As one of the pillars of the Mediterranean diet it is the reason why sprightly octogenarian Greeks are still able to star in olive oil adverts. But is olive oil the all round superfood that we all assume it is?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consuming about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil a day may reduce your risk of heart disease but only if you use them to replace 23 grams of saturated fat. All that actually tells us is that olive oil is healthier than saturated animal fat. Even this fact has been called into question by a Lund University Study which found that "butter produces a significantly lower increase in blood fats after a meal compared with olive oil". I'm not claiming that butter is better for you than unsaturated vegetable oils, just pointing out that the situation is always more complex than you expect.

There is a large body of in vivo scientific evidence pointing to the benefits of consuming olive oil:

A 15 year study of diet in seven countries (abstract here) found that people who's main source of fat is olive oil had the  lowest levels of heart disease related deaths.

A Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) study found that increasing olive oil consumption in Northern Europeans reduced waste by-products of oxidative damage to cells, a precursor to cancer. Within 3 weeks of consuming 25 ml of olive oil a day by-product levels has dropped significantly.

A study published in Internal Medicine found that consuming olive oil instead of saturated fats significantly reduced the required dosage of antihypertensive medication required by hypertensive patients.

A 2010 study published in the FASEB journal found that consuming olive oil high in phenols actually reduces the expression of genes associated with atherosclerosis (the thickening of artery walls due to a a build-up of fatty materials such as cholesterol).

A University of Granada study found that consuming phenol-rich olive oil alters the expression of genes associated with inflammation. The study involved patients with metabolic syndrome: a common condition associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

A 2005 study found (citation needed) that eating phenol-rich olive oil consumption increased arterial elasticity.

 I could go on and on citing similar references that point to the health benefits of consuming olive oil and especially cold pressed extra virgin olive oil rich in phenols. A word of warning here though: a study partially funded by the California Olive Oil Council found that 69% of imported olive oils labelled as extra virgin did not meet the required legal standards.

One cup (216g) of olive oil contains:

216 grams of fat (332% RDI): 30g as saturated fat (149% RDI).

Vitamin E (155% RDI): Sunflower oil  contains 448% RDI

Iron (7% RDI).

1910 calories 

Despite being high in calories, olive oil is without doubt a healthy food if it is consumed instead of saturated fat. It has a high level of vitamin E, a proven in vivo antioxidant, and is rich in both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Olive oil is even thought to improve the ratio of Omega-3s to Omega-6s. High levels of Omega-3s  have been extensively linked to a healthier heart and lower risk of stroke.

All in all, olive oil should be part of a balanced diet and the phenol-rich extra virgin oil, with its proven positive effects on health, is a definite superfood. Olive oil should be consumed raw as heating, especially to frying temperatures, destroys many of its beneficial compounds.


Sunday, 26 September 2010

Watercress: Side Dish or Superfood?

Watercress in flower (photo courtesy of Mick Talbot)
Hippocrates, father of modern medicine, is said to have sited his hospital close to a stream to guarantee a constant supply of watercress. Recently it has gone from side dish to potential superfood thanks to its high vitamin and mineral content and potential anti-cancer properties.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a cruciferous vegetable related to mustard, cabbage and broccoli and has a distinctive tangy, peppery flavour. It grows naturally in shallow, clean streams and is now widely cultivated in Europe and the US. Eaten fresh in a salad or as a soup, watercress is delicious enough to make it onto any plate, superfood or not!

The newspapers today (26 Sep 2010) are full of the news that a compound in watercress can inhibit the growth of breast cancer. According to a University of Southampton study, phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) blocks the function of a protein (Hypoxia Inducible Factor or HIF) produced by breast cancer cells that triggers the growth of new blood vessels around a tumor. By suppressing the protein the chemical effectively starves tumors of nutrients and oxygen.

What is exciting about this study is that is shows the positve effects of watercress in vivo rather than in a laboratory test tube. During the research breast cancer survivors fasted and then consumed a bowl of fresh watercress (an 80g serving). Blood tests showed that not only did PEITC show up in the test subject's blood for 24 hours after consuming the watercress but that function of HIF was measurably affected. With breast cancer affecting one in nine women in the western world this could a significant piece of research (see caveat below).

A 2007 study published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is one of several previous studies to find that watercress has anti-cancer properties, especially in smokers. The research found that consuming 85g of fresh watercress a day reduced DNA damage in white blood cells (lymphocytes) by 22.9% and made cells more resistant to future DNA damage. Since DNA damage to blood cells is a generic measure of cancer risk this research, again involving real people eating fresh watercress, is potentialy momentous (see caveat below).

 Caveat: Both pieces of research metioned above involved small study groups and were funded by The Watercress Alliance, a group of British watercress growers. The Daily Telegraph's Food Doctor has a decent discussion of what that means. Studies funded or "sponsored" by a company or organisation in this way are not automatically biased but should be analyzed in more detail than genuinely independent research. Cancer Research UK's Dr Anthea Martin had this to say about the 2010 study; "while the results of this study are interesting, it involved a relatively small number of people. Larger studies are needed to determine whether the effects of watercress on cells seen by the researchers translate into a decreased risk of developing cancer".

The potential anti-cancer activity alone is, if proven by further research, enough to put watercress on the superfood list. Luckily watercress, for so long relegated to garnish status, is also a nutritionally dense food packed with antioxidant vitamins and minerals. The full nutritional breakdown for the fresh plant can be seen on the Nutrition Data website here.

A 34g (one cup serving) of raw watercress contains only 4 calories but provides:

Vitamin A: 22% RDI
Vitamin C: 24% RDI
Iodine: 90% RDI (source)

It does not, according to Nutrition Data, contain much zinc, fibre or folate and only moderate levels of the B vitamins and iron (less than 5% RDI). This does not tie in with the commonly reported "facts" but the ND figures come straight from the USDA National Nutrient Database. The Watercress Alliance has its own watercress nutritional analysis on its website with rather higher RDI levels (for an 80g serving; a lot of watercress).

On balance, fresh watercress is a low calorie, nutrient-rich food full of antioxidants that should be a regular part of your balanced diet. Smokers or former smokers should go further and consume watercress as often as possible. If its anti-cancer properties are proven in further independent studies watercress will shoot up the superfood listings.


RDI: Recommended daily intake.

Note: Wild watercress can can attract the liver fluke (Fasciola hepatica) which causes quite serious liver disease. The basic rule about picking the wild plant is to avoid it if there are cattle or sheep in the vicinity and not to pick watercress growing in water that you wouldn't drink. Always wash all watercress well, even if shop bought.