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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.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Pomegranate: A Super Superfood

Pomegranate seeds and red flesh
After wading through all the marketing hype surrounding the acai berry, only to find that most of its superfood credentials are speculative at best, it feels good to return to safer ground with the pomegrante. Just its high levels of vitamins, folate and trace minerals are enough to make the pomegranate a superfood. Combine these with some eye-catching research findings about the properties of pomegranate fruit, peel and seed oil and you have the makings of a very super fruit.

Pomegranates are native to Iran and India and have been cultivated for thousands of years. The fruit is technically a berry but is about the size of an apple with a leathery, yellow to red skin surrounding about 600 seeds encased in juicy, red flesh. Pomegranates can be eaten fresh or squeezed just like an orange to extract the juice.

The USDA nutritional breakdown for a whole pomegranate can be seen here.  A pomegranate supplies  93% of vitamin C RDI and plenty of vitamin E (40% RDI) as well as B vitamins. That isn't bad for a fruit or a glass of juice!

The pomegranate also has a few other tricks up its sleeve.

An extract of fresh pomegranate juice has been shown to have cancer-chemopreventive as well as cancer-chemotherapeutic effects on prostate cancer cells in the laboratory. Another lab study here.

Pomegranate seed oil has been shown to kill breast cancer cells in the lab.

An extract of pomegranate fruit juice seems to prevent the progress of osteoarthritis by blocking the over production of a damaging enzyme in cartilage cells. Again, laboratory results only; none of this has been shown to work inside the human body. 

Here we a have a study that showed that drinking pomegranate juice had a small positive effect on people with  ischemic coronary heart disease. This is more like it as it involves the effect of juice on real people rather than chemical extracts on cells in a test tube.

Another tantalizing study found that drinking pomegranate juice slows down the increase in prostate-specific antigen (PSA) production in men. PSA levels are used as a marker to detect potentially cancerous changes to the prostate gland. Drinking 570 mg of juice a day seems to slow down the rise of PSA in men who have already been treated for prostate cancer. It worked; PSA level doubling time increased from 15 months at baseline to 54 months after the study.

Pomegranate fruit also contains polyphenol compounds called punicalagins that have powerful antioxidant properties in the laboratory. A recent study found that punicalagins are absorbed into the body after being eaten, although that doesn't mean that they do anything once they get there.

The pomegranate fruit's vitamin content alone is enough to argue that it should be included in a balanced diet. Its additional properties make it especially valuable for those with heart and prostate problems. Research findings suggest that in the future the pomegranate may even yield life saving medicines. I can't find any evidence that dried pomegranate products or commercially available extracts have any health benefits. As always, it is best to consume the fresh fruit or juice.

The pomegranate is tasty, loaded with vitamins and comes with added extras. As close to a perfect superfood as it gets.


Friday, 24 September 2010

Is 2,4-dimethyl-6-tert-butylphenol good for you?

Jet fuel is loaded with antioxidants!

If something has antioxidants in it it must be good for you! Would you drink aviation gasoline? If you believe the hype surrounding antioxidants then you should try it because it contains the powerful chemicals 2,4-dimethyl-6-tert-butylphenol and 2,6-di-tert-butyl-4-methylphenol.

These frankly quite sinister sounding chemicals are used to prevent oxidation in fuels. So far, nobody on the internet has looked up their ORAC scores and tried to sell them as a a miracle food. It is probably only a matter of time though...

The point I'm trying to make here is that just because a compound has antioxidant properties doesn't make it healthy. Others are just poisonous. Most antioxidants in food are either broken down in your gut or pass straight through it. Even if they are absorbed there is no guarantee that they have a positive effect. Both the US Food and Drug Adminstration and European Food Safety Authority warn consumers that no food compounds other than vitamins A, C and E have been proved to have antioxidant efficacy inside the body.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Acai: Superfood or Supercon?

Acai berries before being processed
Are acai berries a nutritious fruit with almost miraculous properties or a health fad driven by internet marketing? We look at their nutritional content and compare it to more common and less expensive alternatives such as red grape juice.

The acai berry is said to cure cancer, burn fat, lower blood pressure, eliminate toxins (more on these mysterious toxins soon!), treat arthritis, lower cholesterol and even cure erectile dysfunction. Call me a cynic, but any food product marketed as a cure for sexual dysfunction automatically goes onto my “overhyped foodstuffs” list. Oprah agrees with me; the Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz Shows, along with Dr. Mehmet Oz, filed a trademark infringement complaint against 40 Internet marketers of dietary supplements, including acai berry products, after they repeatedly and falsely claimed that Oprah had endorsed their products.

So what exactly is the exotic sounding acai berry? It is the fruit of a palm tree (Euterpe oleracea) that grows in the swamps and floodplains of South America from Brazil to Peru. The tree has long been cultivated in Brazil for its berries and for its hearts, eaten as a vegetable salad ingredient. The fruits are about one centimetre in circumference and grow in bunches of up to 1,000. They are blackish purple when ripe and are said to taste of a mixture of chocolate and red wine. Because about 80% of each berry is made up of an inedible seed and the ripe fruit rot within 24 hours of picking, acai berries are almost always processed into a powder, puree or juice.

As for nutritional value, the fresh acai berry does have a lot going for it. It is rich in oils and has been an important source of food to the Caboclo people of the Brazilian Amazon for thousands of years. It still forms an important part of the Amazonian diet today. Although there are lots of figures floating around, exact nutritional information for the acai is hard to come by. Wikipedia gives the following info for 100 grams of freeze dried acai pulp and skin;

Kcal: 533.9 Kcal,
Dietary Fibre: 44.2 g  
Vitamin C: Negligible
Vitamin A: 1002 IU (33% RDI)
Calcium 260 mg (37% RDI)

A respectable set of figures but no better than many seasonal and locally grown fruits and berries that don’t need to be flown in from the Amazon. And no vitamin C; a tried and tested antioxidant!

Most sellers of acai products quote the incredibly high antioxidant content of the acai. Is this true or just another example or marketing hype;

An independent analysis found that acai has intermediate antioxidant potency; among 11 varieties of frozen juice pulps  it scored lower than acerola, mango, strawberry, and grapes. A study at the Centre for Human Nutrition at the University of California compared the antioxidant capacity of a number of beverage products and found that acai rated lower than pomegranate juice, red wine, Concord grape juice, blueberry juice and black cherry juice.

Sellers also mention the acai berry’s huge oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score, caused by high anthocyanin and flavonoid levels. This sounds great but what does it mean?  Phytochemicals such as anthocyanin may be powerful antioxidants in the test tube but no scientific study has yet found that this is duplicated inside the human body. In the US and Europe it is currently it is illegal to imply potential health benefits on package labels of products with high ORAC.

Both the US Food and Drug Adminstration and European Food Safety Authority warn consumers that no food compounds other than vitamins A, C and E have been proved with antioxidant efficacy in vivo. Anthocyanins and other flavonoids might be good for you but they might do nothing at all.

It isn’t all doom and gloom for the acai; Texas AgriLife Research scientists found that the antioxidants present in the berries do have an effect on the body rather than just passing through the digestive system. Whether this effect is due to the Vitamin A or some other as yet unidentified antioxidant remains unknown.

Of all the potential super foods, it seems that the acai berry is the one that internet marketers and nutritional gurus have seized on to promote, often at high prices and accompanied by ridiculous claims. Whether you are convinced or not about the superfood status of the acai berry, common sense dictates that it is better to get hold of the frozen puree or whole berries than it is to pay for processed powder or juices. The scientific evidence suggests that you would be better off with a bunch of red grapes or a glass of pomegranate juice. Or an apple!


Antioxidant Potency of Fruit Juices:
Wild fruits and pulps of frozen fruits: antioxidant activity, polyphenols and anthocyanins
Research shows Brazilian acai berry antioxidants absorbed by human body
Consumption of flavonoid-rich foods and increased plasma antioxidant capacity in humans: Cause, consequence, or epiphenomenon?

The link between egg consumption and cholesterol levels

Eggs are a rich and convenient source of nutrients
The egg has been through a turbulent time in the last few years, with many people believing that eating more than three a week is a recipe for a heart attack. This belief stems from the fact that eggs are rich in dietary cholesterol and cholesterol is associated with unhealthy arteries and heart attacks. In fact, dietary cholesterol only contributes about a third of our total blood cholesterol levels. Genetics, exercise and smoking are also important factors contributing to total blood cholesterol.

It is now thought that eating too much saturated fat is the main dietary cause of elevated blood cholesterol. The liver metabolizes excess saturated fat into blood cholesterol, causing its levels to rise. As cholesterol and saturated fat often occur together in the same foods, dietary cholesterol has been unfairly demonized. It is the bacon that you eat along with your eggs that is unhealthy, rather than the eggs themselves.

There are two types of cholesterol in the blood; HDL, or good cholesterol, and LDL, or bad cholesterol. It is the overall level and ratio of LDL cholesterol in the blood that indicates heart attack risk. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, actually helps the body to remove LDL cholesterol from the body. The overall ratio of good to bad cholesterol is as important a factor in predicting heart attacks as its total level. Eating eggs has a negligeable effect on overall cholesterol level and does not affect the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol. Eating eggs regularly is therefore no longer thought to increase the risk of heart attacks.

So is it safe to eat eggs whenever you want? Current advice suggests consuming less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. A standard large egg yolk contains 215 milligrams of cholesterol. By this reckoning it is perfectly safe to eat one egg a day. A Nutrition Bulletin article published in 2009 concluded that dietary cholesterol has a “clinically insignificant” effect on LDL cholesterol. Since eggs are low in saturated fat and high in protein, they are now considered an integral part of a balanced and healthy diet.

The Food Standards Agency and American Heart Foundation no longer advise people to limit their egg consumption to three a week. In fact, eggs are low in saturated fat, packed with minerals and A, B, D, E and K vitamins and provide us with all the essential amino acids we need for a healthy diet.

So What Is A Superfood Anyway?

Blueberries; the original superfood

The most conservative definition of a superfood is a food rich in vitamins or antioxidants, high in fiber and low in calories. By consuming it we get a lot of the good and not much of the bad! For the true believer this does not go far enough. Advocates, and marketers, claim that superfoods go much further and actually contain nutrients that boost health beyond the bounds of simple healthy eating.

Sellers also mention the acai berry’s huge oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score caused by high anthocyanin and flavonoid levels. Both the US Food and Drug Adminstration and European Food Safety Authority have stated that no food compounds other than vitamins A, C and E have been proved with antioxidant efficacy in vivo. This means that while some phytochemicals such as anthocyanin may be powerful antioxidants in the test tube their efectiveness is not duplicated inside the human body. In the US and Europe it is currently it is illegal to imply potential health benefits on package labels of products with high ORAC.

The case for the superfood status of the acai disappears under close analysis faster than the savings of people who have signed up for the latest miracle acai product.

Healthy nutrition is more a case of making sure you are not deficient in essential nutrients than it is about loading up on the latest miracle compound. In general, beware of any marketing department or health guru claiming that a certain food will dramatically enhance or boost your eyesight/sex drive/memory or reduce your wrinkles/belly/joint pain. The concentration of a vitamin or mineral in a food is less important that the total amount of it you actually eat.

So far, not one food has proved to be kryptonite for cancer or to get rid or wrinkles after one bite. Everybody has heard the urban myth about the man who ate nothing but carrots and turned orange; he never got to see in the dark. Nutrition simply doesn't work like that.
It is just as healthy to eat a few locally sourced, seasonal plums as it is to queue for the latest miracle berry from the Amazon. Both probably contain the same nutrients and vitamins even if you have to eat an extra plum or two to get your RDI.  Seasonal plums are also cheap, even free, while that punnet of berries might set you back a fortune.

Superfoods are best thought of as nutrient rich foods that, as part of a balanced diet, allow us to easily ingest all the essential nutrients our body needs. If they taste good at the same time, More's the better.

 Superfood: A food exceptionally rich in one particular nutrient known to be beneficial to health or a food that has a high level of several beneficial nutrients. Oily fish qualify due to their high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids while blueberries are rich in a number of antioxidants and vitamins.

Phytochemical: A chemical compound occurring naturally in a plant food source that is thought to be beneficial to health but is not yet established as an essential nutrient.  Examples would be beta carotene and lycopene.

RDI: Recommended Daily Intake.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Beetroot: Old Food, New Superfood

Beetroot and Its Nutritious Juice

A 2009 study by the British University of Exeter found that drinking beetroot juice boosts stamina by up to 16%. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, suggests that the high levels of nitrate in beetroot reduces the uptake of oxygen during exercise, making it less tiring. Research published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension showed that drinking beetroot juice reduced blood pressure within one hour for up to 24 hours. Several studies have also attributed anti inflammatory properties to beetroot and it has proved effective against cancers during in vitro testing. It may also help in the battle against obesity. Add to these remarkable properties the high levels of folate, antioxidants and vitamins in the humble purple root and you start to understand why it is hailed as a super food.

A 100 g (3.5 oz) serving of the cooked root supplies 20% of the RDI of folate (folic acid). This makes it a useful food for pregnant women who need to consume folic acid to reduce the risk of spina bifida. Beetroot is also rich in magnesium (6% RDI) and vitamin C (6% RDI). Beetroot also contains several B vitamins and potassium (6% RDI), phosphorus (5% RDI) and zinc.

Beetroot also contains the bioactive red pigment betaine, an anthocyanin that is thought to reduce homocysteine levels. High levels of homocysteine are a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The University of Maryland Medical Center warns that

 "scientists don't yet know whether homocysteine has a directly harmful effect on arteries or is just a risk factor. Although studies show positive results, they have been small and limited".

Beetroot is relatively rich in sugars but is low in calories and very high in fiber. A 100 g (3.5 oz) serving provides 2 grams of dietary fiber but only 43 kcal. Seven slices of beetroot or three whole baby beets count as one of your five daily portions of fruit and veg.

The health benefits of beetroot have popular knowledge for a long time; the ancient Roman's so valued its restorative powers that surviving frescos from the brothels Pompeii contain images of beetroot. It may owe its aphrodisiac qualities to high levels of boron; an essential mineral for the production of human sex hormones.

It is not only the roots of the beet plants that are healthy. Beet greens are also edible and nutritious. A raw serving contains high levels of vitamin C (19% RDI), vitamin A (48% RDI) and vitamin K (190% RDI).

Beetroot may make your urine go pink (a harmless side effect of the red pigments it contains) and it is not one of Barak Obama's favorite foods (according to the New York Times) but it isn't half good for you!

RDI: Recommended Daily Intake