They are said to help us maintain weight, fight diseases, live longer and even look more beautiful, but as nutritionists point out, ‘superfoods’ are no more than a marketing term, and while not all foods are created equal, you can find options that give you the same benefits and at a much lower cost.
All foods have nutritional value, but in recent times, a group of them have been elevated to super status. Said to be chockfull of antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients, they are also supposed to help slow the ageing process and make us smarter. And while items such as salmon, pomegranate and kiwi fruit are among the more conventional superfoods, every now and again, new items are given the super treatment.
Early this year, for instance, the BBC reported that a Dutch scientist had advocated bugs as a green superfood, arguing that insect dishes, boasting a lower carbon footprint in addition to being very nutritious, could be the answer to the global food crisis.
While that may be the case, nutritionists point out that “superfood” is a term created by marketers and does not exist technically. Nutritionist Tan Sue Yee says, “All types of foods contain their own nutrition profiles, and a varied diet is recommended to obtain a myriad of nutrients for health and well-being. The so-called ‘superfoods’ that we often read or hear about are mostly foods that are grown abroad. Thus, they are often less available and costly in Malaysia.”
Wong Yu Jin, a nutritionist and wellness coach, points out that the humble sweet potato has more antioxidants than blueberries, which are often listed as a superfood.
He adds that the term ‘superfood’ also gives the impression that once you have eaten such food; you don’t have to worry about other areas of your diet.
“The hype surrounding superfoods has become so hot that companies are now selling superfood pills, extracts and elixirs, claiming to offer various health benefits such as anti-ageing, cancer fighting and detoxification.”
If you’re keen on a super diet without breaking the bank, here are some alternatives.
Blueberries are a top choice of those promoting superfoods, and there is no doubt that they are high in potassium and vitamin C. A 100g serving packs 77mg of potassium, 9.7mg of vitamin C and 6mg of calcium, among others. But at RM16 for a 125g punnet, they are beyond the budget of many.
The humble pineapple, which is widely available at supermarkets and local wet markets, is only RM3.50 a kg, and it packs a punch nutrition-wise. A 100g serving offers 97mg of potassium, 15.2mg of vitamin C and 24mg of calcium.
2) Kiwi fruit
Touted as a nutrient-rich food, the New Zealand export has more potassium than bananas or citrus fruits and is an excellent source of vitamin C. A 100g serving boasts 180mg of potassium and 86.7mg of vitamin C, but it also packs a wallop on the wallet at RM7.90 for a packet of four (weighing about 600g).
While the guava (at RM4.90 a kg) may not boast a high concentration of potassium (29mg per 100g), it is still packed with nutrients. A 100g serving boasts 152mg of vitamin C, 10mg of vitamin A and 33mg of calcium.
Pomegranates are being hailed as a superfood that can protect the heart. A 2004 BBC report states that scientists in Israel have shown that drinking a glass of pomegranate juice daily could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. A 100g serving of the fruit has 236mg of potassium, 10.2mg of vitamin C, 10mg of calcium and 4g of fibre. At around RM3.30 a fruit, it may put a large dent in one’s wallet.
The dragon fruit (RM2.50 each) may lose out to the pomegranate in terms of calcium (8.8gm) and fibre content (0.9g of fibre) but it is way ahead where potassium (436mg) and vitamin C (14.5mg) are concerned.
4) Red wine
A glass of red wine each day keeps the doctor at bay, so we’ve been told. The idea behind this stems from something called the French Paradox. Researchers noticed that despite their high-fat diet, the French have 40% lower occurrence of heart disease than the Americans. This has been attributed to their consumption of red wine, which has large doses of the antioxidant resveratrol. A 100ml serving of red wine has 0.198mg to 0.713mg of resveratrol.
If you’re a teetotaller or would like to stick to a budget, don’t despair. Wong points to grape juice, which is RM3.99 a litre. Tan adds that other foods that have resveratrol include jackfruit and peanuts.
Like blueberries, salmon is a favourite superfood, thanks to its rich bounty of omega-3 essential fatty acids. A 100g serving contains 2,950mg of omega-3 and 490mg of potassium. We’re told to eat salmon two to three times a week to lower our heart disease risk and help prevent arthritis and memory loss. We’re also told to eat wild-caught salmon rather than farm-raised ones because of the chemicals that have been found in the latter. However, at RM99 per kg, the fish is beyond the budget of many households.
Indian mackerel (ikan kembung) is a great source of omega-3, with a 100g serving boasting of 1,450mg of omega-3 and 370mg of potassium. Sure, it’s not as chockfull of omega-3 as salmon but at RM10.90 per kg, it’s more affordable. In addition, the humble mackerel also offers more calcium (48mg compared with 12mg in salmon, per 100g serving) and iron (1.8mg vs 0.8mg) and has less fat (3.9g vs 6.34g). Another good alternative is canned sardines (RM3 for a 155g can).
One of the more trendy nutritional wonders, wheatgrass (taken as a juice) is said to have beneficial effects on one’s cholesterol level, blood pressure and immune response, as well as prevent cancer, thanks to its high concentration of chlorophyll. But at RM3.99 for a small cup, it’s pricey.
To enjoy the benefits of chlorophyll, look for green vegetables such as broccoli or spinach. The latter is a great (and more palatable) substitute for wheatgrass and costs only RM1.20 per 100g. A 30g serving of spinach offers 128 mg of potassium (compared with 42 mg per 30ml of wheatgrass juice), 26 mg vitamin C (10mg) and 30mg calcium (7.2mg).
Note: All nutritional information courtesy of Tan Sue Yee, a member of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia. The alternatives proposed are not meant to be exact replacements, as all foods are not created equal. Prices are just indicative and may vary from location to location.