vegan superfoods

Vegan Superfoods: Chia, Goji, Maca, and More

When it comes to superfoods, Wikipedia’s hype-busting editors nail the definition:

Superfood is a marketing term for food claimed to confer health benefits resulting from an exceptional nutrient density.

Exactly. The term invariably deserves mockery and clear-eyed derision. Nutrition professionals typically avoid using the term. But raw foodists and others with fringe dietary beliefs talk about superfoods incessantly.

Still, if the superfoods concept introduces you to some healthy new foods, then it can prove helpful. Dried mulberries are delicious and something I’d have never discovered were it not for raw foodists peddling various superfoods and bogus cleanses.

Most foods marketed as superfoods can undeniably contribute to a healthy diet. But be skeptical whenever you hear this term. Some so-called superfoods are modern-day vegan snake oil, promoted by the same sort of unscrupulous people who set up multilevel marketing schemes. In fact, several superfood companies are—surprise, surprise—MLMs.

What are Superfoods?

No clear line separates superfoods from other nutritious foods. Foods usually wind up with this label because they possess one of the following qualities:

  • Exceedingly rich in several nutrients.
  • Possess an abundance of one hard-to-get nutrient. For instance, you could call Brazil nuts a superfood since they are unusually rich in selenium. In fact, they’re so rich that you shouldn’t eat more than few of these nuts a day, since a high selenium intake can cause health problems.
  • An unusual crop imported from some far corner of the world.

A better and non-flaky alternative to the superfoods buzzword is “nutrient-dense foods.” All sorts of nutrient-dense foods exist, from kale to tofu to sesame seeds. What’s more, most nutrient-dense foods are quite affordable. Eating an assortment of nutrient dense-foods makes all kinds of sense.

What are the Most Popular Superfoods?

Measured by weight, superfoods are usually pricey. But, as we’ll see with dried goji berries, a little often goes a long way. The concentrated nature of many superfoods makes them the perfect food to order online—shipping costs are generally low since there’s little weight involved.

Breathless marketing claims aside, some superfoods are worth including in your diet. Lets run through the most popular of these products.

Chia Seeds

Many people fail to include Omega 3 fatty acids in their diets. Worse yet, for vegetarians, is that cold-water fish are the best-known source of Omega 3s.

Fortunately, there are a few extremely rich vegan sources of Omega 3 fats: chia seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds. Of these, chia is probably the easiest to consume. It’s featured in numerous raw food recipes, and it’s also terrific in smoothies. Chia is also excellent stirred into soymilk, but you should chew the seeds before swallowing to ensure they’re digested.

If there’s just one superfood that deserves a place in your daily diet, chia seeds are it. Happily, organic chia seeds are inexpensive and easy to find.

Goji Berries

Most goji berries come from Tibet or the Chinese Himalayas, where they’re dried, packaged, and exported. Unlike most dried fruit, goji berries aren’t eaten straight from the bag. Instead, most people soak them for thirty minutes in water before eating. The water absorbs much of the berries’ flavor and nutrients, so you can drink the water along with the berries all in one go. Since dried goji berries double or triple in size during soaking, a little goes a long way.

Goji berries contain large amounts of vitamin C, iron, and antioxidants. Chinese medicine uses these berries to treat a variety of ailments.

Soaked goji berries appear in many raw foods recipes, especially cakes and cookies prepared using a food dehydrator.

Cacao Beans, Nibs, and Powder

With all the bizarre superfoods in existence, it’s nice to know that raw chocolate also qualifies.

Cacao is basis of all chocolate, with nothing stripped away and no sugar added. Packed with a caffeine-related molecule called theobromine, cacao gives you a lift similar to coffee. But the effect is more gentle and unlikely to give you the coffee jitters. Cacao comes in three forms:

  1. Whole beans shaped like small almonds
  2. Crushed “nibs” that are perhaps a third the size of a raisin
  3. Powder

Nibs are great middle-ground since they’re minimally processed. They make a great snack and they’re also used in a variety of recipes. If you want to eat more cacao-based foods, check out Matthew Kenney’s all-vegan book, Raw Chocolate.

Cacao beans are an acquired taste. People accustomed to eating Hershey Bars may find cacao unpleasantly bitter. But over time your tastes are likely to change. To make it more palatable, try adding it to shakes and smoothies. You’ll still get the benefits of eating chocolate in its whole and raw form.

Much of the world’s chocolate involves exploitative working conditions. Fortunately, fair-trade chocolate is easy to find. Nativas sells excellent fair trade raw cacao nibs.

Spirulina and Chlorella

These varieties of cyanobacteria are dehydrated and sold as tablets, or as powder that’s usually mixed into smoothies. All brands of spirulina and chlorella taste like pond scum, but are undeniably nutritious. Unfortunately, their excellent nutrient density doesn’t make these substances wise to consume.

Spirulina is a blue-green freshwater cyanobacteria rich in protein, beta-carotene, and several other vitamins and minerals. Chlorella is similar to spirulina, but it’s bright green rather than blue-green.

Humans have never based much of their diet on cyanobacteria, which should invite caution. There have been numerous instances of these products containing dangerous contaminants. In particular, they may contain microcystins and cyanotoxins—two especially hazardous substances.

There’s really nothing desirable in these substances that you can’t get from other, safer, foods.

Maca

Maca is a root vegetable grown at high elevations. Most of the world’s maca supply comes from Peru. Consumed since ancient times as a gentle stimulant, advocates claim it increases libido and alleviates hormone imbalances. While claims like these are usually anecdotal, one brand of maca was undoubtedly effective at increasing libido in men—because the producer was adding viagra to it. But the FDA caught on and shut that operation down.

Maca is popular with raw foodists. The mechanisms by which maca delivers its purported benefits are largely unknown. In any case, a tablespoon of maca powder blended into fruit smoothies adds some nice flavor. It’s also tasty when added to oatmeal and other hot cereals. Either way, it has a pleasant malty, butterscotch flavor.

Approach Superfoods with Skepticism

I hope this introduction to superfoods provided you with some useful information, but also encouraged a healthy dose of skepticism. Every food is unique, so just about any unprocessed food has some quality that makes it super if you look hard enough.

The superfoods concept can introduce you to some healthy new foods. But people who uncritically embrace superfoods tend to adopt fringe nutrition beliefs that ultimately lead to bad health outcomes. Far better to read about the essentials of vegan nutrition than to seek extraordinary health benefits from superfoods.

For more information, please see our guides to raw foods, vitamins, and green smoothies

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