What Makes Superfoods So Super?

Categories: Food

We are regularly presented with new superfoods to add to our diet. Some are wonderfully-named and obscure fruits from far-off jungles. Others are common vegetables we’ve been growing for years.

What makes superfoods so super? 

We are told that superfoods have more than their fair share of vitamins and minerals and that they possess amazing powers to help us to fend off chronic disease, build bones, improve our eyesight, keep our mind sharp, slow the ageing process and make us thin – some pretty bold claims.

Are superfoods really that much better? (Should we believe the hype?)

Let’s take kale for example – a highly-prized superfood. Kale, we are informed, has higher-than-usual quantities of vitamins and minerals.

But is all kale equal? Does all kale have higher-than-usual nutrient density?

Kale picked fresh just before your meal, grown in your own garden using rich homemade organic compost would definitely be a nutrient dense, and alive food.

On the other hand, kale grown in depleted soils using chemical fertilisers, picked possibly before last week, wrapped in plastic, stored, transported, and then left in your fridge for several days would not have so many of its ‘super’ qualities remaining.

If you are buying kale, ideally choose organic, local kale that has been harvested within days, then consume quickly.

After much fanfare we now hear that, while good, kale is not the healthiest green. Most leafy green vegetables grown in your own garden would have as many vitamins and minerals, and be similarly high in antioxidants.

A recent report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading national public health institute in the US, ranked Kale at number 14 for its nutrient density behind others such as watercress, Chinese cabbage, beet greens, chard and parsley.

Kale is also claimed to have high levels of antioxidants and it is widely believed that high antioxidant foods help lower the risks of cancer, degeneration, and disease.

On further investigation it seems that many common herbs and spices have far more antioxidants than kale – turmeric, oregano, parsley and basil for example. Even dark chocolate has four times as many antioxidants.

From a gardener’s perspective though, I still love kale because it is so easy to grow and it’s a drought-tolerant, pest-resistant vegetable that lasts a long time in the garden.

Also, it is an open-hearted vegetable. I just pick off a leaf or two from each plant when I need them, and then keep coming back each day for months. I have at least four varieties in my garden.

Grow your own superfoods

A couple of other super-easy ‘superfoods’ to grow in your garden are mustard greens and turmeric.

Mustard Greens

Mustard greens (Brassica juncea) have more antioxidants than kale and very high levels of vitamins A, C and K. These bright green leafy plants, with abundant displays of yellow flowers, have been a regular drought-tolerant volunteer in my garden for several years.

Every part of the plant is edible – the young leaves in salad, the older leaves lightly cooked, the early flower spikes are like a spicy asparagus, the older flowers are great in a salad as are the young seedpods, and of course the seeds are edible (yes, it’s mustard seed).

You can add these to your own curry pastes and homemade dijon mustards.


Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an easy ginger-like plant to grow. Originally from India, turmeric has been used for thousands of years, originally as a dye, and is well known as the orange colour in curries.

Turmeric is valued as a general immune enhancer, in improving liver function, lowering cholesterol and treating arthritis. Increasing research is being carried out with regards to its capacity to prevent cancer and even inhibit cancer cell growth.

It is important to realise however that turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, is sensitive to heat and light. To get the most from turmeric,it’s best eastern raw, grated in salads and added to juices. For hot dishes, it’s better to add after the meal has been cooked.

Around here turmeric tends to die back in winter – the sign that it’s time to harvest. The orange clusters of roots seem like intertwined hands holding each other under the ground.

You can gently dig them up and separate. Leave some in the ground for another crop next year and store the rest in a cool dark place – a bucket of sand under the verandah is perfect.

Declining nutrient value

Over the past decades, fruits and vegetables have been bred for their sweetness, size and shelf stability, rather than their nutrition. Older varieties that are closer to wild ancestors tend to have a higher nutrient profile, e.g.:

  • small cherry tomatoes are closer to their wild ancestors and have 20 times more antioxidants than a big tomatoes
  • shallots have 120 times more antioxidants than newer sweet onions and are also higher in vitamins A and C. The green part is the most nutritious
  • rocket is one of the greens closest to its wild ancestor and is a nutrient dense salad leaf.

Another tip for maximising your nutrient intake. Eat fresh beetroots – they have 50 times more antioxidants than carrots. Don’t toss the beet greens. They have much more nutrition than the beets themselves – even more than kale.

After removing the superfood marketing hype, I like to translate the superfood message into one which is encouraging us to keep healthy by consuming real food.

It’s a simple concept, but a needed one in a society dominated by fast, processed and nutrient-depleted food.

Ideally, we need to consume a healthy balanced diet full of fresh local, organic foods – particularly bright, dark, or intensely-coloured vegetables, plus wild foods and whole grains.

by Morag Gamble / via HinterLandTimes


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