Superfoods – The Origin Story
A good number of the superfoods we will be discussing originate from India. Perhaps this is due to the incredible, exhaustive science of Ayurveda that relies on plant-based medicines, or maybe we’re just biased. At any rate, here are some of the most incredible superfoods to have originated from the subcontinent.
The Indian Gooseberry or Amla tree is considered sacred by Hindus and finds several references in Hindu and Buddhist mythology and historical accounts. Due to the intense sour, bitter taste of the amla fruits, they are often consumed in India in a pickled form with oil, salt, chilli powder and other spices. However, once one gets accustomed to the taste, they can be consumed fresh or dried. Amla has 20 times the Vitamin C of Oranges and contains by far the highest content of antioxidants among hundreds of fruits and vegetables studied, at 261.5 mmol/100g. By comparison, an often touted poster-child of antioxidants, Blueberries, contain a mere 3.5mmol/100g.
Listing all of the benefits of Amla would easily be a separate article by itself. But the benefits range from boosting immunity, slowing down aging, cancer treatment and heart disease prevention to boosting liver health, improving metabolism and enhancing skin and hair health.
Native to South India and prevalent in the foothills of the Himalayas, the moringa tree is an incredible powerhouse of nutrients, with every part of the tree being densely packed with beneficial nutrients. Its seed pods, commonly referred to as drumsticks, are widely used across South India in stews and curries. Its leaves can be cooked and utilized in recipes much like spinach, and are the most nutritious part of the plant. A technical bulletin from USAID that addresses malnutrition in Cambodia suggests that daily consumption of fresh Moringa leaves or dried leaf powder can reduce the risk of malnutrition as these are packed with nutrients.
The health benefits of consuming fresh moringa leaves or dried leaf powder, as can be inferred from above, are manifold. Moringa has been used to cure or treat more than 300 diseases and has long been considered a panacea. Scientific studies have shown it to have Anti-Diabetic Properties, Anti-Cancer Properties & Neuroprotective effects. You can read more about Moringa here.
Likely originating in India and Indonesia, this tree can be found naturally growing in coastal areas in the tropics. Coconuts have an integral place in Hindu religious ceremonies and rituals and are considered sacred and pure. Coconuts are such an integral part of the south Indian culture and diet that the south Indian state of “Kerala” can literally be translated as “land of the coconut tree”. Coconut water is widely consumed for hydration, especially during the summers, and the dried flesh of mature coconuts are used in numerous recipes. Along with this, coconut oil is a very popular cooking oil and you can find most Indian homes stocking it for nourishing hair and moisturising skin.
As a cooking oil, it is one of the healthiest options available, along with olive oil. Its high smoke point means that it is ideal for usage at high temperatures without breaking down or getting burnt. It contains antioxidants in its unrefined form, and has high levels of beneficial medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). In addition, it contains healthy compounds of saturated fats along with unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which increase the good cholesterol levels. All of these ensure boosted fat burning, provide the mind and body with quick energy, and have been shown to boost brain function in Alzheimer’s patients.
No real list of superfoods is complete without including turmeric. Native to South and Southeast Asia, Turmeric belongs to the Ginger family. Turmeric, especially in its powdered form, is considered extremely auspicious in Hindu rituals, and symbolises purity, fertility and prosperity. (If you’ve started to notice a trend, you are correct; Hindus tend to consider the plants and animals that benefit them greatly to be holy and sacred).
While turmeric is almost always found in Indian curries, you might be surprised to know that most Indians don’t consume enough turmeric to obtain all of the benefits it offers. Hence, it is recommended to supplement with extracts and capsules, or to consume it in recipes/beverages specially meant to vastly increase one’s daily consumption of turmeric.
Curcuminoids contained in turmeric, mainly curcumin, possess powerful anti-inflammatory effects and are very strong antioxidants. The benefits that turmeric provides are innumerable. It is a strong antiseptic and anti-inflammatory substance that can treat wounds and improve cognitive and cardiovascular health. It is a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals and helps in cancer prevention. It is also great for skin health and for building immunity. You can read our in-depth discussion of turmeric here.
Withania Somnifera or Ashwagandha is a short, leafy plant in the nightshade family. It is found growing naturally in India and Nepal. It has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat several conditions and ailments. While its berries and leaves are sometimes used in managing skin conditions, its roots in powdered form is the most common usage of the plant.
Ashwagandha has started to find its place in the West as a cognitive enhancer and nootropic in supplementary formulas. While no extensive research has been done on the beneficial aspects or otherwise of Ashwagandha, preliminary data suggests that it could be very beneficial in treating conditions like bipolar disorder as it has been shown to provide significant improvements in cognitive tests. Along with this, it has been used in Ayurveda to help reduce fatigue, deal with stress, improve mental energy and to treat arthritis and epilepsy.
Native to the wetlands of Southern and Eastern India, Bacopa can be found growing in swamps and ponds. Bacopa is another herb that has long been used in Ayurveda and is considered invaluable in improving mental function as a cognitive enhancer. It has received considerable recognition in the west as a brain supplement and can be found as a main ingredient in several popular nootropic brands.
Bacopa has been found to display in vitro antioxidant and cell-protective effects and increase cerebral blood flow and prevent neurodegeneration in animals. It was known in Ayurveda to improve intellect and to enhance memory & recall and was used by Vedic scholars to memorize sacred scriptures.
Originating from China and Korea, most of the world’s production and consumption continues to take place in these two countries. American ginseng (native to America) has risen in popularity over the years and is cultivated in China as well. Ginseng has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, and is considered a panacea.
While modern clinical research is inconclusive about the beneficial claims, it is acknowledged that Ginseng is effective with regards to energy levels and brain stimulation. A study (n=364) found that Ginseng was able to have a significant effect on fatigue reduction among patients undergoing cancer treatment. A smaller study (n=32) found that an extract of American Ginseng produced significant improvement in working memory. Ginseng has traditionally been used in recipes in China and Korea, and is popularly consumed in the form of tea and liquor.
Native to China and Tibet, Goji berries have also been used in traditional Chinese medicine. They are highly regarded and are believed to increase longevity. This blew up as a superfood in the early 2000s, but was surrounded by controversy as the beneficial claims that the retailers were claiming were unverified. Some research has since been done, and preliminary data from studies on rats suggests that they boost immunity and enhance the effectiveness of flu vaccines, and increase testosterone and sperm count.
They are packed with Vitamin C and Antioxidants, along with Vitamin A, iron, zinc and fiber and contain all 8 essential amino acids. They also help in maintaining blood sugar and aid in weight loss. However, people using blood thinners, having low blood sugar, having abnormal blood pressure, and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should stay away from them as they might have adverse effects. Some people may also be allergic to them.
(Matcha) Green Tea
Said to have originated in China during the mythical reign of Emperor Shennong, the exact date when the Chinese population first started steeping the leaves in hot water and consuming the tea is unknown. The practice of consuming it is hugely popular in China and Japan, and tea is in fact the most popular beverage consumed in the world today.
Green tea is very rich in antioxidants and polyphenolic compounds which have strong anti-inflammatory properties. The optimum caffeine content acts as a mild stimulant, without causing an energy crash afterwards. Preliminary studies have suggested that it could be beneficial in assisting with hypertension, hyperlipidemia, atherosclerosis and cancer prevention. It could be effective in aiding with weight loss in some people.
For Matcha green tea, the plants are shade grown for a couple of weeks before harvesting. Since the tea leaves are consumed entirely while drinking matcha tea, the benefits of one cup of matcha green tea are equivalent to the benefits from 10 cups of brewed green tea, making it one of the best sources of antioxidants available.
Native to the Andes mountains of Peru and Bolivia in South America, maca roots have been used for centuries for their ability to boost stamina, libido and energy levels. The ancient Inca warriors are said to have carried them into battle for their nutritional and energy benefits. Rich in Protein, Dietary Fiber and Polysaccharides, maca root also helps to regulate menstrual cycles, improve fertility and benefit the circulatory system. Due to its subtle nutty flavour, it pairs well with coffee and cacao powder, and is often added to smoothies in the western world.
Chocolate! Finally, a superfood on the list that doesn’t require any persuasion to get people to start including it in their diets. Chances are, most people would already be consuming it in sufficient quantities to derive the benefits of cacao. However, cacao in its popular forms includes a huge amount of sugar and unhealthy fats, and it is best to consume it in the form of cacao nibs, cacao powder or dark, unsweetened chocolate.
Originating in the Amazon basin in Brazil and Columbia, it is widely cultivated in West Africa today as a cash crop. Cacao seeds are highly rich in antioxidants (Flavonoids, which lower blood pressure and increase circulation), iron, copper, manganese, magnesium and fiber. Due to a lot of exploitation of workers in cacao cultivation, it is important that consumers are conscious of the source of their cacao.
Technically a seed, quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes mountains since at least 5000 BCE and is used as a cereal or grain in recipes. Being gluten-free and an excellent source of plant-based protein, quinoa checks a lot of boxes among today’s health and ethically concerned consumers. It is an excellent source of nutrients and is rich in manganese and phosphorus, while also containing moderate amounts of iron, zinc, magnesium, dietary fiber and vitamin B-6. It is one of the few plant sources containing all of the essential amino acids we need for protein building, especially lysine and isoleucine.
One of the earliest superfoods to have been adopted by health conscious consumers, wheatgrass remains popular today, as it was 5000 years ago in ancient Egypt and early Mesopotamian civilizations. Egyptians considered the wheatgrass blades to be sacred and revered them for their health benefits. Due to high concentrations of bioflavonoids and indole compounds, wheatgrass has a good antioxidant potential. It is also rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, amino acids, and vitamins A, C and E. Importantly, it contains 70% chlorophyll, which is a potent health agent. It has been shown to contain anti-cancer, anti-ulcer and anti-inflammatory properties and is believed to help blood flow, digestion and general detoxification.
You can read about wheatgrass in-depth here.
Native to Mexico and central America, chia seeds come from a flowering plant in the mint family. They are extremely hydrophilic and absorb a lot of water quickly, allowing them to be easily broken down in our bodies. Being one of the very few plant sources of Omega-3 fatty acids makes chia seeds important in vegetarian and vegan diets that exclude fish, even though they don’t contain DHA. They also contain highly unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins (thiamin and niacin), along with calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and fiber.
Naturally growing in mineral-rich alkaline lakes, especially near volcanoes, spirulina is a nutrient rich algae. Historically used in Chad in Africa and in Mexico by the Aztecs, spirulina is a rich source of essential nutrients like B vitamins and protein, and minerals like iron and manganese. It is commercially available as dietary supplement capsules or as a dark green powder. Several of the health benefits of spirulina haven’t been clinically studied yet, however, and caution should be exercised when taken with prescription drugs, particularly those affecting the immune system and blood clotting.
One of the first foods to have started the superfood movement, kale has been finding a place in smoothies and health shakes around the world for several years now. Originating in Greece and the Mediterranean, its earliest cultivation has been dated to at least 2000 BCE. Fitting the description of a dark leafy green, kale can automatically be associated with a host of benefits. It is very rich in vitamins C, K and A and contains high amounts of protein, vitamin E, vitamin B6, folate and manganese along with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. Kale is also loaded with powerful antioxidants. It is great for protecting eyes against aging related degeneration, contains numerous cancer fighting substances and reduces cholesterol and risk of heart disease.