Eating a diet that consists largely of a wide variety of fresh, minimally processed whole foods - fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, pulses and legumes, nuts and seeds, lean protein, eggs and dairy produce - is the best and simplest way to ensure good health and stave off disease.
But for those wanting or needing to boost their nutritional intake, help is at hand. Most of us are familiar with organic and biodynamic produce but there are numerous other foods, nutritional supplements and nutriceuticals on the market - from 'superfoods' naturally rich in important macro- or micronutrients to foods that have been specifically developed to be nutritionally more potent or otherwise more beneficial to health than their standard equivalents.
Nutritionally richer products may include:
* superfoods: obscure as well as 'everyday' foods that are particularly high in valuable nutrients, vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and dietary fibre;
* nutriceuticals - supplements designed to provide big nutritional bang for your buck;
* foods biofortified with vitamins or other key nutrients; and
* foods (such as grains) that have been crossbred for exceptionally high levels of health-promoting compounds.
Can we get more health bang for our buck by eating particular foods, such as those that are exceptionally high in nutritional value and/or in beneficial compounds?
Evidence suggests that certain foods – dubbed ‘superfoods’ – have particular health benefits, and that including these in a balanced diet may help promote ongoing health, reduce the risk of developing various diseases, and/or prolong the onset of ageing-related degeneration, promoting longevity.
Typically, superfoods are nutritionally dense; high in useful dietary fibre; and/or contain high concentrations of particular compounds – vitamins, minerals, trace elements, essential fatty acids, phytochemicals and so on – that are associated with lower incidences of disease and other health benefits.
One example is cooked tomatoes, found to contain high levels of the phytochemical lycopene, thought to play a role in protecting against heart disease and stroke.
Other products commonly touted as ‘super-foods’ include natural, minimally processed foods – acai berries, almonds (‘pre-soaked and otherwise), avocadoes, bee products (such as honey and royal jelly), blueberries, chia seeds, chilli, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage), garlic, ginger, goji berries, leafy greens (including spinach), legumes and pulses, oily fish; olive oil, whole grains (especially oats) and yoghurt containing probiotics – as well as drinks and powders containing extracts of nutrient-rich foods: chlorophyll, spirulina (farmed and processed blue-green algae, ingested as powder or tablets), wheatgrass; and spinach.
While the claims made with regard to some commonly-available ‘superfoods’ are backed by reputable research, others have little or no hard science to support them. CHOICE Magazine evaluated the health claims made for several so-called ‘super-foods’ and found little support for many of them.
A recent addition to the line-up of nutritionally enhanced produce line-up is foods boosted by biofortication: a process by which the specific miicronutrient content of energy-rich staple foods is boosted.
Scientists worldwide are working to produce biofortified foods that can be used to increase the micronutrient intake of the world’s poor, billions of whom are deficient in key vitamins and minerals, notably iron, zinc and vitamin A.
Another positive development in food science is using traditional genetic methods to produce foods exceptionally high in health-promoting compounds, such as dietary fibre.
CSIRO’s BarleyMAX grain was cross-bred to be especially high in resistant starch, a type of fibre that's been linked with better gut health and a lower incidence of bowel cancer.
Reducing risk factors for bowel cancer is a high public health priority globally. According to the World Health Organization’s World Cancer Report (2014), it is one of the most common causes of cancer death worldwide. And Bowel Cancer Australia notes that it is now the second most likely cause of cancer deaths across the nation (with cancer having overtaken heart disease as Australia’s number one cause of mortality).
BarleyMAX, available in a range of breads, cereals and other consumer products, has real potential to help protect people against this disease. CSIRO is currently developing other similar grain products.
Food and Agriculture Organisation for the United Nations (FAOSTAT)
Deloitte report ‘The food value chain: A challenge for the next century’
World Health Organization (biofortified foods)
Copenhagen Consensus on biofortifed foods
CHOICE Magazine: investigations of ‘superfoods’
The National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce (NS)
Australian Department of Agriculture Agricultural Productivity Division
Australian Standard 6000-2009 Organic and biodynamic products
The Organic Federation of Australia
Trade Practices Act 1974
Ausveg Enviroveg programs
CSIRO’s Plant and Animal Science Division
CSIRO’s BarleyMAX grain