Every year sees a new list of ‘superfoods’ making its way to mainstream media, and, shortly thereafter, to supermarket shelves. These tend to have one or a few specific nutrients in unusually high doses, and are genuinely good for us. Kale, matcha tea and blueberries, to name a few, are unquestionably nutritious.
However, simply being featured on trending lists of foods that ‘we absolutely must eat’ isn’t reason enough for them to be exclusively selected for our nutritional needs. What if they’re too expensive or aren’t easily accessible? What if we had equally excellent choices closer to home?
To understand this, here’s a look at some of the superfoods that have been doing the rounds in the past year, along with their advantages – and some easily accessible Indian substitutes that have similar, or possibly better, nutritional values.
This leafy vegetable has become ubiquitous in all things healthy. Kale is a nutritional powerhouse, giving us close to 800% of our recommended daily intake of vitamin K, along with a host of other vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, C, E and several B-vitamins. While cooking can reduce levels of vitamins, kale retains its high levels of vitamin K, which is essential for bone and cardiovascular health.
Introducing kale to a balanced diet is certainly beneficial, but there are several other greens, far more accessible and affordable, that can provide almost identical benefits.
Spinach also has incredibly high levels of vitamin K, as do mustard greens (sarson) and collard greens (haak), containing between 400% to 600% of the recommended daily intake in a 100 g serving. These alternatives also have dramatically higher levels of folic acid, a vitamin that’s essential for cellular health.
If getting your hands on fresh kale is proving to be an issue, or you aren’t a big fan of its taste, sticking to more familiar greens like spinach will easily give you all the nutritional benefits of kale.
Quinoa is a South American staple that has been domesticated for thousands of years. Its texture, taste and protein-packed nutritional profile have made it a mainstay in the health food space. In fact, quinoa’s immense popularity in markets outside South America has made it more profitable for local farmers to export, consequently driving up prices in its own home markets.
Said to have one of the most complete nutrient profiles, quinoa decidedly deserves its place on any list of superfoods. However, its high price and the carbon footprint of consuming it halfway across the world in India is cause enough to seek an alternative.
Funnily enough, amaranth (Ramdana), which is grown in abundance in India, has an almost identical nutritional profile to quinoa. This is understandable, given that they belong to the same botanical family (Amaranthaceae). Amaranth provides 14 g of protein and 7 g of fibre per 100 g, the same as quinoa, with a fairly similar micronutrient profile as well.
Apart from amaranth, species of wild rice found across India, from Kerala to the North East, have an excellent nutritional profile, with up to 15 g protein and 6 grams of fibre per 100 g. Millets such as bajra and ragi are also great sources of protein and fibre, with approximately 11 g and 4 g per 100 g respectively.
Beyond exceptional nutrition, each one of these grains provides unique flavours and textures, and make for delicious alternatives to quinoa.
Matcha tea is a special form of green tea that’s grown in the shade for a few weeks before being harvested. This process increases the quantity of caffeine and theanine, which leads to the unique, mellow increase in energy that draws many to matcha. Instead of the usual process of making green tea, the stems of the tea leaves are removed and the leaves ground into a powder, which dissolves in water or milk.
EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) is a powerful antioxidant that has a wide range of health benefits. Matcha tea contains approximately 200-300 mg of EGCG – an exceptionally strong dose. However, it also comes with a significant amount of caffeine (comparable to the amount present in a cup of coffee). Moreover, it’s believed that EGCG may cause adverse effects such as nausea at doses over 800 mg – something to think about before loading up on matcha.
A good quality green tea is an effective alternative to matcha, since it also contains EGCG, albeit in a much lower quantity; a regular cup made from a tea bag would contain 50-80 mg. Consuming 3-5 cups of green tea a day would provide a sufficient amount of EGCG for general health purposes, while keeping you well within the safe range of its consumption.
Chia seeds are an incredible source of ALA (alpha linolenic acid), an omega-3 fat that is essential for survival. When consumed, a certain amount of ALA is converted to other, longer forms of omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA), which are otherwise directly found in fish, meat and marine algae.
Omega-3 fats exist in a delicate balance with essential omega-6 fats; this balance is crucial to good health in the long term. Most vegetarian foods contain dramatically higher levels of omega-6 fats, but chia seeds are a rare exception (since they contain 3 parts of omega -3 for 1 part of omega-6), presenting us with a great way to balance our essential fat intake. They are also very high in dietary fibre, making them a nutritional powerhouse for heart health. It’s no surprise to see them on most superfood lists.
However, its plant being native to Central and South America, chia seeds can be fairly expensive and have a large carbon footprint when brought halfway across the world to India.
Flaxseeds make for an excellent alternative, with an even better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 (4 parts to 1), and similar levels of dietary fibre. Commonly known as alsi, flaxseeds are easily available across India, and are a superfood in their own regard.
Superfood trends change every few months, but regularly consuming a wide variety of whole foods is what’s truly essential for good, long-term health. Including the latest trendy superfood in your diet will definitely add value, but humbler alternatives that provide just as much value may already be sitting in your refrigerator or pantry.