Super foods vs classics

Posted on: 31 July 2015 by Rob Hobson

Rob Hobson, Healthspan’s Head of Nutrition takes a look at some of the great new ‘superfoods’ that everyone is talking about and compares them to some of the good old ‘classics’ that have stood the test of time.

superfoods - chai seeds with milk

The term, ‘superfood’ appears to be here to stay, although it should be thought of as more of a marketing tool than one of any nutritional significance. Even though these foods may contain a rich source of one or other nutrient, you wouldn’t exist on a few foods alone and although some would have you believe, no food is going to miraculously cure or prevent you from getting disease. All foods are super in there own way with even the less healthy ones offering something to the diet. 

So how do some of the latest ‘superfoods’ compare with their less trendy counterparts and are they really worth all the hype?

wholemeal bread

Quinoa bread vs wholemeal bread

The trend for all things gluten-free has led to a flurry of bread alternatives that are often made using seeds and grains such as quinoa.  This trend along with the ‘Atkins-effect’ warping peoples view of carbohydrate foods has led to the humble loaf being demonised and blamed for issues such as weight loss and bloating.  However, eaten in moderation there is actually no evidence to support bloating as being an effect of eating bread and mostly weight gain is a result of what you put on your bread and not the loaf per se.

Quinoa bread provides a good quality source of protein (contains all the essential amino acids) and fibre along with all the other nutritional benefits of the seed itself such as a useful source of magnesium, iron, zinc and b vitamins. Whilst wholemeal bread contains less protein and slightly less nutrients it is higher in fibre and calcium.Both provide a good source of complex carbohydrates yet quinoa bread is higher in calories thanwholemeal bread.

Although wholemeal bead is the healthier option, white bread accounts for around 70% of bread intake in the UK and as white flour must be fortified in the UK it provides a key source of nutrients in many peoples diets, which includes calcium.

Verdict:  Whilst quinoa bread is very nutritious, there is no reason to eliminate gluten from the diet unnecessarily and a good quality wholemeal loaf can provide just as many nutrients including high levels of fibre, B vitamins, iron and zinc.  You also need to watch your serving sizes, as quinoa bread is quite calorific.


Granola v porridge

There are lots of gourmet granola products on the market, many of which contain ‘on-trend’ ingredients such as goji berries, coconut oil and puffed quinoa. Like porridge, granola is often made using oats as well as other grains; however, it is also usually loaded with other high calorie ingredients such as nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Granola is also sweetened using ingredients like honey or agave syrup, which increases its sugar content (although many people add honey or sugar to their porridge).

Porridge oats made with skimmed milk are low in both fat, sat fat, salt and sugar as well as offering a good source of calcium, magnesium, zinc and b vitamins.  The same quantity of granola provides a similar set of nutrients but a greater quantity of sugar, fat and sat fat.  Both cereals are a good source of fibre but the particular type found in porridge oats have been shown to help lower levels of bad cholesterol, which is beneficial for heart health.  The low levels of sugar found in porridge oats combined with fibre and protein (when made with milk) also helps with weight maintenance by keeping you fuller for longer.

Verdict:  Porridge oats provide a healthier breakfast that can help to maintain good heart health.  Lower in sugar, porridge can be made more exciting with the addition of fresh fruit which adds natural sweetness.  Porridge is also better priced when compared with gourmet granolas.


Kale v white cabbage

Kale is often hailed as the king of the ‘superfoods’ given its association with all things green and healthy! However, is it worth the hype and are you not going to get the same nutritional benefits from regular white cabbage? Kale is actually much higher in many nutrients than white cabbage including calcium, magnesium, iron and beta-carotene.  Both these cabbages belong to the cruciferous family of vegetables and contain sulpher compounds that may help to reduce the risk of cancer. Both provide a good source of fibre that is beneficial for many areas of heath including digestion and heart.

Verdict: With this particular comparison kale does live up to the hype and rules supreme in the nutritional content stakes. However, you cant live on kale alone but it does make a really healthy addition to your diet as does any other fruit or vegetables including white cabbage.

Extra virgin coconut oil v extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin coconut oil v extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin coconut oil is definitely having its day in the sunshine.  It has been associated with many different health claims but unfortunately many of these are lacking in scientific research.  The main fatty acid in coconut oil is called lauric acid, which is thought to hold antibacterial and antiviral properties that may benefit health. The composition of coconut oil is mostly made up of saturated fat but unlike those found in processed foods and the hard fat on meat they are medium chain fatty acids that are delivered straight to the liver for processing and used as a more immediate energy source than other fats which some claim may help with weight loss.  Extra virgin olive oil has long been praised for its health benefits, particularly those of the heart and these claims are backed up with a substantial portfolio of evidence. Much of the benefits are a result of the high levels of monounsaturated fats that help to reduce bad cholesterol and increase good.  Extra virgin olive oil also contains compounds such as oleocanthal, which helps to reduce inflammation, and beta-sitosterol that is also shown to have cholesterol-lowering properties.

Verdict: Whatever the hype, extra virgin coconut oil cannot compete with extra virgin olive oil in terms of evidence-based health benefits.  Both oils are useful to include in the diet over those rich in omega 6, which is over-consumed by most people and can increase inflammation.

Functional margarines (plant sterols) v butter

Functional margarines (plant sterols) v butter

The age-old debate of whether to use butter or margarine still seems to linger on.  Margarines are not what they used to be after it was discovered that trans fats had a detrimental effect on heart health. There is a growing trend to switch to natural products like butter especially after research suggests that naturally sourced saturated fat may also not be as detrimental to heart health as previously thought.  Butter is also a source of vitamins A, E and K2 and unlike margarine is low in omega 6 (excess can promote inflammation) which many of us get too much of in the diet compared with omega 3.

Margarines are now fortified with many additional nutrients such as vitamin D (which many of us lack in this country, especially during the winter months) and functional compounds such as plant sterols that have shown to help reduce cholesterol by 10%. Margarines are also available in lower in lower fat varieties that have less calories than butter so make a useful way for people to reduce their daily energy intake.

Verdict:  Most people use some sort of oil for cooking such as olive oil (the healthiest) which really only leaves both spreads for use on your toast and sandwiches so the question is; how much do you use anyway and is it really of great significance?  Both spreads have their benefits and it depends on your health goal.  Margarines (especially those produced with plant sterols) are useful for weight loss and reducing cholesterol but as part of a balanced diet there is nothing wrong with using butter which I personally prefer given it’s a more natural product.

Green juice v orange juice

Green juice v orange juice

The green juice revolution appears to be here to here to stay a little while longer with all sorts of varieties including the ludicrously expensive, cold pressed (which some companies are touting at over £10 per bottle).  But are these juices worth their weight in gold or is there just as much goodness in a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice? It goes without saying that a green juice loaded with kale, celery, cucumber and other nutritious vegetables is going to contain valuable nutrients that are going to boost your nutrient intake, but the greatest benefit comes from those that are freshly pressed as some pre-bought bottles can be high in sugar with the addition of pear and apple juice. 

This doesn’t mean you should disregard good old orange juice.  Cost effective and rich in the antioxidant, vitamin C, orange juice provides many health benefits and also help us to absorb nutrients such as iron when drunk with a meal.

Verdict:  One juice each day is a good way to boost your nutrient intake but no matter what has gone into your juice it is still only regarded as one of your 5-a-day.  Whilst a green juice may contain a wider array of nutrients, both green and orange do not contain any fibre, which is lacking in the UK diet and we still fail to eat enough fruit and vegetables.  If you can afford it then green is great but otherwise save your pennies and opt for orange and spend the difference on seasonal veggies that offer a greater health benefit than juice.

Chia seeds v sunflower seeds

Chia seeds v sunflower seeds

All seeds make a great addition to the diet and offer nutrients such as magnesium, zinc and protein as well as heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. They are also a good source of fibre, which is an important component of the diet that helps to maintain good gut health and reduce cholesterol. Where chia seeds have the advantage is their very high fibre content (3 times that of sunflower seeds).

Chia seeds also provide a source of the omega 3 fatty acid, Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), which is a useful for vegetarians as it can be converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the body, which help to promote good heart health.Although chia seeds contain a good source of ALA, the process of converting this into EPA and DHA in the body is very inefficient and so those who don’t eat oily fish may be better sourcing their omega 3 from a supplement (such as Healthspan, Veg-omega 3 1000mg, £15.95 for 60 capsules).

Verdict: Chia seeds contain a brilliant source of fibre and other nutrients including omega 3 but are better used as a sprinkle or smoothie addition rather than snack.  You should also try crushing before you use then to help release their nutrients during digestion.  Go easy though as they can cause stomach upset if you eat them in large quantities given their high fiber content. Sunflower seeds offer a much easier snack and topping option and can be eaten in a greater quantity, they’re also much less expensive than Chia seeds. Both offer great health benefits and can be used in different ways.

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