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Indian gooseberry: This is a rich source of vitamin C, an important antioxidant.
Indian gooseberry: This is a rich source of vitamin C, an important antioxidant.

Superfoods in our backyard

Instead of splurging on expensive food items like blueberries, incorporate local, easy-on-the-pocket wonders in your diet

The words “superfoods" and “antioxidants" have been driven sufficiently into our brains and conscience. We’re even led to believe that the more expensive it is, the more difficult it is to get and the greater the distance it travels, the better the superfood. Think blueberries, quinoa, salmon, acai berries or adzuki beans.

But that’s not necessarily true. With the immense variety of foods found in India, it is presumptuous to think that we wouldn’t have a large number of such superfoods in our own backyard—and you wouldn’t even have to break the bank for them.

So what exactly is a superfood? There is no definition for this term, thereby allowing for its rampant use by food marketing agencies to make most foods appealing to the health conscious. Loosely defined, superfoods are foods rich in antioxidants such as phytochemicals (substances occurring naturally in plants that are responsible for their colour, taste, smell, texture) and are supposed to confer remarkable health benefits. In short, they are nutrient-dense foods, providing more nutrients per calorie than most other foods.

Here’s a list of superfoods that are available easily, grown locally, and inexpensive.

Indian gooseberry (‘amla’)

As mentioned in the book Healing Through Natural Foods by H.K. Bakhru, repeated lab tests on the Indian gooseberry in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, have shown that every 100g of this fresh fruit provides 470-680mg of vitamin C. Vitamin C offers protection against asthma, bronchitis, cataract, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), angina (chest pain due to the hardening of coronary arteries) and cancer of all types. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant which has been shown to regenerate other antioxidants like vitamin E.

The total antioxidant content of more than 3,100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide, published in the Nutrition Journal (“The Antioxidant Food Table", Carlsen, et al., 2010), lists the Indian gooseberry with an antioxidant score of 261.53 millimoles (mmol)/100g. Compare this with the antioxidant score of 9.24 for blueberries. Smokers who need to consume more vitamin C than non-smokers could do with the extra boost from amla.

Use it: An ounce of fresh amla juice diluted with water and if required, sweetened with a teaspoon of honey, makes for an excellent tonic in the morning, especially when it’s in season. Amla can be preserved in turmeric-infused brine or sun-dried, and its superfood properties can be enjoyed through the year.

Tamarind (‘imli’)

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Tamarind: It’s a good source of minerals like iron, selenium, potassium and copper.

Almost every part of the tamarind tree—the stem, bark, leaves—has been used in herbal medicine. Tamarind is a good source of minerals like iron, selenium, potassium and copper. The “carb-blocking" effects of tamarind in checking diabetes and weight loss, while proven, are still being studied.

Use it: Tamarind extract works well in curries and gravies as a replacement for tomato purée. The tamarind date chutney used in chaats is a rich source of iron and other nutrients.

Guava (‘amrood’)

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Guava: Pink guavas are rich in lycopene and vitamin A.

A 100g or medium-sized guava contains around 260mg vitamin C (the recommended intake is 75-90mg per day) and 8.5g of dietary fibre (the recommended intake is 25-30g per day). Guava is also rich in carotenoids and potassium. The antioxidant property of guava was found to be 496mg/100g, the highest among all the tested fruits. The pink guavas are rich in lycopene and vitamin A; the latter plays an important role in maintaining healthy skin and mucous membranes. Consumption of foods naturally rich in vitamin A is known to protect against lung and mouth cancers.

Use it: Guava can be cut into wedges and had as it is with a sprinkle of salt and red chilli powder or just chaat masala. It can also be cooked in curries or used in salads. For amrood subzi, temper cumin seeds and asafoetida (hing) in oil. Add chopped ginger, green chillies, turmeric powder, red chilli powder, coriander powder, salt to taste, and chopped tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes soften, add the chopped guavas and some water, and cover and cook till the guava is soft but not mushy. Finish with lemon juice, garam masala powder and fresh coriander leaves.

Sweet potato (‘shakarkandi’)

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Sweet potato: It’s low in calories, high in vitamin A and rich in fibre.

One might think that due to their sweet taste and carbohydrate-rich status, they are not good for diabetics, but the high vitamin A level actually exerts a positive effect on insulin and blood sugar, explains Delia Quigley in her 2008 book, The Everything Superfoods Book. “High homocysteine levels are associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamin B6, which is required to convert homocysteine into other benign molecules."

Use it: In dry south Indian style curries, oven-roasted with herbs and olive oil, or mashed and used in muffins and other bakes—these are all great ways to eat more of this nutritious vegetable. They are also used in some Bengali and Assamese sweet dishes.

Clarified butter (‘ghee’)

Ghee: It has linoleic acid, a potent antioxidant.
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Ghee: It has linoleic acid, a potent antioxidant.

Ghee contains an essential fatty acid called linoleic acid. Research has shown that linoleic acid is a potent antioxidant. A 2010 study in the journal Lipids in Health And Disease, titled Linoleic Acid Suppresses Colorectal Cancer Cell Growth by Inducing Oxidant Stress And Mitochondrial Dysfunction, showed the effects of linoleic acid on cancer cells. It was found that linoleic acid targeted the mitochondria in cancer cells, disrupting their function and eventually killing them, thereby proving that it improved the cells’ oxidant status.

Make ghee at home by bringing unsalted butter to a simmer and skimming out all the milk solids in the end. This process takes just around 15 minutes. Ghee made this way is free of adulterants and will stay good at room temperature indefinitely without turning rancid.

Use it: Overall fat consumption per person must be restricted to 10-15g/day, so roughly 2 tsp of melted ghee per day, 1 tsp with dal and rice, and 1 tsp on top of rotis or used for parathas. Ghee has 25% more medium- and short-chain fats than butter, and is therefore healthier than butter.

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