We're often fed news about superfoods and superherbs -- and
it's tempting to want to believe everything we're told. Some
superfood claims are backed by scientific studies, while other
enticing claims turn certain foods into fads, though the foods
have few proven benefits. We looked at the studies of 10 pantry
picks and give you the real goods about their disease-fighting
Rhubarb is frequently regarded as a fruit (based on how we
eat it), but botanically it is a vegetable belonging to the
same family as sorrel and buckwheat. Championed for its phytochemical
lindleyin, this nutritional all-star makes the cut for its
potential role in relieving hot flashes in perimenopausal
women. How the plant cools hot flashes is not exactly clear.
Researchers have identified an extract in the root that may
have estrogen-like properties. Need another reason to eat
rhubarb? The plant is rich in potassium, vitamin C and dietary
Dietary uses: Canadian-grown rhubarb is available
from February to July in most grocery stores but is most flavourful
in the spring. Rhubarb is commonly eaten cooked in jams or
spreads; baked in pies, cakes and muffins; and used
in sorbet, ice cream and punch. Further studies are needed
to determine the safety of medicinal amounts of the extract
-- in concentrated pill form it may cause stomach cramps and
mineral and electrolyte imbalances. Rhubarb root should not
be consumed by children, or women who are pregnant or lactating.
2. Pumpkin seeds
This versatile seed, also known as pepitas, has long been
treasured by American aboriginal peoples for its dietary and
medicinal properties. Now these seeds are receiving the superfood
attention they deserve. Of all the nuts and seeds typically
consumed as snacks, pumpkin seeds are among the leaders of
phytosterols -- a naturally occurring compound with an established
reputation for cholesterol-lowering properties. Phytosterols
are also being studied for their potential role in prostate
health. Each 1/4 cup (50 millilitre) serving of the seed provides
a healthy dose of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is a
good source of minerals, including phosphorus, magnesium,
zinc and iron, making it one of the most nutritious and flavourful
Dietary uses: Pumpkin seeds are available year-round
from grocery stores but are freshest in the fall when pumpkins
are in season. They make a good snack, either on their own
or mixed with walnuts, almonds, peanuts and dried fruit. High
in fibre, they lend crunch and nutty flavour to salads,
vegetables, pasta dishes, sauces and casseroles. But watch
your portion size; one cup (250 milliltres) packs 750 calories.
3. Goji berries
Hailed as the newest superfood, goji, a Himalayan berry, has
inspired a surge of interest for its use in treating diabetes,
hypertension, malaria, fever, cancer and other ailments. Gram
for gram, goji berries pack more vitamin C than some oranges
and more beta-carotene than carrots. Unfortunately, though,
there isn't enough evidence yet to confirm the health claims,
since we only have testimonials and animal studies to go by.
And goji berries and goji juice are costly.
Dietary uses: Goji berries are similar in taste to
raisins but more tart. They can be eaten raw or cooked and
are a tasty addition to tea, soup and hot cereal.
Valued in ancient times as currency and once considered more
precious than gold, cinnamon -- one of the world's oldest
known spices -- has made the pilgrimage from spice rack to
science lab. Preliminary studies are investigating its role
in lowering blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, most
likely due to the insulin-like effects of its polyphenols
(natural substances found in plants). It's still too early
to know if cinnamon can help curb blood sugars, but with studies
suggesting its effects can be seen with a daily dose of just
half a teaspoon (two millilitres), it's worth keeping this
spice in mind when reaching into the spice cabinet.
Dietary uses: Cinnamon (the inner bark of the tropical
cinnamon tree) comes in the form of sticks and powder. Sprinkle
it on toast, add it to oatmeal or use it on desserts. Make
cinnamon tea by pouring one to two cups (250 to 500 millilitres)
of boiling water over one- to 1-1/2-inch sticks; steep for
10 minutes. Caution: Ingesting four tablespoons (60 mL) of
cinnamon oil has been linked to serious side-effects.
Regarded as a sacred food by the Incas, quinoa (pronounced
keen-wah) provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
This supergrain seed contains more protein than most cereal
grains (22 grams per one cup/250 millilitres uncooked quinoa)
and is considered a complete protein because it contains all
eight of the essential amino acids we need for tissue development.
Quinoa is higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium,
iron, copper, manganese, and zinc, and lower in sodium compared
with wheat, barley and corn. This gluten-free grain also receives
an honourable mention for being low in saturated fat (one
gram of fat per one cup/250 millilitres uncooked quinoa).
Dietary uses: Quinoa can be substituted for most hot
cereals and is a good replacement for rice. Cook it like porridge,
include it in casseroles or stews, or add it (steamed, toasted
or baked) to soups, salads or desserts. You can also use ground
quinoa in breads, cookies, puddings, muffins and pasta. It's
available in most grocery and health food stores.
Traditionally, psyllium is renowned as a laxative, since it
absorbs water and swells as it moves through the digestive
tract. But this all-star soluble fibre has many health benefits:
lowering LDL, or "bad," cholesterol, helping control diabetes
(it reduces the post-meal rise in blood sugar) and aiding
in controlling appetite and weight (it makes you feel full
longer). Since psyllium is a concentrated source of soluble
fibre (with eight times more soluble fibre than oat bran),
it's easy to eat enough of it during the day to enjoy its
potential health benefits.
Dietary uses: Just 1/3 cup (75 millilitres) of Bran
Buds with Psyllium, available at most grocery stores, provides
12 grams of fibre (almost half of our daily fibre needs).
Caution: Incorporate psyllium and other high-fibre foods into
your diet slowly to avoid abdominal pain and bloating, and
drink plenty of water to avoid constipation.
This vegetable deserves an award thanks to its active ingredient:
fructo-oligosaccharides, a prebiotic that some researchers
have chosen as the hottest in food and nutrition research.
Prebiotics take centre stage for their potential to promote
gut health by encouraging the growth and function of "good
bacteria" that live in our digestive tract.
Emerging research is also revealing an important supporting
role for flavonoids, antioxidants that are abundant in shallots.
Preliminary research is investigating flavonoids for their
preventive role in cancer and heart disease, but further research
is still needed to support these potential benefits.
Dietary uses: Shallots are more subtle in flavour
than their cousins, the onion and garlic, and they do not
cause bad breath. Eat them raw or cooked till tender. Add
shallots to soups, stews, spreads and stir-fries.
8. Milk thistle
Best known as a liver tonic, the power ingredient in milk
thistle is silymarin, which may have protective effects on
the liver, due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Differences in research design -- variations in the type and
extent of liver disease, and dose and duration of milk-thistle
therapy -- make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions
on the effectiveness of this herb.
Dietary uses: Milk thistle is available at drugstores
and health food stores; take as directed.
Curcumin -- the active ingredient of the Indian curry spice
turmeric -- may ease aches and inflammation. In Ayurveda (the
traditional medicine of India), this herb has been used for
thousands of years to treat arthritis and other ailments.
Some research suggests that turmeric may help relieve some
symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis; however, the evidence to
date, while encouraging, is still far from conclusive.
Dietary uses: Turmeric is sometimes substituted for
saffron. Use in Indian curries or dishes such as chicken tangine
and chicken tandoori.
10. Borage oil
Borage oil, which is produced from the borage seed, has made
the nutritional spotlight for its high content of gamma-linolenic
acid -- an omega-6 essential fatty acid with anti-inflammatory
properties. Evidence suggests that specialty formulas that
contain borage oil may reduce inflammation of the lung in
critically ill, hospitalized patients with respiratory distress.
Dietary uses: Borage oil is a component of Oxepa --
a specialty formula used in the critical-care unit to reduce
lung inflammation. In concentrated (oil) form, borage can
cause liver toxicity; pregnant women and nursing mothers should
avoid using borage oil. The medicinal plant can be eaten raw
or cooked. Use fresh borage leaves to add flavour to cream
cheese and vinaigrettes.