You won’t need a passport to try out these global superfoods—all now readily available in your local health food store and markets. Find out what makes these foods so “super” and where they began their journeys.
All over the world and over thousands of years, traditional diets and medicinal remedies have evolved from indigenous people and their use of native plants that we now call superfoods. Each superfood has a unique history dating much farther back than its “discovery” by Western companies.
History: Originating in China, goji berries (also called wolfberries) have been used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine for longevity. According to legend, goji berries helped one herbalist live to the ripe age of 252 years.
Modern use: While the legend may not be easy to prove, recent research does show that goji may help boost immunity and relieve hypertension. The antioxidant-packed berries may also have antitumour and liver-protecting properties.
Try it: Today goji is popular as a dietary supplement found at most natural health retailers and can also be used in herbal teas, juices, and wines.
History: Sacha inchi seeds are relative newcomers to the North American market. Also referred to as the “Inca peanut,” the seeds have been traditionally used as food in their native Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.
Modern use: Research on sacha inchi seeds concludes that their high levels of healthy omega-3 and -6 fats may lower levels of harmful cholesterol (LDL) and raise levels of healthy cholesterol (HDL). They’re also a complete protein containing all essential amino acids.
Try it: Sacha inchi can be found as whole seeds that look a little like peanuts, powders, or oils.
History: Originating in South America, quinoa is a gluten-free seed and complete protein referred to as “the mother of all grains.” The Andean people have farmed quinoa for thousands of years.
Modern use: Recent animal studies suggest that antioxidant-rich quinoa has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anticancer, and antidepressant effects and may also help to ward off obesity. It’s a valuable high-fibre protein source, especially for vegans and those on gluten-free diets.
Try it: Today, quinoa is widely available in white, black, and red varieties, and can be eaten in place of rice or pasta.
History: The use of turmeric dates back 4,000 years as a staple in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine.
Modern use: Continuing, and wide-ranging research suggests that this bright yellow spice may help prevent and even offer therapeutic benefits for certain types of cancer, treat gastrointestinal concerns, protect against pancreatitis, and reduce osteoarthritis inflammation. Its active ingredient, curcumin, acts as a potent antioxidant.
Try it: Turmeric is commonplace today as a spice (fresh as a root or dried) and its active ingredient curcumin is continuing to grow in popularity as a supplement.
History: There is good reason this dark purple berry from the acai palm tree, has been traditionally used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region for food and medicine.
Modern use: Research has found acai to possess potential anti-inflammatory properties, as well as high amounts of essential fatty acids, protein, and antioxidants.
Try it: Health food stores carry acai in pill, powder, and juice form.
History: Cacao, the raw material of chocolate, has been used for more than 3,000 years in Mesoamerica. Ancient Mayan texts describe cacao as a gift from the gods, and it was mixed with spices to make a hot beverage. It has also reportedly been used in ancient sacrificial rituals.
Modern use: Thankfully, cacao has been shown to be beneficial even without sacrifices, boasting high amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols, healthy fats, and minerals. Plus its flavonoids may protect against cardiovascular disease.
Try it: Not all chocolate is created equal, warns Gemma Chater, a registered holistic nutritionist based in Coquitlam, BC. Choose dark chocolate made with as few ingredients as possible and look for the percentage of cacao listed on the wrapper: ideally 70 percent or higher.
Tip: A great way to incorporate cacao into your diet is by adding pure cacao nibs to your granola for breakfast (and get inspired by our delicious granola recipes).
Sadly, in the midst of a product’s mass production, workers’ wages and working conditions can be overlooked. The cacao industry, for instance, has often been thrust into the spotlight for child labour issues and hazardous working conditions.
Choosing a product with a Fair Trade certification guarantees safe working conditions, just wages, and sustainable practices. When purchasing superfoods grown overseas, choose Fair Trade certified options from your local health food store whenever possible.
History: Although chia was a food staple in pre-Columbian Mexico and South America, many North Americans have only encountered it as the seeds for the kids’ toy Chia Pet.
Modern use: Lately, chia has experienced a revival in health food stores due to its impressive omega-3, fibre, and protein content. Chia, because of its high fibre content, also slows digestion and helps to balance blood sugar levels.
Try it: Chia seeds can be used to top your yogurt, blend into smoothies, mix into bread dough, or toss into muffin or pancake batter. Chia can also be a handy vegan egg replacement (combine 1 Tbsp/15 mL chia seeds with 3 Tbsp/45 mL water and let sit for 5 minutes to thicken).
History: Likely originating in Central Asia, hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years. Although industrial hemp does not produce hallucinogenic effects, it has long been confused with marijuana.
Modern use: Hemp heart’s essential fatty acid profile (omega-3 and -6 and stearidonic and gamma linoleic acids) help fight inflammation and protect the heart and immune system. Hemp hearts may also help skin conditions and normalize cholesterol levels, and its antioxidant effects may prove beneficial for those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Try it: Hemp can be found in oils or as hemp hearts at natural health stores. Because of its high protein content, hemp is valuable in vegan diets.
History: Salmon, one of our country’s superfoods (see sidebar below for more local superfood celebrities), is used as a diet and ceremonial staple by Canada’s Indigenous people, and according to Chater, is “one of the healthiest foods you can eat.”
Modern use: Along with its high omega-3 content, salmon is an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation promotes salmon as a heart-healthy option, and Canada’s Food Guide recommends two servings of fish every week. Chater adds that salmon is among the seafood with “the lowest amounts of contaminants (such as mercury).”
Try it: Fresh, smoked, and canned salmon can be enjoyed in so many delicious ways. Check out the Recipe section of alive.com for lots of unique and healthy options. Many fish oil supplement options are also available at your natural health store.
Extra-virgin olive oil
History: The Mediterranean’s famed olive oil is widely available and well known for its essential fatty acid and antioxidant content, making it an essential part of the Mediterranean diet.
Modern use: Evidence suggests that olive oil’s oleic acid may be responsible for its association with lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, and its possible benefits for people with type 2 diabetes.
Try it: Look for extra-virgin olive oil, extracted using natural methods and higher in phenolic antioxidants that give olive oil its heart-healthy benefits.