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Foreign foods may enhance health

by Doris Penner

            Over the last two decades the public has had increasingly more access to foods shipped to Canada from around the world. Often these are foods that can’t be raised during our short summers including fruits and vegetables such as pineapple, mango, sweet potatoes and avocados and many types of seafood. These foods add variety to meals or widen culinary horizons.

            More recently, fascination has been sparked by more unusual foods from different parts of the world, said to contain superior health benefits. In fact, because they are nutrient-dense—packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients—they are often called “superfoods.” Examples are goji and acai berries, maca (a root), ancient grains like quinoa, spelt and amaranth, chia seeds and coconut. Do these foods live up to their purported benefits? Should we make a special effort to include them in our diets seeing they are not naturally aligned with Canadian diets and may not be easy to find?

            Coconut is so common in Canadian cuisine that it is hardly considered a “foreign” food. Many Canadians would enjoy life less if there were no coconut cream pie wedges or coconut macaroons to drool over. However, shredded coconut is ingested not so much for nutritious reasons but rather because of flavour and texture. In the 1990s, in fact, coconut oil was seen as decidedly unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content.

Has antibacterial properties

            In recent years, coconut oil has been marketed as containing a variety of health benefits. Studies have shown that the saturated fats found in coconut oil are quite different from saturated fats found in animal products. They are composed of medium-chain triglycerides including lauric acid which is thought to have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Several case studies have indicated that the same fatty acids can be converted to ketones which may become a source of fuel for the brain, thus improving memory—especially beneficial when individuals struggle with issues such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. It should be noted that more research on human subjects needs to be performed to conclusively prove these benefits.

            Coconut oil (solid at room temperature) may be substituted for butter or margarine in baking, and used to sauté vegetables. Coconut butter (pulverized coconut meat), which contains small amounts of iron, potassium and fibre, may be used as a spread or frosting while coconut milk and cream may be used like regular milk.

            More unknown are chia seeds, a source of omega-3 fatty acids in a healthy balance with omega-6 fatty acids which helps lower the risk of heart disease. In addition, the seeds are high in fibre which aids the movement of food through the digestive system, lowering the risk of colon cancer. Chia seeds have been suggested as a weight loss tool since the seeds swell in the stomach to give a feeling of fullness. The seeds may be thrown into baked goods, sprinkled over breakfast cereals, yogurt or salads.


Excellent source of vitamin A

            Goji berries have been named a “superfood” because of their positive nutrient profile. They are an excellent source of vitamin A (beta carotene) and a good source of vitamins C and E, as well as several B vitamins. These vitamins have various important functions in the body, one of which is to enhance the immune system. In addition, goji berries contain several polysaccharides which modulate immunity and reduce inflammation. The berries may be purchased in the dried form and added to salads, desserts, granola and smoothies. The berries are also available in powder form to mix into juices.

            A lesser known nutrient-dense food which you may wish to check out is maca—a root vegetable native to Peru. While it is packed with vitamins and essential minerals which have various metabolic functions, it is of special interest because of its effects on the glands of the endocrine system including adrenal balancing, regulation of sexual functions and fertility, mitigating depression (and other functions of the central nervous system) and regulating menopause. The most practical way for Canadians to access the root is to purchase maca powder which can be incorporated into many foods. A little goes a long way.

            It should be noted that no food—superfood or not—is a magical cure or will lead to perfect health. Just because ancient people used certain foods and herbs for cures doesn’t necessarily mean they are foods to included in everyday diets—in fact, moderation is encouraged. People of times past showed a lot of ingenuity in their hunt for edible plants, using leaves and roots for nourishment and medicine. Canadians have plenty of home-grown foods at their disposal for a healthy diet, although it is good to be aware of foods from around the world and use them to enhance our diets.