Bizarre berries, mystical mushrooms, strange grains: Are they the answer to better health?
Americans are adventurous eaters, and always have been. “In fact, many of the foods we eat every day, like tomatoes and potatoes, are adoptees from some distant land and were once considered exotic,” says Chris Kilham, an ethnobotanist better known as “The Medicine Hunter.” These days, some of these new foods are being marketed for their purported health benefits. Here are some Kilham considers worth sampling.
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Maqui. A deep purple berry that grows wild in southern Chili, maqui tastes like a cross between a blueberry and a black raspberry. Its purple pigments, called anthocyanidins, help to reduce your risk for heart disease, colon cancer and other diseases. One anthocyanin, delphinidins, also found in violas, delphiniums and Concord grapes, helps to reduce blood sugar, and so maqui may prove useful for people with diabetes. Maqui berries are sold in the U.S. as juice or as freeze-dried powder that you can add to juice or smoothies.
Goldenberry. Also known as the Cape Gooseberry, goldenberry is a sweet relative of the tomato. Grown in the Andes for thousands of years, it’s now also cultivated in Hawaii and California. Goldenberries offer anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids, along with good amounts of vitamin C, cancer-fighting carotenoids, pectin (a soluble fiber that can help reduce cholesterol) and potassium, a blood pressure-lowering mineral. They’re sold in the U.S. dried, which concentrates their sweetness. Eat them straight, or use them like any dried berry.
Kamut. This heirloom variety of wheat has a rich, nutty, buttery taste and more protein, fat, vitamins and minerals than common wheat. It also has less gluten and seems to be easier on the GI tract, but should still be avoid by people with celiac disease. Kamut is available as whole kernels, flour, cereal, pasta and other products that use flour.
Aroniaberry. This small red, purple or black berry with a mouth-puckering taste grows wild in the U.S. The black variety, in particular, has attracted scientific interest because it has the highest concentration of anthocyanins found in any plant to date. It is also high in vitamin C. Aroniaberry is sold as a sweetened juice concentrate and added to products such as gummy chews. It is also used to make jellies, wine, tea and tinctures. This is a berry that will also most likely end up in nutritional supplements as its talents become better known.
Black rice. Brown rice may be a healthier choice than white, but black rice trumps them both. Also called “forbidden rice,” as it was once reserved only for the plates of Chinese emperors, black rice is actually a deep purple and contains more antioxidant anthocyanidins per serving than blueberries. Its current cost–$15 to $20 a pound–may limit acceptance in the U.S. of this nutty, chewy rice.
Chia seeds. The same small grey seeds used to grow chia “pets” really are useful for stabilizing blood sugar and filling you up so you eat less and lose weight. That’s because they contain a unique soluble fiber that gels up (like psyllium–Metamucil) when you add water. Chia is also loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fats, protein and vitamins and minerals. Look for chia seeds whole or micro-sliced in health food stores.
Cacao Nibs. Want a chocolate mood boost without the sugar? Try cacao nibs, the smashed seeds (called beans) that are used to make chocolate. Their nutritional value include stellar amounts of fiber, antioxidants and magnesium that give chocolate its well-desired reputation as a health food. Research shows that chocolate really does boost blood flow to the brain and heart. The nibs’ one downside: their bitter taste.
Maitake mushrooms. This equally delicious cousin of shiitake mushrooms has such immune-stimulating properties talent that a cancer drug, PSK (crestin) has been developed from one of its compounds, beta-2, 4-glucan. Look for fresh or dried maitake mushrooms (also called Turkey Tails) in the produce section of supermarkets.