Superfood or super fad?

Angst and debate about the merits, or otherwise, of what we eat is at an all-time high. Grass-fed or grain-fed? Vegetarian or vegan? Full-fat or low-fat? Now, there's an ever-expanding range of so-called superfoods to take into consideration. From goji and Inca berries to freekeh and quinoa, separating fact from fiction can be difficult. So, we've sought advice.

Chia seeds

Chia seeds, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, have received a lot of airplay in superfood circles. Gemma Flye, who owns Melbourne health food store Spelt Quinoa, is effusive about its benefits. ''It has eight times more omega-3 than salmon and three times more iron than spinach,'' she says. Flye sprinkles it on muesli and adds it to stir-fries.

Annalies Corse, a naturopath, medical scientist and lecturer at the Australian College of Natural Medicine, agrees but with one caveat: ''People don't consume enough for it to be of any great benefit, because they only sprinkle it. I would say you need one to two cups per week in your diet, long-term, to get the full benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids.''

Inca berries

The Inca berry is one of many superfoods to emerge from South America in recent years. They come semi-dried and Flye describes the taste as sour fig with a touch of sweetness. ''They are really moreish and tangy, with a lot of B vitamins,'' she says. ''I used them in my Christmas cake last year, or you can make them into a chutney to have with cheese.''

Corse agrees they have some benefits - ''over the long term they contribute to healthy cardiovascular and immune systems'' - but no more than blueberries. And to receive any real benefit you'll need to consume about four cups a week, she says.

Brazil nuts

Corse advocates eating six Brazil nuts a day as part of a rounded diet.

''It is probably one of the only reliable food sources of natural selenium, a very, very strong and powerful antioxidant,'' she says.

Flye appreciates them for their magnesium, fibre and vitamin-E content. ''You could pretty much survive on these,'' she says.

Corse says there is a ''very, very'' rare risk of selenium toxicity but it is far more likely to arise as a result of overdosing with supplements than eating too many nuts.

Pomegranate seeds

The tart-tasting, bright-pink seeds make an attractive addition to salads and meat dishes. Corse loves them for their high vitamin-C content and fatty acids, which help keep our immune systems healthy. She says: ''One pomegranate a week would be great to add to the diet, especially during flu season in winter.''

Samantha Gowing, a nutritionist and therapeutic chef, suggests eating them with fish or chicken, ''or in salads where you want a citrus flavour''.

Amaranth

''This is a good superfood if you are coeliac, vegetarian or enjoy grain-based meals,'' Corse says of the grain once a staple of the Aztecs. It has a texture similar to rice or maize, and ''it's high in protein, a good source of complex B vitamins and has a lot of different amino acids normally found in meat that vegetarians need in their diet. It's also gluten-free.''

Flye likes to make porridge from it and says it's great mixed with almond milk and coconut sugar.

Umeboshi plums

Gowing says this ''horrendously salty'' dried fruit is considered ''grounding'' in Eastern medicine. She says it can help relieve the symptoms of a hangover. ''Just a lick of it can calm you down as opposed to eating dim sims or Chiko rolls.'' She advises buying umeboshi paste to use in salad dressings.

Corse says one a week helps keep your immune system strong, particularly in the flu season, due to its natural antibiotic properties.

Maqui berry

Flye lauds Chile's maqui berry for both its health properties and its taste.

''It is very similar to acai but it tastes better,'' she says of the berry known for powerful detoxifying and antioxidant properties. It comes in a powdered form that Flye likes to add to yoghurt for a slightly sweet, fluorescent-purple treat.

Corse is less impressed: ''Again, like the Inca berry, this is a fruit with properties present in most berries, though perhaps to a slightly higher degree.'' She says those keen to try it should ensure consumption of three to four serves a week.

Freekeh

This cereal, made from roasted green wheat, is popular in the Middle East and North Africa. It has a delicious nutty taste, Gowing says. ''The CSIRO supports it and says it helps to manage diabetes because of its fibre content, along with helping maintain colonic health,'' she says.

Corse agrees, saying there is benefit to eating it once a week to increase fibre intake. But she warns: ''Some people think it's gluten-free but it still contains some gluten.''

Quinoa

Flye sources her quinoa from Bolivia and singles it out for its iron, calcium and protein content. ''I use it as a substitute for rice or cous cous,'' she says. ''Give it a light rinse and then cook four or five parts water to one part quinoa and simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain it and leave it to stand with a tea towel on top.'' It's delicious as the base for a roast vegetable salad.

Corse concurs, with one warning: ''I would advise eating sporadically or very occasionally because it contains little plant chemicals called saponins, which can irritate the intestines in some people.''

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