Technical Talk: Superfoods
Written by Dr. John Michaelides
This column is written by Dr. John Michaelides of the Guelph Food Technology Centre.
Question: What are superfoods and how can we use them in developing and marketing healthier bakery food products?
Answer: In response to the consumer’s increasing demand for healthy foods, food scientists and nutritionists are exploring various foods’ phytochemical and nutritional components in hopes of finding foods that contribute to the health and well-being of the consumer. Currently, researchers are examining relationships between specific food components and chronic diseases, foods that act as appetite suppressants to help curb the growing obesity issue, and foods that play a positive role in certain bodily functions, such as the digestive process.
The unique relationship between phytonutrient components and the reduction of chronic disease drives the search for foods rich in these nutrients further. Foods shown to contain higher amounts of useful phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other macronutrients such as protein and fibre have been coined “superfoods.” Science has been exploring this phenomenon for several years; however, the term was popularized three years ago when it was published in various mainstream books, like ophthalmologist Dr. Steven Pratt’s book Superfoods Rx. In his book he lists 14 nutrient-dense foods that he considers as superfoods. These include the following:
• Beans provide a source of protein as well as a means of controlling weight and blood sugar.
• Blueberries have high antioxidant activity and contribute to brain development.
• Broccoli contributes to cancer
• Oats assist in lowering cholesterol.
• Oranges are a great source of vitamin C.
• Pumpkin helps prevent sun damage to the skin.
• Wild salmon lowers the risk for cardiac-related death.
• Soy is a complete vegetarian protein source.
• Spinach helps prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.
• Black or green tea helps prevent heart disease and cancer.
• Tomatoes help prevent prostate cancer.
• Skinless turkey breast is a very lean meat protein source.
• Walnuts lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
• Yogurt boosts the immune system.
This list provides a very simplified description of the health benefits of these foods. Further research has been carried out for each of these to identify the nutritional and phytochemical composition that relates to establishing their health benefits and efficacy. There is no official definition for superfoods and what is considered a superfood varies according to the publisher. The list provided by Dr. Pratt’s book is based on research that identifies these foods as an integral part of healthy dietary patterns from around the world. Based on these patterns, research has shown that these foods prevent the onset of chronic diseases, contribute to well-being, and may extend the life span. New foods and drinks are continuously added to the list as more research substantiates health benefits that can be gained by consuming a particular food or drink. Additional foods commonly referred to as superfoods include avocado, dark chocolate, pomegranate, red wine, rice and even watermelon. Spices such as cinnamon and turmeric are also considered superfoods.
Incorporating these foods into our diet is simple: just eat them. However, when we try to incorporate them as ingredients, to increase the nutritional value of processed foods, we encounter challenges. Transferring the health and nutritional benefits through to the finished product is the greatest priority and poses a challenge as components may break down during processing. Another challenge is the physical incorporation of the particular ingredient may not be compatible with the finished food you’re producing. This limitation may require the beneficial component of the raw ingredient to be further isolated, changed or protected for easier incorporation. For example, we would not be able to incorporate a wild salmon into cookies; however, through new technologies in manufacturing of ingredients we may be able to incorporate microencapsulated omega-3 fish oil (DHA), one of the healthy compounds in salmon. Similarly, wine may not be a compatible ingredient in the manufacture of baked goods but with new innovations in ingredient development we are now able to incorporate the active health component of wine, resveratrol, into bread. This new ingredient is made from the skins of the grapes; skins in a new dried flour form are ideal for making specialty breads.
Many of these superfoods can be incorporated into a variety of baked goods without difficulty. Bean flour is a very useful ingredient when preparing breads and other baked goods as it has a low glycemic index and may also promote satiety. Oats and other grains, nuts (especially walnuts and almonds) and various fruits such as blue-berries are commonly incorporated into baked goods. Grains, in particular oats, contain soluble fibre (beta glucans), insoluble fibre and many other health-promoting phytochemicals. Most fruits contain high amounts of vitamins and antioxidants. Soy is another easy-to-incorporate superfood. Soy flours either in the whole or defatted form or soy protein concentrates and isolates are all readily available ingredients that can be incorporated into baked goods. A great variety of soy protein isolates are now available as replacements for animal protein ingredients such as eggs and milk. These can be used in the manufacture of baked goods such as bread, cakes and other sweet goods, which are ideal for the vegetarian consumer. By using these soy ingredients we provide the same health benefits while avoiding the use of animal products. We also may reduce the formulation cost as soy may be cheaper than high-cost ingredients like egg whites.
Superfoods are really meant to be consumed in their entirety. Incorporation of these superfoods as a whole in baked goods will be more desirable to the consumer than extracting nutrients and phytochemicals and incorporating them into foods. Some of these superfoods may be available as whole grain flours and fruit powders. These wholesome ingredients are normally carefully processed to maintain the activities of their health-promoting components.
When we include superfoods in the baked goods as whole, processed or by the way of isolated ingredients we always have to make sure that the health benefits will reach the consumer and are present and active for the entire shelf life of the product.
For more information, or fee for service help with product or process development needs, please contact the GFTC at 519-821 1246, by fax at 519-836-1281, or by e-mail at