We aren’t saying there’s something grossly wrong with falling back on key healthy staples like chickpeas and brown rice, but if you can recite your daily menu by heart it might be time for a grocery cart shake-up. Not only to awaken your taste buds but to also help you load up on all key nutrients necessary for optimal health. Researchers at Harvard and New York University determined that people who consumed a greater variety of healthy foods tended to have less body fat and were at lower risk for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of concerns such as high blood pressure and cholesterol associated with disease progression, than those who were more limiting in what they ate. As the old saying goes “variety is the spice of life.” So to add some sass to your 2021 diet here are the unfamiliar plant-based foods you should put on your shopping hit list and sneak into your culinary repertoire more often.
Think of these crunchy gems as dark chocolate’s lesser processed and even healthier brethren. Following harvest, cacao beans are pulled out of their plant pods, fermented, and then dried. Cacao nibs are simply crushed dark bits of those raw cacao beans. (Note: further processing turns raw cacao nibs into cacao paste, butter, and powder for use in chocolate products including bars.) That means they contain all the nutritional benefits of chocolate minus the troublesome added sugars. Small but mighty, nutritional highlights include plenty of satiating fiber (a whopping 9 grams in a 1-ounce serving), along with healthy amounts of magnesium and heart-benefiting flavonoid antioxidants – ounce-for-ounce more than dark chocolate bars. Chocolate consumption at least once per week may reduce the risk of coronary artery disease by 8%, researchers reported in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Yes, cacao nibs contain saturated fat, but this is mostly in the form of stearic acid which does not appear to negatively impact heart health in the way the saturated fat present in meats does. You can purchase cacao nibs from brands like Navitas Organics online, and they are also available from many natural food shops.
How to use cacao nibs: Nutritious cacao nibs add an intense bitter chocolate flavor and a nice crunch to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothie bowls, puddings, ice-cream, and even leafy green salads. The nibs make a fanciful addition to homemade granola, energy balls, and trail mix. After spreading your favorite nut or seed butter on toast scatter on some of these dark nuggets. Or try them as a crunchy alternative to chocolate chips in cookies. You can even grind nibs with your coffee beans for a brew with chocolate tasting notes. Toasting raw nibs in a dry skillet before use can tame some of the bitterness and give them a little nuttiness.
Also known as Forbidden Rice, because legend has it that it was forbidden for anyone other than the upper-class of ancient China to eat it, this non-waxy medium-grain heirloom variety of rice has a deep purple (almost black) color, sweeter taste than brown rice, and a praise-worthy chewy texture. Black rice contains roughly the same number of calories as other varieties of rice, but its dark bran layer harbors higher levels of anthocyanin antioxidants, the same type you’d get from eggplant, blueberries, and blackberries. By helping mop up cell-damaging free radicals in the body and decreasing inflammation, it’s thought that higher intakes of anthoycanins can lessen the risk for certain health conditions like cancer and cognitive decline. Black rice also contains a bit more fiber, iron, and protein than regular brown rice. It’s always sold whole, so adding black rice to your diet is a way to boost your intake of whole grains. Not to be confused with black japonica rice or glutinous black sticky rice, Chinese black rice is available all year long from grocers and online outlets including Lotus Foods. Its low yield means that black rice is still rarer than other types of rice.
How to use black rice: To prepare black rice, simmer 1 cup grains in 2 cups water until tender and then drain any excess liquid. Use cooked black rice in stir-fry’s, tacos, soups, salads and grain bowls that will have Insta-appeal. Or simply use it as a base for pan-seared tofu. Its inherent sweetness allows the rice to also serve as a dessert pudding or a breakfast alternative to oatmeal. Try placing black rice in a bowl with warmed coconut milk and top with sliced mango and chopped pistachios.
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Perhaps it’s time to go nuts for a different creamy spread. Made by grinding up the seeds of the sun-worshiping plant, sunflower butter has a consistency and flavor remarkably similar to that of good-old peanut butter. On top of providing up to 7 grams of plant-based protein in a 2 tablespoon serving (that is on par with peanut butter), sunflower butter is a good source of heart-benefiting unsaturated fats, vitamin E, and magnesium – a benevolent mineral linked to a lower risk for heart disease and, most recently, liver cancer. Sadly, dietary surveys suggest very few people eat enough magnesium making the inclusion of food sources like sunflower butter oh-so-important. It’s also a great option for families dealing with tree nut or peanut allergies. And if you’re concerned about rising food prices, rest easy knowing that sunflower butter tends to be a more economical choice than options like almond butter. If you are watching your sugar intake select jars that don’t include any added sweeteners in the ingredient list. There are now several varieties of sunflower butter available on store shelves and online including Wild Friends, Sunbutter, and Trader Joe’s.
How to use sunflower butter: Of course, you can slather it on your morning toast, but also try sunflower butter in smoothies, sauces and dressings, and homemade energy foods like bars and balls. Stir it into oatmeal and pair with apple slices or celery. Basically, anywhere peanut or almond butter goes so to can the sunflower variety.
This verdant oil is made by cold-pressing the fat from hemp seeds and its earthy-nutty flavor is a nice switch-up from olive oil. Its main nutritional virtue is a desirable ratio of the essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids of 3-to-1. These fats are deemed essential because we must obtain them for our diets for good heart, skin, and brain health. Many cheap vegetable oils have a much higher omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio which can promote inflammation in the body over time and may spiral into certain health woes. Alpha-linolenic acid, the main omega-3 fat in hemp, has been linked with reduced risk for developing heart disease. As a bonus, hemp oil supplies vitamin E, a nutrient that behaves like an antioxidant and may help lower the chances of cognitive decline as we age. Make note that hemp oil sold for culinary purposes contains virtually no THC or CBD. You’ll find hemp oil among other oils in the health food section of supermarkets, in shops geared towards natural foods and online from a few brands including Nutiva and Humminghemp
How to use hemp oil: Hold the heat. Hemp oil is too delicate for cooking purposes, so try it instead in vinaigrettes, pestos and dips. Drizzle it over roasted vegetables or a bowl of pureed soup. Be fresh obsessed and store an opened bottle of hemp oil in the refrigerator to extend its shelf-life.
Related: Plant-Powered Brain Health
When most people think about beans, what comes to mind are the go-to classics: kidney beans, black beans, garbanzos, and so on. But you should know there are countless other varieties worth exploring including adzuki. These small reddish-brown legumes hailing from East Asia have a naturally sweet, nutty flavor making them less “earthy” tasting than other beans. Adzuki, azuki or aduki: No matter how you pronounce them these beans offer a nutritional payload including a range of must-have minerals, plenty of plant-based protein and a stunning 14 grams of fiber in each cooked cup serving. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving more than 100,000 individuals determined that higher intakes of dietary fiber was associated with a lower chance for pre-mature death from maladies like cancer and heart disease. While a report in the Journal of Nutrition determined the diversifying our intake of plant proteins like aduzki beans is a key step towards reaping the full nutrition and health benefits of a diet that focuses on foods from the plant kingdom. Sample this oft-overlooked bean and you’ll also take in good amounts of folate, a B vitamin associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes.
How to use aduzki beans: As with other beans, use them in soups, stews, and chili. Use instead of chickpeas for a riff on hummus. They are also great as a main player in veggie burgers and tacos. And you definitely should Google ‘aduzki brownies’. Like other beans, adzuki’s are available in both dry and canned form.