News about the latest superfood discoveries is everywhere. Exotic edibles grab attention for their nutritional brawn—overshadowing everyday provisions that lack the headline pull of a rain forest fruit or an omega-3-rich seed.
But many forgotten foods turn out to have huge potential, says Woodland Hills, Calif.-based nutritionist Jonny Bowden, PhD, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: "There happen to be a number of foods right under our noses that we tend to ignore but are surprisingly rich in nutrients."
9 Everyday Foods That Deserve a Second Look
1. White Potatoes Branded public enemy No. 1 during the low-carb diet craze and recently removed from the USDA list of subsidized foods for low-income programs, spuds suffer from their association with high-fat, high-calorie French fries and potato chips. "It's unfortunate that many people are scared of potatoes," says Diane Henderiks, RD, aka Dietitian in the Kitchen. Starchy potatoes, especially the russet variety, rate high on the glycemic index (GI)—meaning they tend to raise blood sugar quickly, "but if you eat them at a meal with some protein or healthy fat to slow digestion, their GI drops," she explains. "Nutritionally speaking, potatoes are a fat-free source of many key nutrients, including fiber, iron, vitamin B6, vitamin C, magnesium, and particularly potassium." Researchers in the United Kingdom have discovered that white potatoes contain molecules called kukoamines, believed to help reduce blood pressure levels. For maximum health benefit, leave the peeler in the drawer. "The skin is where a good chunk of the fiber is, so just give them a good scrub," advises Henderiks. "And use cooking methods such as roasting, baking, and steaming rather than boiling, which causes leaching of nutrients into the water."
2. Button Mushrooms Compared to their more exotic (and expensive!) counterparts, white button mushrooms don't get the credit they deserve. "Like other mushrooms, buttons are abundant in beta-glucan polysaccharides, which likely help lower cholesterol and control blood sugar," says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, a dietitian in Santa Rosa, Calif. What's more, research suggests the phytochemicals in button mushrooms have anticancer properties. Certain brands of button mushrooms are now being exposed to UV rays during growth, which boosts their vitamin D levels to 100 percent of your recommended daily allowance.
3. Wheat Germ If wheat germ makes you think of the '70s, go retro. The nutty-flavored powder adds taste, texture, and nutrients to recipes. "This by-product of converting whole wheat to refined wheat is highly concentrated in a number of nutrients, including vitamin E, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium, and immune-boosting zinc," says Henderiks. Plus, it's a surprisingly good source of protein, with nearly 7 grams per 1/4-cup serving. Check your health food store's refrigerated section for fresh, or look for toasted wheat germ. "Wheat germ makes an excellent addition to pancakes and baked goods," notes Henderiks. Substitute one-fourth of the flour with wheat germ in batters and doughs, or swap in wheat germ for half of the breadcrumbs in casseroles.
4. Sourdough Bread White bread is usually considered the worst sandwich option for keeping blood sugar levels in check, but the sourdough variety is another story. A 2008 Canadian study found that sourdough produces less of a spike in blood sugar than regular white and, yes, even whole-wheat bread. "The fermentation produced by the bacterial culture may alter the structure of the starch to slow down its digestion," says lead researcher Terry Graham, PhD, professor of nutritional studies at Ontario's University of Guelph. Fermentation also decreases gluten levels, which could make sourdough easier to digest for some.
5. Popcorn The fat-laden, high-calorie versions found at the multiplex and the sketchy ingredients in many microwave brands give popcorn a bad rep, but this whole grain is one of the best snacks around. "High-volume, low-calorie popcorn tricks your brain into thinking you've eaten more calories than you have," says Barbara Rolls, PhD, author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan. University of Scranton researchers found that gram for gram, popcorn's levels of antioxidant polyphenols are on par with fruits' and vegetables'. Plus, a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Associatio showed that popcorn eaters get about 250 percent more whole grains and 22 percent more fiber in their daily diets than those who forgo popcorn.
6. Molasses Cruise the sweetener aisle and you could have a hard time finding molasses among all the agave nectar, brown rice syrup, and honey. But molasses has a greater antioxidant capacity than any sweetener on the market, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. "Molasses is the concentrated by-product of the process that turns sugar cane into table sugar, so it contains all the disease-fighting antioxidants and minerals of the original plant," says Nussinow. She lauds molasses as a vegetarian source of iron, as well as calcium, potassium, manganese, selenium, and magnesium. Look for organic, unsulphured blackstrap molasses, which comes from the third boiling of the sugar cane syrup. "As with other foods, the darker the color, the more antioxidants it contains," she notes. If you like the flavor of gingerbread, try molasses as a sweetener for baked goods, hot cereal, or coffee. Combine molasses with lemon juice and ginger to make a glaze for tofu and tempeh.
7. Cocoa Powder Dark chocolate gets all the health-giving glory, but plain cocoa powder may just beat it out it in terms of disease-fighting antioxidants. According to a USDA study, cocoa powder has more antioxidants than most fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, spinach, and broccoli. "The flavonoids in cocoa powder increase nitric oxide, a substance that relaxes blood vessels to lower blood pressure," says Monica Bearden, RD, author of Chocolate: A Healthy Passion. "Cocoa also supplies magnesium, which improves blood sugar control, and copper, for healthy blood vessels. Not to mention it's much lower in fat calories than dark chocolate bars, making your chocolate habit even more guilt-free," she adds. Just be sure to choose "natural" or "raw" cocoa powder. Dutch-process cocoa is treated with alkali, giving it a milder flavor but laying waste to most of the flavonoids.
8. Black Tea "Green tea gets the lion's share of the press, but black tea contains many beneficial compounds as well," says Bowden. The fermentation method used to make black tea destroys many of the antioxidants present in green tea, but new health-giving antioxidants, including theaflavins and thearubigins, are formed in the process. Research shows that people who sip black tea have less cognitive decline; a lower risk for a variety of cancers; and reduced levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of heart-damaging inflammation. To benefit from these health-giving properties, skip the cow's milk when sipping black tea. A recent U.K. study found that it can reduce black tea's total antioxidant capacity.
9. Goat's Milk When Spanish researchers compared the nutritional profiles of cow's milk and goat's milk from animals raised under similar conditions, the goat's milk contained more heart-healthful omega-3 fatty acids; bone-building calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium; and cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). What's more, goat's milk can be easier to digest than cow's milk since it has smaller fat globules (which resist clumping together) and very low levels of the allergenic casein protein alpha-S1. "It also contains slightly lower levels of lactose, which could be advantageous for lactose-intolerant persons," Henderiks says. Subtly tangy with salty undertones, goat's milk makes a wonderful addition to smoothies, quiches, pancake batters, puddings, hot cocoa, soups, and homemade ice cream.