There’s some disagreement on if superfoods are actually all that super. But chefs around the country are using the trendy fruits, veggies and grains for a flavor and, maybe, a nutrition boost.
here are two camps when it comes to defining superfoods. Some nutritionists limit the definition to a smaller group of exotic fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and greens ingested for medicinal reasons by indigenous peoples for millennia.
Common foods in this group include acai, goji berries, camu camu, Brazil nuts, matcha (green tea) powder, coconut oil and, most recently, turmeric and other spices. Others would put quinoa, kale or even seaweed (often called “the new kale”) under the label, based on their powerful antioxidant potential.
“I would describe a superfood as a food that is a rich source of one or several nutrients, but there is no ‘standard’ definition and it’s not a term that’s regulated by the FDA or any other governing body,” says Sara Haas RDN, LDN, a dietician, cookbook author and former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Maybe, then, the term ‘superfood’ is a little trendy and ‘clickbait-y,’ and because the term is not standardized, it’s tough to generalize benefits.”
Still, many nutritionists and natural health practitioners cling to these foods, loudly touting their benefits. It’s not uncommon to see packets of frozen acai puree or bags of goji berries lining the shelves of even mainstream grocery stores. Now, more chefs are incorporating these ingredients into their dishes, not just for nutrition as more consumers demand it, but also to add new tastes and textures.
As a former executive chef on the research and development team at Campbell Soup Company, Chef Christopher Tanner, CEC, AAC, says it was always hard to ignore superfoods’ effect on consumers.
So powerful indeed, that he helped develop a line of new, health-focused soups studded with nutrient-rich ingredients like kale and coconut oil. There’s research to back up such move — 50 percent of consumers and 72 percent of operators say they are interested in superfoods, according to Datassential.
“Diet trends like paleo and keto seem to have given superfoods a marketing boost lately,” says Tanner, now the director of education at Columbus Culinary Institute at Bradford School. “When we first heard the term ‘superfood’ being used, it might have included seven things. But nowadays, as more of us look at food as medicine, many fruits and vegetables can be considered superfoods.”
Tanner’s not convinced that the everyday chef should use blueberries or pomegranates specifically for nutrition over taste or texture, but he points out the rapid growth of fast casual chains like LYFE Kitchen, FUSIAN, Sweetgreen and others in urban markets focused on superfood-studded smoothie bowls, cold-pressed juices and whole, unprocessed, “clean,” — another somewhat dubious label — and vegetable-forward dishes.
“At those places, you will see people ordering a salad specifically because it has seaweed in it, and they might get a turmeric-ginger shot or matcha-almond milk latte at the same time,” he says.
Tumeric, the most popular ingredient in traditional curry, has been having a heyday as of late, being touted for its Tylenol-like anti-inflammatory properties, so much so that it’s not uncommon to see the root vegetable juiced for smoothies and teas or the ground spice sprinkled over eggs.
At Proxi in Chicago, Chef Andrew Zimmerman dresses Cobia with coconut, turmeric and curry leaf, while Pastry Chef Sarah Mispagel adds turmeric to a Japanese mochi ice cream also flavored with pineapple and ginger.
“The cobia is based on a dish from the Kerala on the west coast of India called molee,” Zimmerman says. “We make it with lots of sweet onions, green chilies, ginger, turmeric, curry leaves and coconut milk. The fish is roasted in the sauce in our coal oven to pick up some nice smoky aromas and is finished with curry leaf oil, fried butter melon chips and purple shiso.”
For a turmeric-based dessert at sister restaurant Sepia, Mispagel candies the fresh turmeric root and incorporates it into a crumble. She also thinly slices the turmeric and ginger and fries them for a crunch garnish.
In New York City, Dimes serves pancakes made with matcha, a Japanese green tea in powder form thought to serve as a natural energy booster and powerful antioxidant. In cooking and beverages, the powder has a grassy, umami-forward and slightly bitter flavor. Holy Matcha in San Diego offers a matcha chia pudding served with fresh blueberries. Matcha is also used to color and flavor Chinese-style buns at Wow Bao in Chicago.
As more chefs and consumers alike focus on plant-forward dishes, vegans and vegetarians have to get their iron and vitamin B from somewhere. Many turn to nutritional yeast, which also adds a cheese-like, umami-rich to other foods and dishes. It’s not uncommon to see it sprinkled on popcorn in place of butter, but at Roofers Union in Washington, D.C., Executive Chef Jenn Flynn sprinkles it atop a vegetarian-friendly tofu scramble on the brunch menu. “The nutritional yeast complements the savory flavor of the wild mushrooms and the fluffy eggs, tofu and kale in the scramble,” she says.
“There is no ‘magic’ food out there, but there are plenty of foods, each with different nutritional benefits that can have a great impact on health,”
Instead of goji berries or even blueberries, Chef Philip Kirschen-Clark of The Milling Room in New York City reaches for mulberries, which are high in resveratrol, the same, powerful antioxidant found in purple-hued grapes and even wine. Kirschen-Clark tops an asparagus salad with a soft-boiled egg, aged gouda and the dried berries for a slightly sweet, tart and nutritious punch.
Chef Emmanuel Piqueras of Pisco Rotisserie & Cevicheria in San Diego sources Peruvian red quinoa for a higher antioxidant and healthy fat (not to mention nuttier flavor) in his dishes. He’s also a fan of Peruvian purple corn and purple potatoes, which he says have 10 times more antioxidants and nutrients compared to plain white or russet potatoes. Piqueras pairs the toasted and cooked red quinoa with beets, tomato and goat cheese, and he swaps white rice for the nutritious, flavorful seed in a Peruvian chaufa dish with wok-fried vegetables.
“There is no ‘magic’ food out there, but there are plenty of foods, each with different nutritional benefits that can have a great impact on health,” says Haas. Still, when budget, ample sourcing opportunity and menu flexibility allow, superfoods can have a powerful impact on the taste of a dish and on consumer perceptions, especially when promoted prominently on menus.
Trending Superfoods to Try Now
With chia seeds, goji berries, acai and spirulina now commonplace in mainstream grocery stores, here are Registered Dietitian Sarah Haas’ picks for newly trending superfoods.
Moringa Powder: Matcha’s got a new rival with this native Indian supergreen from the Moringa tree packed with amino acids, antioxidants, iron, calcium and vitamin C that, like green tea, boast an energy boost. The flavor is slightly bitter, so use sparingly in smoothies and sprinkled over bowls.
Chaga Mushrooms: These medicinal ‘shrooms, which grow wild on birch trees in Minnesota and Canada, have detoxifying, immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. Typically made into in tinctures or teas, the mushroom can add an umami-forward, vanilla-like flavor to cocktails and cold brew coffees.
Cassava Flour: An alternative to traditional wheat flours, this paleo-friendly ingredient has high levels of vitamin C, copper and folic acid and works well for gluten-free baking.
Watermelon Seeds: We’ve been told to always spit out those seeds. Now nutritionists encourage eating them for a great source of protein, healthy fat, vitamin B and magnesium, a mineral in which many of us are deficient. The seeds can be enjoyed lightly roasted and salted as a snack or alternative to pumpkin seeds for extra crunch in a salad or smoothie bowl.
Maqui Berries: These fiber-rich, anti-inflammatory berries from Chile can help with digestion, regulate blood sugar and even boost metabolism. Typically sourced in dried form, use in baked goods, rice pilafs, atop salads and more for a burst of tart, huckleberry-like flavor.
Tiger Nuts: Not actually a nut at all, these tubers are full of resistant starch, which allows them to act as a prebiotic. Tiger nuts also contain a healthy dose of iron and other important minerals. They can be enjoyed dried and raw or roasted for a snack or crunchy topping.
Camu Camu: This shrub from the Amazon rainforest is supercharged with Vitamin C, and also has other immunity-boosting and anti-aging properties. Typically sourced in dried berry or powder form for baking and smoothies, camu camu has a tangy, slightly sour taste.
Avocado Oil: Coconut oil still reins as a healthy fat darling, but this anti-inflammatory oil offers similar benefits to heart health and skin. It also has a high smoke point so it’s great for use in cooking.