Do you ever worry about getting all the important nutrients needed for optimum health but want to avoid relying too much on vitamin and mineral supplements? There are exceptional, natural, nutritionally dense foods that are both great tasting and as simple to add to your dishes as any spice and herb you would normally use – simply top your meals with a small amount before eating or add during cooking. Keep these items as cupboard staples in the kitchen and use on a regular basis for long-term health benefits.
Used for over 12,000 years for its fibre, it is becoming increasingly popular for the nutritional qualities of its seeds. Hemp seeds have a pleasant, nutty taste and are easy to digest. They can be purchased as whole or shelled seeds. Although the whole seed has all its nutrients intact, the shell can be hard to chew and thus the shelled seeds are often more suited for regular use. Their mild taste makes them equally suitable for savoury and sweet dishes – try adding to a stew or your morning cereal.
The main benefits of eating hemp seeds are their unique protein and fat content. Roughly 33% of hemp seed is protein and all 20 amino acids are present, including the nine essential amino acids that homemade laxative can’t synthesize and must obtain from food. What is unique about hemp protein is that 65% of it is edestin. Edestin is similar to globular proteins found in human blood plasma and is especially easy to digest and assimilate.
About 44% of hemp seed is oil. Hemp seeds have an excellent balance of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids – a ratio that closely matches the needs of the human body. Most people tend to eat less than the optimal amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp is also one of the few direct sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SDA) – normally the body needs to biosynthesise these from omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp seeds are also a source of soluble and non-soluble fibre, trace minerals including calcium and iron, and vitamins from the E family which are important antioxidants.
Seaweeds – also known as sea vegetables – are hugely popular in Japan where they have been cultivated for food for hundreds of years. There are many different types of edible seaweed, classified according to their colour: brown, green and red. They have a salty taste and make for a highly valuable nutritional addition to savoury dishes. The ones that are most straightforward to use in the kitchen are kelp (Laminariales spp.) and bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus) which are available as a powder or granules, and nori (Porphyraspp.) and dulse (Palmaria palmata) which can be obtained as flakes. Try, for example, as a soup topping or in salads. When using granules, you may prefer to add them during cooking to soften them.
The nutritional profile depends on the type of seaweed, but seaweeds in general are superior in their mineral and vitamin content to land plants. Their nutrients are also highly bio-available. Kelp, bladderwrack, nori and dulse are all high in iodine which is an essential nutrient for proper thyroid function and generally lacks in Western diets. Other important nutrients found in these seaweeds in significant concentrations include iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium as well as good levels of vitamin K and the B-group vitamins. Nori is also particularly high in protein which constitutes 30% to 50% of its weight.
Nutritional yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is a micro-organism that has been grown on purified molasses and deactivated with heat treatment. The finished product is sold either as a yellow powder or flakes. It has a nutty, cheesy taste and can be added to any savoury dish. It goes particularly well with mashed potatoes and on pasta, but try also on pop corn! It is safe to consume by most people who are sensitive to other types of yeast.
Nutritional yeast is one of the richest food sources of B-group vitamins, such as B1 (thiamin), B3 (niacin), B6 and folic acid. B-group vitamins are needed for extracting energy from food. Some brands are also fortified with vitamin B12, which is especially useful for people following a vegan diet. Nutritional yeast also contains all of the nine essential amino acids and is therefore a source of complete protein. Potassium and selenium are among the other nutrients that make nutritional yeast a highly beneficial addition to your diet.
Cacao (Theobroma cacao) originates from South America where it’s been used for thousands of years. Today cacao is the essential ingredient in all sweet chocolate bars, desserts and other treats, but pure cacao has a slightly bitter taste and goes surprisingly well with savoury foods. Cacao is used, for example, in mole poblano, the best known variety of the popular Mexican mole sauce. Cacao nibs are whole cacao beans crushed into bits and are easy to sprinkle into foods. Try adding to a chilli or a coleslaw!
Cacao, particularly in its raw state, is an exceptionally nutrient-dense and complex food. It contains over 300 chemical compounds, which include many minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Cacao is a particularly good source of magnesium, a mineral that many people are deficient in. Magnesium is important for bone health, nerve and muscle function and circulation. Other significant nutrients found in cacao include sulphur, iron, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, apple cider vinegar, zinc and vitamin B-group. Cacao is also higher in antioxidants than red wine, green tea and blueberries – antioxidants help to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. Cacao also contains mood-enhancing compounds and healthy fats.
Nettle and Other Wild Greens
Wild greens – stinging nettles, chickweed, ground elder, garlic mustard, cleaver and many others – are often overlooked as a food source. They can be eaten fresh or dried and can be used like regular herbs in cooking. Even small quantities are a great source of essential nutrients – compared to a supermarket lettuce, the vitamin and mineral density of wild greens is off the charts. Even if it isn’t possible for you to forage and process your own wild greens, nettles (Urtica spp.) at least are easy to find in the herbal tea section in many shops and can be used alongside your culinary herbs – try adding a pinch to scrambled eggs or on your pizza! Apart from significant amounts of iron and calcium, nettles also contain vitamin K and beta carotene (a vitamin A precursor).