These six desi superfoods are sure to keep you healthy!
Over the last few years, the term ‘superfoods’ has appeared in almost every health-related article circulating on the interwebs. Exotic grains and produce like acai berry, kale, chia seeds and quinoa have all in turn been touted as miracle ingredients that can do everything from burn fat to prevent cancer. You’ll find your friendly neighbourhood supermarket has also got in on the game and these slickly packaged new foods are a nice way to relieve the monotony of your monthly grocery run. But once you get them home, these superfoods are not easy to work into your daily diet and even if they are, they make an unsustainable dent in the household budget. The price is not surprising given the distances that some of these things travel. Acai berry is a native of South America and goji berries are from China. Quinoa is an ancient grain that was cultivated about 4,000 years ago in and around Peru, Colombia and Chile.
So why the sudden excitement around superfoods? Bangalore-based diet, nutrition and wellness consultant Sheela Krishnaswamy says they are nothing but foods that are deemed superior in order to boost sales. “The foods that are ‘superior’ are simply those rich in one nutrient or the other. Nothing or everything is a ‘superfood’ depending on how we look at it.” A lot of the superfoods literature is coming at us from the west and though there is data to support the benefits of kale, cranberries, quinoa and goji berries, these are not native to Indian agriculture. Even if you eat them sensibly, you will end up notching up food miles and increasing your carbon footprint.
Amla / Gooseberry: Thankfully, food experts believe there are plenty of local superfoods, some of which are more nutritious than their foreign counterparts. Take the Indian gooseberry or amla. Traditionally eaten in murabbas, pickles, curries or just raw with a pinch of salt, amla contains high levels of Vitamin C and antioxidants and makes a smart substitute for imported cranberries and raspberries. The tart gooseberry is great at boosting your immune system too, says Namu Kini, CEO and co-founder of Happy, Healthy Me, an organic store and restaurant. She says that in the three years she has religiously eaten amla, she hasn't had a cold even once!
Moringa: Another such hidden treasure found in almost every south Indian household is moringa, more commonly known as drumstick. Often found in sambar, and a huge south Indian delicacy, drumstick pods and leaves are high in antioxidants and dense in nutrients like Vitamin A, B-complex and C. Moringa leaves can to added to just about everything. Make sure you remove them from the stem, wash them and cook them well. Add finely chopped moringa leaves to your dosa batter, omelettes, dal and soups. You can even work it into your breakfast by adding powdered moringa to your smoothie. Apart from moringa leaves, many other Indian greens are making their way into award-winning kitchens worldwide, like bathua, green amaranth or pigweed and Malabar spinach.
Turmeric: The superfood industry has recently incorporated some new ingredients that might look familiar to the Indian eye. Bangalore-based nutritionist Shalini Manglani cites the soaring popularity of turmeric. “Haldi is something we have used all our lives — in the kitchen, in our milk and on our skin. Its anti-inflammatory properties are now finally being discovered by the West.”
Ghee: Coconut oil and ghee are other such finds that the West seems to be fascinated by. Who would have thought that the regular oil massages we got as kids every Sunday would turn into such a hot trend universally? And that the ghee our grandmothers slathered onto parathas would suddenly be in every Trader Joe’s in the US?
Coconut oil: Both the nutritionists we spoke to for this story agree that there is no one miracle food that can solve all your problems. The sensible thing to do is to eat—in moderation—what your body is used to and most comfortable processing. Krishnaswamy says, “We tend to blindly follow the West without thinking whether it suits our pockets or our health. The internet and social media broadcast information on food faster than scientific research can. This adds to the confusion.” Kini says this is because western research and news tends to be more accessible to us than information from our own country. “We’re better off trusting our grandmothers’ stories and recipes because they are better suited to our bodies.”
If you don’t have the latest research on Indian foods or a wise matriarch handy, just look towards the typical meal in whichever region you are. Nutritionists agree that most Indian diets are healthy and balanced. We have dals for protein, millets for fibre, greens for iron and vegetables for vitamins. We even have a home-grown swap for chia seeds. Sabja or sweet basil seeds are packed with antioxidants and fibre.
Millets: But the local superfood that all nutritionists and health food fanatics are most excited about at the moment are millets. Karnataka is the highest producer of millets in India. Bangalore-based fitness expert Wanitha Ashok says, “Millets are loaded with everything you can ask for in a balanced diet. They are ancient grains that include baryard millet, foxtail millet, pearl millet and of course, ragi.” Ashok herself is partial to amaranth grain. “Popped amaranth laddoos made with jaggery are a healthy snack for those watching their diet. Amaranth powder can be added to smoothies or used to make parathas. The grain balances hormones and is good for menopausal women. It’s great for bone health because it is loaded with calcium and is also high in protein.” But, Ashok says, millets too need to be used in moderation. Work them into one meal a day, no more.
So before you start incorporating foods trending on Instagram into your diet, do some research on where they originated. Then check to see if there’s a local substitute that delivers the same nutrients. It turns out the real superfoods have been waiting patiently for us in our own kitchens.