We’ve all heard about “superfoods” in the media, at the supermarket, from our friends… It seems like there is always a new trendy product popping into the spotlight out of nowhere. Remember when kale was all the rage? Now it seems like expensive exotic fruit powders have taken over… But we find ourselves asking, what exactly are superfoods and what makes them so super?
Turns out the word “superfood” is a marketing term, used to claim that certain foods contain an exceptional nutrient profile or confer super health benefits. While it’s not particularly true that kale and exotic fruits are “super” compared to other leafy greens and the average apple, they are still chock-full of beneficial vitamins and minerals, so there’s no harm in including them!
The only downside is that most of the time, “superfoods” cost a lot more than regular nutrient-dense foods, which could offer us the same health benefits. The truth is, most people aren’t consuming enough nutrient-dense foods to begin with, and there are tons of “super” qualities of regular foods you might already have in your kitchen.
One thing everyone can agree on is how super the Mediterranean Diet truly is. It is one of the most thoroughly studied eating patterns that has been proven to promote longevity, diabetes management, weight management, decreased risk for cognitive decline, improved mood and risk for depression, as well as so many other benefits. For more on the Mediterranean Diet, check out this blog post!
5 Mediterranean “Superfoods” you probably haven’t thought of, but need to try – let’s get into it!
01 – Sofrito
Sofrito is a type of sauce and cooking method widely used in Mediterranean, Latin American, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese cuisine. It typically consists of garlic, onion, peppers and tomatoes cooked in olive oil with herbs and spices, like bay leaves. Once cooked, it becomes something like a flavorful tomato-based sauce. It is used to prepare and give tons of flavor to stews, meat and seafood, and various plant-based dishes.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is an overall food pattern, rather than a diet. It is characterized by high consumption of plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil. It’s based on the eating patterns of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea during the postwar era. During this economic crisis, most people didn’t have the means to afford expensive foods like sweets and animal products. During these times, people relied on seasonal vegetables and olive oil for sustenance, so they had to get creative in the kitchen!
Today, Mediterranean cuisine has so many diverse and delicious plant-based dishes using sofrito and many other cooking methods, which helps people who follow this eating pattern easily consume more veggies.
Sofrito is thought of as one of the main staples of the Mediterranean Diet. It is not only delicious, but it’s also nutrient and antioxidant-packed. Research on sofrito has shown that the combination of slow cooking the various vegetables in olive oil enhances the activity of polyphenols and powerful carotenoids like lycopene, which reduces cardiovascular disease risk and prevents cancers.
Check out one of my favorite recipes for Instant Pot Fasolakia (Greek Green Beans in Sofrito) here!
02 – Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil is well-known for being heart-healthy and conducive to longevity. Evidence has shown that consuming monounsaturated fats and the polyphenols (a type of antioxidant) specifically found in olive oil can reduce risk for chronic disease. Not all olive oils are nutritionally equal however! The light-colored olive oil found in the serving bottle at the salad bar is probably not pure olive oil, but a mix with other vegetable oils like sunflower oil.
When choosing an olive oil, go for extra virgin (EVOO), ideally in a dark or tin bottle. The nutrients and antioxidants in olive oil are delicate and easily damaged if exposed to heat or sunlight. Only EVOO is cold-pressed, which means that it is the highest quality olive oil with the most health benefits.
Pro-tip: Try drizzling some raw EVOO on top of your soups, as a spread on toast and as a dressing base in salads!
03 – Sardines
Don’t knock them ‘til you try them! Sardines, salmon, tuna and mackerel are among the fish with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Sardines, also a staple of the Mediterranean Diet, provide 2 grams of heart-healthy omega-3s per 3 ounce serving, which is one of the highest levels of omega-3 of any fish. They also support bone health and a strong immune system because they’re a great source of calcium and Vitamin D if eaten whole. Such an underrated superfood!
Omega-3 essential fatty acids can’t be produced by our body, so we must get them from food. They are anti-inflammatory and have shown to improve cholesterol levels, blood pressure, prevent heart disease, prevent mood disorders, and protect the brain against aging.
Pro-tip: Sardines are also super easy to find and they’re inexpensive! Try them canned in water for $1.99 at Trader Joes. You can easily dress them up with some fresh lemon juice and olive oil, or with some of your favorite store-bought tomato sauce.
04 – Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds, specifically walnuts and flaxseed, are staples of the Mediterranean Diet and also unfairly outshined by superfood powders and potions on the internet.
Walnuts have a ton of the good kind of fats, aka polyunsaturated fats. These can help lower your LDL “bad” cholesterol levels and increase your HDL “good” cholesterol. Talk about amazing things for your heart health! Walnuts are also an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which may be converted into some omega-3s. Flaxseeds are also great sources of ALA, and regular consumption may play a role in healthy skin elasticity as well.
Pro-tip: Snack on a handful of raw or dry-roasted walnuts with some fruit to keep you satisfied between meals! You can also sprinkle some ground flaxseed into your oats or yogurt.
05 – Dandelion Greens
You probably haven’t seen dandelion greens in your local supermarket. But you might have seen them on the side of the road… yes, those! Dandelion greens are actually a delicacy in the Mediterranean, and rightfully so! They are an excellent source of vitamins A, E, K, folate, iron, potassium and magnesium. Not to mention they’re also are full antioxidants that can fight inflammation and prevent aging and chronic disease. And they also contain inulin, a type of soluble fiber that supports a healthy gut microbiome.
Pro-tip: Keep an eye out for dandelion greens at your local farmer’s market from early spring to late fall! Try them simply boiled and served with lemon juice and raw extra virgin olive oil.