t’s a sad state of affairs when most of us expect healthy foods to cost a great deal more than their less-healthy alternatives: a recent study from Ohio State University found that the healthier a food is perceived to be, the more people are prepared to pay for it.
In the past, eating healthy foods has cost up to three times as much as consuming unhealthy foods, and it is those ingredients often hailed as being ‘superfoods’ – such as goji berries, quinoa, and avocado – which have a reputation for being the most expensive.
Thank goodness, then, for a sensible new book by James Wong, “a botanist obsessed with food”, in which he reveals the simple (yet ingenious) ways we can turn many everyday ingredients into so-called ‘superfoods’.
In How to Eat Better (Mitchel Beazley, £20), Wong writes, “I am forever surprised by how many simple tweaks can radically alter the chemical composition of crops, even when they are sitting on your kitchen counter.
“With a few ridiculously easy hints and tips you could dramatically improve the nutritional value of everything from fruit and veg to carbs and coffee, thanks to the miracle of kitchen chemistry.”
Here are some of our favourites tips that Wong recommends for turning any food into a superfood…
Reheat your pasta
For the carb-conscious, pasta can be a big red flag but Wong has a clever workaround: “Chilling and reheating cooked pasta converts its carbs into a form that is less easy for our bodies to absorb.
“Reheating cooked and cooled pasta [also reduces] the rise in blood sugar by 50 per cent, according to one small pilot trial run by the University of Surrey.”
Wound your veg
Cut your veg into pieces to boost the levels of phytonutrientsCREDIT: KEITH LEIGHTON/ALAMY
Phytonutrients are a substance found in certain plants which are believed to prevent diseases and be beneficial to our health. If you want to boost the levels of phytonutrients in your food, Wong recommends a process food scientists refer to as ‘wounding’: “Many of the protective antioxidant compounds in leaves are generated at the sites of injury, helping shield their tissues from further damage.
“To non-geeks, this is also known as slicing or tearing, just as you would do when preparing a salad. Pop cut lettuce or leaf endive in a sealed container in the fridge overnight to give these chemical reactions time to happen and their polyphenol levels can jump up to 50 per cent, according to the University of Pisa in Italy.”
Add some chilli
If you can handle the heat, try adding some chilli to your diet. Wong refers to “a fascinating trial by the University of Tasmania”, which found that “adding chillies to people’s everyday diet, in the form of basic chilli sauce, could significantly reduce their spikes of insulin after a meal.”
Keep tomatoes out of the fridge
Store tomatoes in room temperature conditionsCREDIT: OLGA MILTSOVA/ALAMY
Not only does storing tomatoes in the fridge cause them to lose their flavour, but it can also reduce the amount of lycopene (a phytochemical with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties) they contain.
To combat this, Wong recommends storing your tomatoes at room temperature: “Even once detached from the plant, tomato fruit will continue to ripen, becoming sweeter, more aromatic, redder and, as a consequence, much higher in lycopene.
“In fact, tomatoes can almost double their lycopene levels if stored at room temperature for a week or two according to a Japanese-Indonesian research team. However, the chemical reactions responsible for this transformation will not occur below 10C.”
Pick the right apple
Not all apples are created equal. Wong says some apple varieties can contain varying antioxidant levels despite being the same product: “Pick a Red Delicious apple over an Empire, for example, and get two and a half times the potential antioxidant benefit for zero extra work or cost.
In a nutrition chart created by the University of Leeds, Braeburn apples top the lot with the highest content of antioxidants than any other variety in the trial.
Cook your spinach
If you fancy some spinach, Wong recommends cooking it briefly first: “Take a crisp, leafy spinach salad and whack it in a pan for a few minutes and its vitamin A levels shoot up three times (and that’s before we even mention that because spinach wilts down so much on cooking, one serving of cooked greens can contain up to five servings of raw).”
Choose small potatoes…
Smaller potatoes are bestCREDIT: JOHN SMALLER/ALAMY
Potatoes can also be a rich source of phytonutrients, particularly smaller ones: “Up to 50 per cent of polyphenols in potatoes come from their fibre-rich skin. The smaller the spud, the more skin they have, which means that by simply picking new potatoes over giant types will get more phytonutrients.”
…and slice into thin pieces
Once you’ve picked out your small potatoes, Wong recommends slicing them into thin pieces: “By simply slicing them into 5mm-thick pieces and bunging them in the fridge, this combination of mechanical damage to the cells and cold can trigger them into almost doubling their antioxidants in just two days.
“This does require quite a lot of forward planning, but is easy to do if you have the time, and comes with a pretty big potential benefit.”
Microwave your kale
Steam or microwave your kale firstCREDIT: ANDREW CROWLEY
Already a well known superfood, kale gets even healthier when steamed or microwaved first, says Wong: “Steam of microwave kale and its antioxidant and polyphenol levels jump 40 per cent.”
Stick your funghi on the windowsill
Mushrooms have the potential to be an excellent source of vitamin D, Wong explains, if you know what you’re doing: “Doing one simple thing to your shop-brought fresh mushrooms can transform them from containing virtually zero vitamin D to one of nature’s richest food sources.
“Popped on a sunny windowsill, the mushrooms (which commercially are grown in near total darkness) will react to the UV light, churning out loads more of antioxidant vitamin to defend themselves from damage from solar radiation.”
How to Eat Better: How to Shop, Store and Cook to Make Any Food a ‘Superfood’, by James Wong (Mitchell Beazley, £20)