Eating Beyond “Superfoods”

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”     – P. J. O’Rourke

Recently as I perused the produce department of my local grocery store, a man asked me if I knew anything about juicing – he pointed to a bunch of fresh beets and chunk of fresh ginger root in his cart. He wondered if the bunch of fresh  greens in his hand from a bin marked simply “greens” was okay for juice, or if he should use kale. Just then a produce employee arrived on the scene and informed us the mystery greens were mustard greens. So I explained to the man that all of the dark leafy greens were very nutritious and the mustard greens have a spicier flavor so the choice of greens to juice is more a matter of taste preference. The produce employee interrupted us to encourage the man toward kale because – “it’s a Superfood.”

Irritated on several levels, (and I am not proud of my next move) I pulled the “I’m a dietitian” card with the hope the annoying employee would go away, which he kind of did. But now the man holding the greens perked up and asked if I knew another dietitian here in town, and when I replied that I did know her, the man beamed as he pointed to his cart and said “she’d be proud of me wouldn’t she?” I agreed, and wished him luck with his juicing adventure. As I walked away, he tucked a bunch of fresh kale next to the bundle of beets and headed toward the cash registers, not realizing mustard greens are also “Superfoods” they just don’t have a publicist yet.

Sigh. Mustard greens are cruciferous vegetables in the Brassicaceae family – along with kale, broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, brussel sprouts, Kholrabi (my husband calls this the “alien vegetable”), bok choy, and cauliflower.

This produce department incident is actually brimming with blog material but right now my focus is: “Superfoods.“ I know this isn’t a new concept. We live in a culture that LOVES superheroes, and celebrities, so it really isn’t a surprise we apply this concept to foods. In general there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to expand their culinary horizons to include whichever food currently has the best PR campaign or celebrity endorsement. Generally these foods are rich in beneficial plant compounds or some mix of nutrients we don’t get enough of, but somehow I find this trendy obsession irritating. I googled “celebrity kale” and came up with an Us Weekly headline “Stars Who Love Kale” followed by a long list of articles, blogs and websites where apparently celebrities gush about this leafy Brassica. Sigh again.

I  guess I should start with the fact that I have nothing against kale. In fact, I really enjoy kale – starting several years ago when I was a work-share for a season at the Cosmic Apple Gardens, a local CSA over in Victor, Idaho. Prior to that summer, kale was simply a popular garnish used in many of the restaurants and banquets I’d worked in my former food and beverage career. (Current kale enthusiasts would cringe at the thought of the millions of pounds of this vegetable superhero tossed in the garbage of restaurant kitchens after serving its aesthetic purpose.)

I was also thrilled to discover this member of the cruciferous family, a group best known for cancer-fighting powers, grows beautifully in the harsh soil and abbreviated growing season here in northern Wyoming. Even I, brown thumb who generally does best with plants like cactus that thrive on neglect, can grow kale!

But here’s the thing, if we focus on a narrow array of “Superfoods,” we not only miss out on the variety of tastes and textures that make eating pleasurable, we burn out on whatever the latest thing is. I mean how many times a week can you eat kale before you are over it?

Not to mention that I can buy broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts for half the cost of a bunch of fresh kale (especially if I go organic).  And, better still, incorporating more variety allows me to make a delicious cabbage salad with toasted pumpkin seeds to go with Mexican main dishes, broccoli (or even more fun – broccoli rabe) with pasta, a mustard greens and goat cheese omelet, and by the time I get to the kale and white bean soup I’ve been in cruciferous heaven for days! Admittedly I stumble a bit with cauliflower and brussel sprouts – not my personal faves. Though I have found ways to make these two palatable, it takes a bit of extra effort (and a lot of garlic – or a grill) so I choose them less often.

I guess my point is – it is difficult to find a vegetable or fruit that isn’t a “Superfood.” Nutrition research shows again and again that eating more fruits and veggies of all kinds (non-starchy anyway) offers a whole host of benefits from lowering our risk of heart disease and many cancers, to helping us achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Just because Gweneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston aren’t raving about broccoli (and let’s not forget George Bush Sr.’s anti-broccoli tirade) doesn’t mean we need to forgo the (broccoli) trees for the (kale) leaves! And what if broccoli actually had a PR campaign? Check it out http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/broccolis-extreme-makeover.html?ref=health&_r=2&

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2 Responses to “Eating Beyond “Superfoods””

  1. Laura Says:

    Mary! You make vegetables sound sooooooo much more delicious than the way I make them. I want to come eat at your house! Thank you for this blog – I didn’t know all fruits and vegies are superheroes! And I have to admit, I grinned when you said you pulled your dietician cart in the grocery store – I can just see the disgruntled look on your face when the employee was misinforming the poor guy. I KNOW you take your vegie-education seriously, which is one of the many things I love about you! 🙂

    • Mary Howley Ryan, MS, RDN, CEDRD Says:

      Laura – you know I’d LOVE it if you came to my house for veggies…anytime! I do take my education seriously but mainly want people not to get hoodwinked by hype. And of course though I like superheroes I’m probably more of an underdog fan by nature!

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