Blueberries, quinoa, Andean maca, chia seeds, moringa, goji berries … These are some of the foods considered by many to carry extraordinary qualities that benefit our health. They are known as “superfoods”.
But how much truth is there in these miraculous properties?
For the Spanish Nutrition Foundation, the term “superfoods” has been used in recent years for the benefit of advertising, but the reality is that it does not have a scientific or specific definition of what benefits these famous foods have.
What is scientifically endorsed are the properties of the so-called “functional foods”, which are those that in addition to their nutritional value, provide our body with some added and beneficial effect on health.
Beyond the necessary nutritional contribution, these foods have preventive or therapeutic properties since they can reduce the risk factors that cause the appearance of diseases.
And what foods have these properties? The most important are three: phytosterols, phytoestrogens, and probiotics.
Phytosterols help decrease
Phytosterols are capable of lowering blood cholesterol since they prevent its absorption at the intestinal level. In this way, a part of the risk of suffering from cardiovascular diseases also decreases.
And where do we find phytosterols? Well, naturally we find them in vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts, and cereals. Consuming a sufficient amount of these products ensures the contribution of phytosterols to our body.
But not only in natural products. The industry has fortified some foods with these components to provide us with their benefits. For example, we can find margarine, yogurts, or dairy products enriched with these compounds on the market.
Phytoestrogens to moderate hormonal action
Hot flashes, sweating, insomnia, and depression are symptoms that appear in menopause, and that can decrease with the intake of “phytoestrogens” since they fulfill the function that estrogens do not achieve in this stage.
As the name suggests, phytoestrogens have a small estrogenic effect that moderates the function of this hormone, increasing or decreasing its effects. These compounds could act as preventives of breast cancer, according to the Spanish Nutrition Foundation.
The main source of phytoestrogens are products that contain soy, especially soy protein (it contains a phytoestrogen called isoflavones). It should be noted that some fruits, vegetables, and nuts contain phytoestrogens from the group of “lignans”, which, although they act like isoflavone, are less active.
Probiotics to improve the intestinal microbiota
The intestinal microbiota is the set of microorganisms that live in the intestine. The importance of the microbiota for our health is such that it is even considered a new organ in our body.
And one of the ways to keep it in perfect condition is the consumption of probiotics. These live microorganisms, generally bacteria, survive transit through the upper parts of the intestine, and particularly the acidic environment of the stomach, adhering to and colonizing the intestine and favorably altering the microbial balance.
The main function of “probiotics” is to colonize the intestine and make it an unsuitable environment for pathogenic bacteria, as well as to improve intestinal function.
Lactobacilli, popular for living in yogurt, cheese, kefir, etc. they are probiotics with this protective activity, as well as the bifidobacteria present in breast milk.
Among the possible beneficial effects that probiotics can have on health, we find that they reduce the incidence or severity of gastrointestinal infections, improve the body’s defenses, and can improve intestinal functions.
Probiotics are not only found in dairy products, but also in pharmacies. Although at the moment these supplements only provide 8 types of bacteria, when there are more than 160.
In conclusion, the consumption of “functional foods” goes beyond vitamins and minerals that enter into basic nutrition. Rather, they are compounds that are found naturally or are added to food and that provide different benefits if we consume them.
But, as the Spanish Nutrition Foundation warns, not consuming them does not cause any nutritional deficiency.
And we must not forget that this type of food should be consumed within a healthy and balanced diet, and in the same quantities in which the rest of the foods are usually consumed.