Superfood Face-Off: Chia Seeds vs. Quinoa and Others
Every year, it seems, a new ingredient steps out to claim it's the most powerful superfood yet. Past contenders include flaxseed, pomegranate, and quinoa. If the popularity of Dr. Bob Arnot’s new book, The Aztec Diet, is any indication, the chia seed is shaping up to be the star comestible of 2013. But with the superfood throne being such a revolving door, one has to wonder if there’s more hype than substance behind the popularity of the "wonder" ingredients.
There are two questions to ask when assessing superfoods: 1) Are they as nutritious as they claim?, and 2) Will they stand the test of time? We look at chia seeds and other recent health food favorites, giving scores of 1-5 (1 being best, 5 worst) for "Nutrition" and "Shelf Life" (in the public's collective mind, that is, not the pantry). Read on to see which stand their own and which fall flat.
Shelf life: TBD
According to Dr. Bob Arnot, a medical correspondent for NBC and author of The Breast Cancer Prevention Diet, chia seeds were central to the diet of the Aztecs, and he points to their prowess as a civilization—namely, their domination of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries—as proof of chia's nutritional benefit. Chia, Arnot writes, "outperforms all of the world’s healthiest foods," providing "8 times more omega-3s than Atlantic farmed salmon" and "6 times more calcium than milk." It also fills you up, accelerates metabolism (in Arnot's words: "dumps the carb bombs"), and contributes to brain health. In The Aztec Diet, he expounds on these and other benefits of chia and offers tips on incorporating the seed into your daily diet.
Arnot's evidence—based on hard statistics from nutrition scoring institutions ANDI and CSPI—is persuasive, and his zeal for the seed is matched by a recent boom in the chia industry. While we have to wait to see if the ingredient becomes a staple, we're giving it a 5 for nutrition. Hey, if it can make a Chia pet grow—yes, this is that kind of chia—it has to be packing some vitalizing punch.
Shelf life: 3
The benefits of flaxseed range from reducing cholesterol and alleviating constipation to warding off hot flashes and subduing behavioral problems associated with ADHD, according to Livestrong.com. A rich source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and lignans (which have estrogen-like properties), the seed can be added to cereal or yogurt, incorporated into baked goods, or used for crusts. Elaine Magee delivers recipes in The Flax Cookbook, along with a full rundown of the research and science around the seed.
Flaxseed seems primarily like a force for good, but the evidence of its benefits remains inconclusive, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are also side effects associated with eating too much, including stomachache and diarrhea. And while the seed hasn't exactly gone to seed, it's lately lacking the kind popularity surge that's making chia such a phenomenon. For these reasons we're giving this superfood two 3s, but we hold out hope that it can step up its game.
Shelf life: 5
From a becoming a much-ballyhooed addition to Subway's menu to playing a major role in Timothy Ferriss' popular The 4-Hour Body diet, avocados have recently shed their reputation as the glop that makes guacamole green and emerged as a staggeringly popular staple of healthy eating. Besides being, in this Bookish editor's opinion, delicious, the fruit is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, phytosterols (which help manage cholesterol levels), and 20 different vitamins, according to Men's Fitness. Unlike chia seeds or flaxseed, avocados don't need to be inventively woven into meals, but they are a versatile ingredient that can add flavor and texture to a surprising variety of dishes. In the forthcoming Absolutely Avocados, food blogger Gaby Dalkin delivers recipes for concoctions such as Crab and Avocado Quesadilla and Avocado and Tuna Ceviche.
Avocados' health benefits are solid, but perhaps not as multifaceted as those of other superfoods, leading us to give it a 4 for nutrition. Fortunately for guac diehards, the fruit isn’t going anywhere anytime soon—we give it a 5 for shelf life.
Shelf life: 5
You know you've made it as a superfood when celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow wax poetic about your health benefits and bloggers start parodying your popularity (if you want to get a sense of kale's profusion in southern California, read Scott Jacoson's biting but hilarious essay in Slate). If the mountains of this green leafy vegetable have piled a bit too high on the plates of healthy eaters, it’s for good reason: According to The Washington Post, kale is a "potent source of Vitamin K, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, fiber and carotenoids," aids in digestion and contains a nutrient that "may play a protective role against breast cancer." At the same time, excessive kale consumption carries risks: Its high concentration of Vitamin K may pose a problem for people on blood thinners, as it can lead to clotting, and the vegetable also "contains oxalates, which in lab tests have been associated with kidney stones and some gallstones."
The recipes in Nava Atlas' Wild About Greens call for reasonable portions of kale, but one has to wonder if Jennifer Iserloh and Drew Ramsey's forthcoming 50 Shades of Kale will up the thrill factor a notch or two. In any case, we're giving this trendy veggie a 4 for health and 5 for shelf life.
Shelf life: 3
Quinoa (say it together: keen-wah) is a type of seed that looks like couscous and cooks like rice or pasta. It's bland-tasting on its own, so it's best to boil it in vegetable or chicken broth and serve it with vegetables, meats, or beans. Flavor (or lack thereof) aside, it's a powerhouse of protein and essential minerals. Calling it "the supergrain of the future," Forbes says that "quinoa is one of the most protein-rich foods we can eat," contains "almost twice as much fiber as other grains" and also boasts iron, magnesium, manganese, and lysine, which plays a role in tissue repair. Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming's Quinoa Revolution contains 150 recipes featuring the seed, including a quinoa burger.
For nutrition, we give this protein-packed seed a 5, but we're not sure it has as much staying power. While it's managed to secure a devoted following, it has yet to catch on beyond trendy, foodie types. (That said, quinoa diehards have made more than a dent in the world's supply of the seed.) Unlike chia seeds or flaxseed, quinoa can't be easily added to meals as an afterthought, and it's not as appetizing as avocados are. It's also not exactly a dieter's dream: One cup of quinoa contains 222 calories, which is more than brown rice. For now, we're giving it a 3 for shelf life.
Shelf life: 2
Remember pomegranates? Back in 2002, billionaire agriculture magnates Stewart and Lynda Rae Resnick founded POM Wonderful, a company that sells pomegranate juice in sexy, expensive little bottles, creating a moment in the spotlight for the otherwise-hard-to-eat fruit. POM Wonderful touted the juice's variety of health benefits, some of which were expected (vitamins C and K, potassium, fiber), some of which were sensational: The company claimed that the juice reduced "the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and impotence," prompting the Federal Trade Commission to charge POM Wonderful with making unsubstantiated claims.
It’s no surprise that the popularity of POM Wonderful—and with it, pomegranates—has waned in recent years. And while the company's legal snafu does nothing to lessen the actual health benefits of the fruit, we're not sure those benefits rise above the level of other fruits. Sorry, pomegranates—you get 3 for nutrition and a 2 for shelf life.
But, before you dismiss it entirely, keep in mind that pomegranates add unique flavor, look, and texture to a variety of dishes. Ann Kleinberg's Pomegranates spells out 70 recipes showcasing the fruit.
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This article was updated September 24, 2014