By Beth Gibbons
Can powdered superfoods really help us reach nutrition nirvana or are we swallowing bad science? We investigate…
We shovel them in our smoothies and blend them with abandon into our breakfast bowls. Libido-lifting, energy-boosting, fat-torching, anti-ageing super powders – like maca, moringa and spirulina – are nutritional catnip for anyone after a shortcut to better health. But does the science behind them really warrant our dust-happy devotion?
The hype: Otherwise known as Peruvian ginseng, this powdered root is reputed to boost energy levels and even lift libido, mainly thanks to its high levels of B vitamins and minerals, like copper and iodine.
The science: Of the two notable studies that looked at maca’s effect on the libido, both concluded that women who consumed 3g of maca daily experienced a significant rev to their sex drive. (Caveat: the biggest difference was reported by postmenopausal women.) The study’s authors think maca’s aphrodisiac effects may be due to a compound similar to testosterone, but more research is needed. “While that’s still being researched, it’s safe to say the combination of iodine, which regulates hormones [four teaspoons of maca gives you your RDA], and B vitamins that help you release energy from food, may well boost libido,” says dietitian Nichola Whitehead.
The verdict: “Google it and you’ll think that maca is a B-vitamin powerhouse, but it’s not that simple. While gram for gram it may outperform, say, B-vitamin-rich oats on some counts, in terms of quantity, you’ll actually be eating five times more oats in a bowl of porridge than a tablespoon of maca – meaning you get more B vitamins overall and, specifically, a good dose of folic acid, which maca is pretty much void of,” says Whitehead. “But the science does make sense if you’re using it as a natural libido booster. And, as far as energy hits go, it’s certainly better than a caffeine buzz or sugar high.” Now that’s a great excuse to whip up something delicious using the superfood, like this libido-boosting smoothie.
BUY IT: Superfoods Organic Maca Root Powder, R188 (200g), Rawlicious.co.za
The hype: Spirulina is a single-cell green algae that grows in tropical lakes – essentially pond scum, which is also how it tastes. But its high protein content makes it a popular choice.
The science: “Spirulina is around 60 percent protein,” says Professor Paul Thornalley, who is leading research into functional foods at the University of Warwick in the UK. “It was proposed by NASA as a primary food for cultivation during long-term space missions, so it clearly has merit,” he says. It provides a complete range of amino acids, including L-phenylalanine and tyrosine – both key for satiety appetite control. A study in the Journal of Food Science Technology found people who took a daily supplement of it lost a significant amount of weight.
The verdict: “A protein with all nine essential amino acids is ideal for refuelling post-workout,” says Whitehead. “You need 20g protein to aid muscle repair. A scoop will only provide around half your protein needs though, so mix it with hemp or have a large handful of almonds alongside your green smoothie bowl or shake.”
BUY IT: Nature’s Choice Spirulina Powder, R52 (100g), Faithful-to-Nature.co.za
The hype: Claims have been made that moringa contains 17 times the calcium of milk and 25 times the iron of spinach! Plus, it’s been said that its cholesterol-absorbing plant sterols can help combat heart disease.
The science: “An expert panel for the European Food Standards Authority concluded there was convincing evidence that consuming three grams of these plant compounds daily is beneficial for lowering cholesterol,” says Thornalley. The issue – it’s hard to get that much because, although all plant-based foods contain phytosterols, they’re in tiny amounts. An apple contains 30mg whereas a teaspoon of moringa powder can boast a meaty 450mg.
The verdict: “A protein with all nine essential amino acids is ideal for refuelling post-workout,” says Whitehead. “You need 20g protein to aid muscle repair. A scoop will only provide around half your protein needs though, so mix it with hemp or have a large handful of almonds alongside your shake.”A couple of teaspoons a day is an easy way to top up your difficult-to-get sterol intake (you’d need two full tablespoons if you were relying on moringa alone). “It’s also a good shout for vegans,” adds Whitehead. “One teaspoon contains 15 percent of your RDA for calcium and a quarter of your RDA for iron, which non-meat/dairy eaters sometimes struggle to get enough of.”
BUY IT: Organic India Moringa Leaf Powder, R259 (226g), Faithful-to-Nature.co.za
The hype: With a citrusy tang, the hard-shelled fruit of the African baobab tree is 48 percent fibre and is said to contain six times the vitamin C content of an orange.
The science: The biggest scientific news regarding baobab popped up in 2013 when a study in the journal Nutrition Research found people who drank baobab extract before eating white bread maintained more stable blood-sugar levels than those who forwent the juice thanks to the polyphenols. The scientific chat is that polyphenols contain an enzyme that slows the breakdown of starches into sugars – but even the boffins agree there’s more research to be done.
The verdict: Polyphenol stuff aside, baobab is still a great as a vitamin-rich sugar slower. “Don’t be blinded by the vitamin C claims,” says dietitian Priya Tew. “Yes it’s high, but you’d still need three tablespoons to get nearly the amount of vitamin C you get from one orange. However, you’re also getting four times the fibre, which in itself slows the absorption of the natural sugars.” Try adding it to one of your post-workout smoothies for an extra dose of nutrients.
BUY IT: Eco Products Baobab Powder, R115 (200g), Faithful-to-Nature.co.za
The hype: These smooth purple berries grow in the rainforests of South America, renowned for their anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing benefits.
The science: They may have the highest antioxidant rating of any fruit or vegetable, but this doesn’t mean much in reality. “When you measure antioxidant activity in a test tube, you’re not measuring the effect it has in the body,” says Dr Diane McKay, an antioxidant research scientist in the US. “These foods are broken down into compounds that aren’t the same as the ones you eat, so the health benefits don’t necessarily translate.” Of all the berries, they are the highest in omega-3s, needed for a healthy heart and hormone balance. A study in the Nutrition Journal showed the cholesterol levels of overweight adults dropped significantly when they added a daily supplement of acai to their diets.
The verdict: “A tablespoon a day isn’t going to make you live longer,” says Whitehead. But you can’t hurt yourself with a boost if vitamins. “Look for powder freeze-dried within 24 hours – it will have retained the max nutrients.” The best way to include it in your diet? Try using it in a shake or whip up a smoothie bowl.
BUY IT: Nature’s Choice Acai Berry Powder, R109 (100g), Faithful-to-Nature.co.za
The hype: Plant-based dieters swear by its muscle-building, energy-boosting properties and its sleep-aiding benefits.
The science: Recent debate has arisen on whether we should be consuming the whole foods version – the seeds – or the powdered version. Hemp seeds are high in fat: once the oil has been squeezed out, what’s left is a hemp ‘cake’. This is then milled into a powder, which is sifted to a fine degree, resulting in a weight-loss-friendly complete protein powder, containing all the essential amino acids you need. But this means you’re missing out on all the good omegas in the fat. The reason hemp has been labelled a sleep aid is due the to high magnesium content. Some studies have shown that magnesium helps decrease cortisol, the stress hormone that keeps many awake at night. It also aids in muscle relaxation.
The verdict: If you want a protein kick, add the powder to a power smoothie or mix into a pâté, soups and stews. If you want the whole shebang, blend seeds into a smoothie, sprinkle over salads or make your own milk, by blending one cup hemp seeds with four cups water. Sorry for those looking for an extra high, it does not contain THC.
BUY IT: Organic Hemp Protein Powder, R60 (200g), Rawlicious.co.za