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A few weeks ago I talked to a school reception class about the importance of eating a variety of foods for a healthy balanced diet. One of the key messages us nutritionists tend to focus on with young children is to ‘Eat a rainbow’. It’s a simple message and portrays a simple fact, that variety in colour indicates variety in food and therefore a range of vitamins and minerals consumed.

We know all about vitamins and minerals and the importance of consuming 5 a day; and from a gut health perspective we are advised to aim for 30 different plant foods a week due to plants’ amazing gut protective effects. In addition to all this plant foods may offer us a whole host of other benefits from the presence of specific compounds found only in plants called ‘Phytonutrients’, these are not macronutrients, or essential vitamins or minerals, but are chemicals that offer protection in plants. I’m sure you have heard of some of them:

  • Lycopene giving the red colour to tomatoes thought to be protective in prostate cancer. 
  • Resveratrol found in grapes (and wine!) thought to be good for the heart.
  • Flavanols such as those found in cocoa and potential protective effect on heart. 

There are many, many more and we are beginning to see the potential benefits of what these amazing compounds might do for us, so if you think you don’t eat enough fruit and veg, I encourage you to widen your rainbow. I’m not a fan of the term super-food because it implies some foods are better than others, when there are so many foods out there that are pretty damn super. So, my quest in this blog post is to celebrate a few humble plant foods that we take for granted and may have forgotten just how super they are.

Red Cabbage

The first vegetable I want to celebrate is the humble Red Cabbage, simply stunning and delicious in dishes ranging from a crunchy summer slaw, to the traditional dish braised with vinegar and apples. It never fails to deliver in my view.

Fun fact for you, apparently red cabbage grows to be different colours in different soils, depending on the soil’s acidity!

This vibrant red colour is provided by a phytochemical called ANTHOCYANIN. Plants produce this compound to protect them, but there have been some studies that suggest it could also be protective against chronic diseases in humans, although the strength of this evidence poor, so more research is needed to be sure of this. Still, there are lots of other reasons to keep munching.

Raw red cabbage has more vitamin C than an orange (per 100g), it is also a good source of potassium which helps us maintain a healthy blood pressure and is a good source of fibre. It’s also amazing value. You can pick one up for under £1 and it goes such a long way!

Sesame seeds

The next plant food I want to celebrate is the sesame seed. Not much colour to add to the rainbow, but wow are these little seeds special. Providing a source of protein, healthy fats and fibre as well as iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, folate and many more nutrients they are a trusty friend if you are cutting out/back on animal produce. 

Sesame seeds are the richest source of calcium and iron (per 100g) compared to other nuts and seeds- containing six times the amount of calcium found in most other nuts and seeds (except for almonds which have under half the levels in sesame seeds).

The polyunsaturated fats within these seeds are beneficial to our heart. While we should be cutting down on saturated fat, to reduce our risk of high cholesterol, we shouldn’t cut fat out altogether. We need to replace sources of saturated fat (such as from animal fat and coconut) with the fats within these beauties.

Delicious toasted and sprinkled on savoury and sweet dishes, eaten as tahini, in sweet snacks or as delicious sesame oil used in cooking, they add a really distinctive flavour, texture and so much goodness.

Blackcurrants

The first fruit I want to celebrate is the blackcurrant. They just don’t get enough limelight. And why not? 

Blackcurrants (raw) contain an astonishing 200mg vitamin C compared to 52mg for oranges (per 100g). You may not fancy eating them raw, and sadly heat destroys vitamin C, so prolonged cooking will reduce the content, but even stewed they’re still over double the vitamin C content of oranges.

Did you know that during the war it was difficult to get hold of vitamin C rich fruits such as oranges, but as blackcurrants grew well in UK, the government encouraged people to grow them? Blackcurrant syrup was even given as a supplement free of charge to children aged under two years to prevent vitamin C deficiency, giving rise to the popular Ribena branded drink!

Not a fruit I often cook with, but I’m making it my mission to start. Tricky to come by, I could only find them as part of a summer fruit frozen mix in the shops, but I know my mum’s freezer is stocked full of them as they grow them in their veg patch-lucky things! Pictured here they have been stewed making a simple and delicious dessert. Also makes an amazing mousse, scrummy summer pudding and many more delicious dishes.

We only need 40mg of vitamin C a day, so a small portion of blackcurrant compote a day would get you there easily.

Tomatoes

I think most of us are aware that tomatoes have earned their place in a healthy balanced diet. A fruit featured in many salads and sauces, its versatility and flavour makes it an essential in any cook’s fridge or larder.

The stunning red colour is thanks to the phytochemical Lycopene, which is a type of carotenoid. Did you know that this is the pigment that stains all your Tupperware and tablecloths? The reason it can’t simply be washed off is because lycopene is fat-soluble and therefore does not dissolve in water, but a little bleach will clean it right off.

Consumption of tomatoes has been linked to a number of health benefits including reduced risk of prostate cancer and heart disease, although this evidence remains inconclusive. More high quality studies are needed to prove this effect and also whether its caused by lycopene specifically. 

Potential health benefits are thought to increase if tomatoes are cooked and processed, so tomato puree and tinned tomatoes are fab ingredients to have in your store cupboard. As lycopene is fat soluble, cooking tomato dishes with oil will improve our absorption of lycopene.

Whether we ever obtain the evidence we need to be certain of these potential health benefits, we can be sure that tomatoes are a source of many nutrients including vitamin C, potassium and folate and so including these gems in our diet certainly remains a positive.

Walnuts

As with other nuts and seeds, walnuts are an amazing food type because they are a source of all the macronutrients providing carbohydrate, fibre, protein and fat. This is particularly useful if you are cutting back on animal produce, because you get some protein and healthy fats, while also getting some fibre. They also contain a whole host of other vitamins and minerals.

I’ve always thought these nuts look a bit like brains, which is very appropriate, because they contain the highest levels of a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid called α-Linolenic acid (ALA) of all nuts. We know that long-chain omega-3 Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are essential for our brain development and high levels of DHA have even been found in the human brain. Omega-3 fatty acids are also thought to be good for our heart and we are recommended to eat a portion of omega-3 rich oily fish per week. However, if you don’t eat fish then walnuts are useful as we can convert ALA in the body to EPA and DHA. We do however have to work hard to make this conversion and you need to eat quite a lot of walnuts to consume the equivalent amount as from oily fish.

Did you know that walnut trees are very cunning? They prevent competing plants from growing near them, by secreting a toxic substance into the ground.

I think walnuts taste delicious, add wonderful texture to salads, cakes and are great as a snack. They don’t feature very often in our household as my daughter is allergic, but I try to eat a few whenever I can (making sure I wash my hands and mouth thoroughly) they are worth the effort!

Butternut Squash

The next in vegetable I want to celebrate is the Butternut Squash. Anyone who knows me well, will know I use this is cooking a lot. I love its versatility, vibrant colour, sweet flavour and creamy texture making it the perfect addition to soups, risottos, curries, bean chilli,  warming veg stews or even just to nibble at freshly roasted from the pan.

Butternut squash is actually a fruit, a very close relative to the pumpkin and apparently originated from South America.

The orange pigment comes from the carotenoids and butternut squash is particularly high in beta-carotene, which the body cleverly converts to vitamin A. We tend to get vitamin A from animal sources including meat and dairy, so this vegetable is a great plant source of vitamin A. It also contains lots of other vitamins and minerals as well as some fibre. Thank goodness for my mother-in-law’s allotment.

Coriander

This has to be the Marmite of herbs. You either seem to love it or hate it. I’m most definitely in the ‘LOVE IT’ camp. In our mission to improve diversity and eat 30 different plant foods a week for gut health, we mustn’t forget to include herbs and spices in this equation. The fragile leaves and stalks of the coriander plant are sprinkled on at the end of cooking whereas the seeds are often ground and added as a spice at the beginning of cooking.

The coriander leaf, otherwise known as Cilantro, has been seen to demonstrate medicinal properties including anti-cancer effects in a test-tube, although we’re not yet sure of any similar effect in humans.

Either way the leaf contains folate, potassium, carotene, vitamin C as well as many other nutrients and the seeds are a nutrient powerhouse containing a concentrated source of fibre, and many nutrients including calcium, iron and potassium. We only eat coriander leaves and seeds in small amounts, but a regular inclusion in your diet will likely make a positive impact. You will benefit most from the fibre in the seeds if you buy them whole and coarsely grind them yourself rather than buying them already ground.

I think both coriander seeds and leaves/stems are a fabulous addition to any Asian or North African inspired dish, including curries, stir fries, tagines and stews although I drew the line when my husband added the leaves to Bolognaise…the flavours just didn’t seem to go together!

What’s the most controversial dish you have added coriander to?

Spelt

I need to share with you my love for this grain- Spelt. It has revolutionised my diet. I’m intolerant to wheat and barley, and I got fed up with the crumbly dry gluten-free breads and the slimy gluten-free pastas. Then I discovered spelt. An ancient cousin of wheat it has a lower gluten content and can be tolerated by some who can’t stomach wheat, but it is not gluten-free and therefore is NOT suitable for coeliacs.

It’s so versatile and can be cooked as a whole grain as pearled spelt in stews, risottos, and salads, or you can buy spelt pasta and use in lasagne, spaghetti or fusilli dishes, or as a breakfast cereal in sold in some supermarkets or health food shops or you can buy the flour and make all your usual cake, biscuit and bread recipes.

Like many grains it is a great source of fibre, especially when consumed in its whole pearled state, it also contains similar levels of protein, iron, many B vitamins to wheat.

If you are wheat intolerant, (but NOT coeliac), I would encourage you to give it a try and see whether you can tolerate it. The possibilities are endless.

Peas

I dedicate the final slot to the humble frozen pea. I think this is probably the most useful vegetable in our household. Always sitting in the freezer, poised and ready for action. Even when you get back late in the evening there is little in the fridge and you are desperately thinking what to rustle up for dinner/kids tea, there’s always a vegetable to hand that can be added to make whatever you create just a little bit healthier and tastier.

Because they are frozen within two and ½ hours of being picked they retain those fragile nutrients such as vitamin C. As they are a legume they are one of the richest sources of fibre of all veggies and they have up to double the protein content of many other types of green veg. With a higher sugar content than many other green veg, children tend to love them too. (For this reason I would still encourage children to eat a range of veg).

I always add to risottos, and Spanish omelettes, often add to the saucepan towards the end when cooking pasta or rice, they are delicious hot or cold. They are a great addition even when they’re not a last resort.

I could carry on this series to include every single plant food, because they each have something special to offer, so I encourage you to eat a rainbow.

rachel

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