Nature’s Superfoods

 

Researchers have known for years that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help prevent illness and prolong life. They often point to cultures whose diets contain mostly plant-based foods, noting that these groups tend to have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses. The health benefits of fruits and vegetables can be attributed to the phytochemicals in plant foods. The word phytochemical simply refers to compounds found in plants. Studies show that many phythochemicals have amazing nutritional powers, and more are being discovered all the time.

The term given to the nutritious compounds in plants is phytonutrient. Plant foods are probably best known for their high levels of vitamins, minerals and fiber. However, there are other types of phytonutrients as well. Many plants also contain healthy fats and protein, for example. In addition, recent research has uncovered hundreds of other disease-fighting phytochemicals in plants that do not fall into traditional dietary categories.

Among the most studied nutrients in plant foods are antioxidants. These are vitamins and other compounds that inhibit oxidation, a process that all cells of the body undergo every day. Oxidation damages cells, and it is strongly linked to the development of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. Oxidative stress, the stress that cells undergo during the process of oxidation, is caused by molecules known as free radicals.

Antioxidants include vitamins like A, C and E as well as a host of other compounds. Some of the more powerful phytonutrients that are unique to plants are organo-sulfurs, terpenoids, flavonoids, isoflavonoids, lignins and organic acids. These compounds protect plants from environmental damage, and it turns out that they are protective to humans as well. These substances also give plants their rich colors and flavors.

CLASSIFYING PHYTONUTRIENTS
Keeping track of the many nutrient compounds in plants can be confusing. Hundreds have been identified in the last few decades, and scientists suspect that there may be tens of thousands of that are yet to be classified. Phytonutrients are classified according to their molecular structure. They can also be recognized by color. Terpenes for example, include carotenoids, which are usually highly concentrated in red and orange fruits and vegetables. Some carotenoids, notably beta-carotene, are precursors to vitamin A.

Another important group of phytochemicals are the phenols, which include the anthocyanidins that give blueberries and grapes their dark blue and purple colors. Flavonoids and isoflavones are also phenols; these compounds are noteworthy for their apparent ability to protect the body from hormone-related cancers like breast and prostate cancer. The organosulfur compounds in vegetables like broccoli, onions and garlic have a strong ability to rid the body of toxins, such as those found in pesticides and other environmental chemicals.

FRESH VERSUS FROZEN PRODUCE
When considering the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables, it might seem logical that fresh produce is healthier than frozen fruits and vegetables. This is not necessarily the case, however, especially when a particular item is not in season. Since many fruits and vegetables are frozen within hours of being harvested, the nutrients in these foods are actually “locked in” and better preserved. In contrast, fresh produce is sometimes exposed to light and air for weeks, and this exposure can deplete its nutritional value. In addition, fresh produce may be picked before it has ripened, which may also mean that its nutritional status is not fully developed.

The Superfoods
Some plant foods, it turns out, are remarkably concentrated with disease-fighting phytochemicals. These foods are often given “superfood” status, and there are many fruits and vegetables in this class. Following is a discussion of ten of these nutritional superstars.

BLUEBERRIES
Blueberries are the fruit of a perennial flowering plant in the same family as other tiny berries, such as cranberries and bilberries. They are native to North America and are also cultivated in Europe, Asia and Africa. These tiny fruits are packed with phytonutrients, and they are one of the best sources of cancer-fighting antioxidants.

An Often Underrated Nutritional Star
Until recently, blueberries were often overlooked by nutritionists because they do not contain high levels of vitamin C and E, which most people typically think of when they think of antioxidants. However, it turns out that blueberries contain antioxidants that are even more powerful than vitamins: flavonoids and anthocyanidins. In fact, blueberries are the most antioxidant-dense fruit known at only 85 calories per cup. The anthocyanidins in blueberries have approximately fifty times the antioxidant power of vitamins C and E.

Researchers have found that the antioxidants in blueberries protect the entire body from an array of problems. For example, consuming blueberries can reduce muscle damage after strenuous exercise and can protect the nervous system from damage as well. Blueberries help to regulate blood sugar and strengthen the cardiovascular system, and they may also lower the risk of certain kinds of cancer, particularly colon cancer and other digestive system cancers. In addition, anthocynidins have been found to be especially effective in protecting the collagen in joints and capillaries from free radical damage. This means that blueberries have the power to reduce swelling (edema) and improve the condition of varicose veins and hemorrhoids, and they may also help to prevent hardening of the arteries and arthritis.

Studies have shown that people who consume a cup or two of blueberries per day can lower total cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood as well as raise levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Another benefit of blueberries in relation to heart health is their apparent ability to increase the activity of an enzyme known as eNOS (endogenous nitric oxide synthase). When eNOS activity increases, the function of the cardiovascular system improves. And finally, blueberries appear to contain compounds that can lower blood pressure.

Blueberries are also good for the brain. A promising study of older adults showed that those who ate blueberries regularly scored better on memory tests. Researchers believe that this may be due to the fact that the antioxidants in blueberries can prevent nerve cell damage, allowing nerves to send information to the brain more smoothly as a person ages. In addition, the antioxidants in blueberries seem to be highly protective of the retina of the eyes, which are especially vulnerable to oxidative damage.

Choosing and Storing Blueberries
Fresh blueberries have a uniform, dark color. They should be firm and plump. Blueberries with a shiny, shimmery coating are fresh. The coating is a natural protective compound that the fruit produces. Blueberries should be refrigerated in covered containers, and they can also be frozen so they will keep longer. The fruit thaws relatively well without losing its color or flavor.

BROCCOLI
Broccoli is one of a group of foods known as crucifers, or cruciferous vegetables. It is actually a member of the cabbage family. Broccoli as we know it today evolved from wild cabbage growing in Europe. Europeans, especially Italians, have been eating this vegetable for at least 200 years. Broccoli is now cultivated in China, India, Europe, the United States, Mexico and Pakistan. It does best in cool weather and poorly in areas with very hot summers.

Crucifers Cut Cancer Risk
Almost every list of superfoods includes broccoli, and for very good reasons. Broccoli and other crucifers are among the most powerful anti-cancer foods known. For example, broccoli contains phytochemicals that can deactivate a compound called 4-hydroxysterone, which encourages the growth of breast cancer tumors. This leafy green powerhouse also contains indoles and isothiocyanates, compounds that can neutralize carcinogens before they have a chance to cause precancerous damage to cells. Indoles and isothiocyanates in broccoli work by helping liver enzymes detoxify the body, deactivating carcinogens and dismantling them before they have a chance to promote tumor growth.

Another of broccoli’s weapons against cancer is sulforaphane, which removes toxins from the digestive system that may cause colon and other cancers. Broccoli also contains indole-3-carbinol, which supports the metabolism of estrogen and converts it into a form that is said to inhibit cancer growth and decrease breast cancer risk.

Other Health Benefits of Broccoli
Other nutrients in broccoli include vitamin C and vitamin K. In fact, broccoli has more vitamin C than oranges, and a single medium stalk provides 100% of the daily requirement for vitamin K. In addition, broccoli is high in fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and move toxic substances out of the body.

Broccoli also contains flavonoids, the same powerful antioxidants found in blueberries. In addition, compounds in broccoli have the ability to deactivate acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that prevents the breakdown of a neurotransmitter that is critical to memory. So eating broccoli may help to preserve and even improve memory.

Choosing and Storing Broccoli
Broccoli is usually available year round in most locations. To choose the best broccoli, look for tightly closed florets that are dark green or purple/green and leaves that are not wilted. Avoid pale green or yellow buds. Check the bottom of the stalk for brown spots, and be sure that the stalks are firm and not slimy. Broccoli can be stored in open plastic bags in the refrigerator and should be used within a few days of purchasing it.

POTATOES
Potatoes are native to South America, with varieties cultivated throughout the Americas from the United States to Uruguay. They are members of a family of plants known as tuberous root vegetables. The root of the plant is the vegetable we know as the potato. In the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers brought potatoes to Europe from the Incas. Today, China is the largest potato-producing country, and one third of the world’s potato harvest comes from China and India.

Though there are more than a thousand varieties of potatoes, they are classified into several types according to their skin color. Types include russet, yellow, red, white, blue/purple and sweet potatoes. Of these, sweet potatoes top the list in terms of nutritional value. However, all potatoes have a place on the list of super foods.

Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a packed with beta carotene, an antioxidant precursor to vitamin A that gives this vegetable its orange pigment. A single sweet potato offers almost eight times the recommended daily amount of cancer-fighting and immune-boosting beta carotene. Sweet potatoes are also rich in vitamin C and B6 as well as iron and calcium.

Red, Russet and Blue Potatoes
Russet potatoes are a very good source of vitamin C, with one russet potato providing almost two-thirds the recommended daily amount. A single russet potato has more than 1600 mg of potassium, a mineral that can help lower blood pressure. Red potatoes contain 66 micrograms of folate – a B vitamin that plays a key role in cell building and is also known for its anti-cancer properties. Both red and russet potatoes offer additional antioxidant power from flavonoids, including beta-carotene. Blue potatoes, like blueberries, are rich in cancer-fighting anthocyanidins.

White and Yellow Potatoes
While the darker-skinned potatoes (russet, red, blue and sweet) are the nutritional stars among this group of vegetables, there are definite health benefits in yellow and white potatoes as well. Like all potatoes, white and yellow potatoes are high in potassium and vitamin C, and they have been shown to help lower blood pressure when consumed with their skins. When slow-cooked, the starch in potatoes becomes what is known as resilient starch, meaning that it acts a lot like fiber in the body.

Choosing and Storing Potatoes
Potatoes should be firm and free of brown spots. Avoid potatoes with green tints or sprouts growing from their eyes (the small indentations found on their surfaces). Potatoes should be stored in a cool dry place. They do not need to be refrigerated.

AVOCADOS
Avocados are the fruit of a tree native to Central Mexico. They are grown in tropical climates around the world and in the Mediterranean. Avocados are surprisingly packed with nutrients, including all 18 essential amino acids that the body needs to make protein. Few other vegetables offer a complete source of protein.

Though avocados are relatively high in fat, the fat is mostly in the form of omega 3, an essential fat that has received much attention because it is so vital to optimal health. A one-cup serving of avocado contains 160 milligrams of alpha-linolenic (omega 3) acid. In one study, consuming omega 3 fats lowered levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides by 22 percent and raised HDL cholesterol by 11%. This suggests that avocados are an excellent food for people looking to improve cardiovascular health.

While the protein and omega 3 fats in avocados alone are enough to earn them superfood status, they also contain carotenoids that can protect the body from oxidative stress. While carotenoids are usually found in orange and red fruits and vegetables, the dark green avocado contains an impressive array of these nutrients as well. The carotenoids in avocados include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and others. Carotenes are fat-soluble, and it turns out that the avocado has just the right combination of fats and phytonutrients for maximum absorption in the body. A one cup serving of avocado can increase carotenoid absorption two to fourfold.

The avocado’s combination of nutrients also includes the minerals selenium and zinc as well as phytosterols. In combination with antioxidant vitamins and omega 3 fats, these compounds make avocados strongly anti-inflammatory. It is widely believed that reducing or preventing inflammation is one of the most important ways to protect the body from a host of problems, from heart disease and cancer to arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Avocados are also more densely packed with blood pressure-lowering potassium than bananas.

Another major benefit of avocados is that they are very low in carbohydrates but still high in fiber, making them an excellent food for people with diabetes, prediabetes and insulin resistance. A single avocado contains more than half the daily recommendation of fiber.

There is also 40 percent of the daily folate recommendation in a single avocado, and the fruit is a good source of vitamin E as well. Research shows that people whose diets are higher in vitamin E may have a 30-40% lower risk of coronary artery disease. Folate, one of the B-complex vitamins, helps to protect the brain from the effects of aging and may help to ward off depression. It is also necessary for the development of red blood cells and for cardiovascular health.

Choosing Avocados
A ripe avocado is slightly soft to the touch but still maintains some of its firmness. The carotenoids in avocados are concentrated in the darker green flesh just under the skin, so they should be peeled without removing too much of this nutrient dense part of the fruit.

GARLIC
A member of the onion family, garlic is closely related to onions, leeks, shallots and chives. It is native to central Asia and is frequently used in Asian, African and European cooking. In the Mediterranean, garlic is a culinary staple. There are two main types of garlic. One is known as “soft-necked” garlic and the other is “hard-necked” garlic. Garlic bulbs are available in fresh, dried, fermented, frozen and jarred form.

The garlic plant can be cultivated year round in mild climates. The hard-necked variety is cultivated in cooler climates, while soft-necked garlic is usually grown closer to the equator. Though it is grown in many regions, China is by far the world’s largest producer of garlic, contributing 77% of the world’s garlic crop each year.

Garlic’s Fascinating History
Garlic has an interesting history in folklore, medicine and science that dates back thousands of years. Ancient people offered garlic to the gods and believed it had supernatural healing powers. In Transylvanian folklore, the pungent vegetables was said to ward off vampires. As long ago as 1500 B.C.E., garlic was used as a medicinal remedy to treat dozens of conditions, including heart disease and tumors. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it to treat everything from leprosy and infections to wounds and respiratory problems. Greek Military leaders believed that garlic could make their troops braver, and early Olympic athletes used it for stamina.

The Healing Powers of Garlic
In 1858, the French chemist Louis Pasteur found that garlic juice was as effective as penicillin in killing bacteria. When soldiers in World War II could not get medications, they used garlic to disinfect wounds. It is now known that the healing powers of garlic are due to the hundreds of sulfur compounds that it contains. Among these compounds are allicin, cycroallin and diallyldisulphide. When heated, garlic produces diallyldisulphide-oxide, which can lower cholesterol and keep arteries free of clots.

Garlic also contains a generous helping of antioxidant vitamins that rid the body of toxins and may help to prevent cancer. In addition, garlic can help balance blood sugar, detoxify the liver and improve the circulation of blood. It is also thought that garlic has a positive effect on the function of the nervous system.

Research has also shown that garlic can be used to treat not only bacterial infections, but also fungal infections and viruses. In fact, it has a powerful overall effect on the immune system due mostly to allicin and other antioxidant compounds. Few vegetables have such a wide variety of health benefits.

Choosing and Storing Garlic
Garlic bulbs should be firm with dry, unbroken skins. Avoid bulbs with green shoots or remove them before using the garlic, as the shoots can make the garlic bitter. Garlic should be stored in containers that allow air to circulate. It should not be refrigerated but should be kept in a cool place. This will maximize its flavor and slow dehydration of the cloves.

SPINACH
Spinach is a flowering plant in the chenopod family, a group of plants that includes beets, chard, and quinoa. It is native to the Middle East and is thought to have originated in the area of ancient Persia (modern Iran). According to various written records, the use of spinach had spread to China by the seventh century A.D. and to Sicily by the ninth century A.D. It was first used in England and France by the fourteenth century. Catherine de Medici, who was born in Florence, Italy and married the king of France, insisted that spinach be served at every palace meal. This is why the name “Florentine” is used to describe many spinach-based dishes.

Throughout the world, spinach has been considered one of the most nutritious of the leafy greens for centuries. The plant grows well in temperate climates with the United States and the Netherlands being two of the world’s largest spinach growers. Spinach is usually available in three varieties: baby spinach, Savoy and smooth-leaf. Baby spinach leaves are small and tender, while the leaves of Savoy spinach are curly with a springy texture. Smooth-leaf spinach is flat with a texture similar to Savoy.

Spinach Nutrition
Spinach is rich in antioxidants, including carotenoids, vitamins A and C, manganese, zinc and selenium. It is also a rich source of iron and calcium. In addition, spinach contains significant amounts of vitamin K and coenzyme Q10, a compound that has gained a great deal of attention for its ability to fight heart disease. Chlorophyll, polyphenols, and omega 3 fatty acids are also plentiful in this superfood.

The ability of the antioxidants in spinach to reduce the effects of oxidative stress has been demonstrated in studies that show an inverse relationship between spinach consumption and the risk of artherosclerosis and high blood pressure. The green’s blood pressure lowering effect may be due not only to the antioxidants in the vegetable but also to the presence of protein components known as peptides. Peptides inhibit the action of an enzyme called angiotensin that is associated with high blood pressure.

Spinach has a high concentration of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are highly effective in reducing the consequences of oxidative stress on the retina and macula of the eye. Research suggests that regular spinach consumption can help reduce the risk of eye problems like macular degeneration that are associated with aging.

There are also more than a dozen anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting flavonoids in spinach. Flavonoid extracts from spinach have been shown to slow the growth of stomach cancer in humans and skin cancer in laboratory animals. In addition, a study of women in New England showed that the more spinach a woman ate, the less likely she was to contract breast cancer. The flavonoids and carotenoids in spinach also appear to be able to reduce inflammation of the digestive tract.

Other notable phytonutrients in spinach are glycoglycerolipids, fat-related molecules needed for the process of photosynthesis. Along with flavonoids and carotenoids, these compounds have been shown to protect the digestive tract from the effects of inflammation. In addition, a promising study on the relationship of spinach intake and prostate cancer showed that consuming spinach was greatly associated with a decreased risk of aggressive prostate cancer.

Another highly concentrated nutrient in spinach is vitamin K. A half cup serving of cooked spinach provides five times the daily recommended amount of this vitamin. Vitamin K is necessary for blood clots to form, so it can help prevent hemorrhaging. It also helps to prevent the breakdown of bone and works along with the calcium and magnesium in spinach to promote bone health and strength.

Choosing and Storing Spinach
While it can be purchased year round, the best time of year for spinach is in the spring and early fall. Spinach leaves should be deep green with no yellowing on the leaves or stems. Wilted or slimy leaves are a sign that the spinach is no longer fresh. Spinach should be stored in plastic storage bags that are tightly sealed to keep as much air out as possible. Store this vegetable unwashed because exposure to water will cause it to spoil more quickly.

SOYBEANS AND OTHER LEGUMES
Legumes are the seed or pod of leguminous plants. There are many different types of legumes, but in terms of superfoods, soybeans (edamame) top the list. Other nutritious legumes include kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, garbanzo beans and peas.

Soybean Superstars
Soybeans have been part of a traditional diet in Asia for centuries. They are native to East Asia but are now cultivated throughout the world. The Chinese have used soybeans both as a food and in medicine for more than 5000 years. Because they are high in protein, soybeans became popular in Europe and the United States during World War II. China, India, the United States, Argentina and Brazil are currently the world’s largest soybean producers.

Soybean Nutrition
Soybeans are most nutritious when consumed whole. The whole bean, or edamame, is one of a very small number of vegetables that provide a complete source of protein, making soybeans very popular among vegetarians. A cup of edamame provides 40% of the daily recommendation for protein as well as more than half the day’s requirement for fiber. Edamame is also a rich source of flavonoids and isoflavones, including the isoflavone genistein, which has gained a lot of attention in cancer prevention studies. Genistein, which becomes more concentrated when soybeans are fermented, appears to be able to suppress tumor growth and even to prevent tumor formation to begin with. It may be particularly effective in fighting hormone-related cancers like breast and prostate cancer.

Other powerful phytonutrients in soybeans include folate, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium and iron. The beans also contain disease-fighting phenolic acids, phytoalexins, phytosterols, peptides and saponins. Saponins from soy have been studied for their effect on cardiovascular health. Animal studies suggest that this compound can help the body move cholesterol through the GI tract before it can accumulate in the blood. In other words, soy may help to lower cholesterol levels.

Though research is inconclusive, many nutritionists believe that soy may also be beneficial to women who suffer from hot flashes during menopause. It has often been noted that in Asia, where soy is a staple of women’s diets, only a small percentage (10-20%) of women report experiencing hot flashes during menopause. In contrast, 70-80% of women who eat Western diets say they experience hot flashes in the menopausal years.

Other Noteworthy Legumes
While edamame can almost be placed in its own nutritional category, nutritionists recommended the inclusion of legumes of any kind in a healthy diet. All legumes are good sources of protein, and they are also significant sources of minerals like magnesium and potassium, as well as folate, flavonoids and other phytochemicals. One daily serving of beans, peas or lentils has been associated with a 22% reduction in the risk for heart disease, and women who regularly consume legumes appear to have lower rates of breast cancer as well.

Choosing and Storing Legumes
Most legumes are purchased in dry form. They should be stored in airtight containers in a dry location. Some legumes, particularly soybeans and peas may be purchased fresh or frozen. Choose firm, crisp-looking pods that do not have brown spots. It’s best to use fresh edamame as soon as possible, preferably within a day of purchasing it.

PUMPKIN
Pumpkins are members of the squash family. Specifically, they are cucurbitacins, or winter squash. Pumpkins grow in warm weather and are usually planted during the summer and harvested in early autumn. They are one of the most popular crops in the United States, but are also grown throughout the world on every continent except Antarctica.

The Antioxidant Vegetable
The nutrients in pumpkin are really world class. Extremely high in fiber and low in calories, pumpkin packs an abundance of disease-fighting nutrients, including potassium, pantothenic acid, magnesium, and the antioxidant vitamins C and E. Both potassium and magnesium intake are associated with lower blood pressure, and pantothenic acid helps the body turn food into energy.

The orange pigment in pumpkin comes from the cartenoids it contains. Pumpkin is rich in beta- and alpha- carotene as well as beta-cryptoxanthin, which may be an even more powerful antioxidant than the carotenoids. Laboratory research suggests that the alpha-carotene in pumpkins may have the power to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Beta-cryptoxanthin appears to reduce the risk of developing lung cancer and arthritis. Pumpkin also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which can help protect the eye from damage caused by UV light, lowering the risk for cataracts and age-related vision loss.

Other phytochemicals in pumpkins seem to have remarkable anti-inflammatory capabilities and have been widely studied for their effect on specific molecules, enzymes and cell receptors that are associated with inflammation. While low in fat, pumpkin is also a reasonable source of alpha-linolenic acid, an anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acid. Because of the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits of pumpkin, this vegetable has attracted much attention in the area of cancer research. The anti-inflammatory compounds in pumpkins also appear to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral effects.

Not only is the flesh of a pumpkin highly nutritious, but its seeds and oil are remarkably healthy as well. Pumpkin seeds contain vitamin E, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc as well as essential fatty acids. The high zinc content of pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil may help to protect men from prostate cancer. In addition to being anti-inflammatory, the vitamin E and plant sterols in pumpkin seed oil can boost the immune system, balance hormones and lower cholesterol levels.

Choosing and Storing Pumpkins
Choose pumpkins with no soft spots or visible signs of rotting. Pumpkins can be stored for several months in cool, airy places and should not be washed or brushed until they are ready to be cooked. Smaller pumpkins are better for cooking, since they have more tender flesh.

TOMATOES
Though often thought of as vegetables, tomatoes are actually fruits. They belong to the nightshade family of plants, which also includes peppers, eggplant and potatoes. Tomato plants are native to South America and were introduced to the rest of the world by Spanish explorers, who brought them first to the Caribbean and then to Europe. They were then brought to the United States and the Middle East by the British. Tomatoes are now cultivated throughout the world with China the world’s top tomato producer.

A Smorgasbord of Phytonutrients
Tomatoes are loaded with nutritious phytochemicals. Topping the list is lycopene, one of the carotenoid antioxidants. Other carotenoids in tomatoes include lutein, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin. Tomatoes also contain flavonoids, glycoside and fatty acid derivatives. These compounds give tomatoes their spectacular antioxidant powers. Lycopene in particular has been shown to reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of tomatoes have also been linked to a reduced risk for other cancers, including breast cancer.

Tomatoes are an excellent source of antioxidant vitamins C and A, as well as vitamin K, which is essential to bone health and the ability of blood to clot. In addition, the potassium, magnesium, niacin and vitamin E in tomatoes protect the heart. Research has repeatedly shown that tomato consumption can improve heart health in two ways. First, tomatoes are an incredibly rich source of antioxidants and second, they help to regulate fats in the bloodstream and reduce cholesterol levels. Also, the lycopene in tomatoes helps lower the risk of lipid peroxidation, a process through which fats in the bloodstream or cell linings are damaged by oxygen. When fats are damaged in this way, inflammation occurs and the immune system is aggravated, causing deterioration of the cardiovascular system over time. Compounds in tomatoes also help to prevent platelets in the blood from clumping together and forming dangerous clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes.

Tomato consumption may also help to protect bones. In one study of the effects of lycopene on bone health, tomatoes and other foods rich in lycopene were removed from the diets of postmenopausal women for four weeks. The result was an apparent increase in signs of oxidative stress in the bones of these women.

Choosing and Storing Tomatoes
Tomatoes should be moderately firm and bright red in color. It is often difficult to find good tomatoes when they are not in season. Cold temperatures cause tomatoes to lose flavor, so they should never be refrigerated. Tomatoes will continue to ripen after they are picked, so it is okay to buy them when they are pale red. They will ripen in a few days and can be kept for at least a week after they are ripe.

POMEGRANATES
Pomegranates are the fruit of a small shrub-like tree. Inside, the fruit has a spongy flesh that is filled with small juicy seed sacs that are deep red in color. The name pomegranate means “seeded apple,” and pomegranates are also sometimes referred to as Chinese apples. They are native to Ancient Persia (modern Iran) and are now widely cultivated throughout the Middle East and China as well as parts of North America. Pomegranates were brought to Latin America and the southwestern United States by Spanish explorers in the 1700s.

Free Radical Scavengers
The pomegranate is another antioxidant superfood. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and powerful polyphenols, including ellagitannins and flavonoids. Ounce for ounce, pomegranate juice has two to three times the antioxidant power of green tea or red wine. Research suggests that drinking one cup of pomegranate juice per day can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, reducing the overall risk for artherosclerosis. The juice seems to help boost the supply of oxygen to the heart as well.

Pomegranate is also a rich source of potassium, another nutrient that is vital to heart health because of its ability to help lower blood pressure. A study of people with hypertension revealed that those who drank pomegranate juice for two weeks were able to lower their blood pressure significantly. The researchers believe that this is because pomegranate can inhibit the action of antiotensin-converting enzyme, which raises blood pressure.

Another possible benefit of pomegranate juice is that it appears to have anti-viral and anti-bacterial effects. Ellagitannins, a group of especially powerful antioxidant phytochemicals in pomegranate are being studied in a number of clinical trials, and scientists believe that it may be capable of helping to fight a range of health conditions. The trials are designed to determine whether pomegranate juice or extracts from pomegranate can be used to treat diseases like prostate cancer, lymphoma, diabetes, viral infections and artherosclerosis.

Choosing and Storing Pomegranates
Pomegranates should be round, plump and heavy for their size. Avoid fruit that is cut or bruised. Pomegranates are in season from autumn to early winter in the northern hemisphere and during the spring in the southern hemisphere. The whole fruit can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two months. Once the fruit is cut open, the seeds can be refrigerated in plastic containers for about two weeks.