There was a time about a decade ago when you couldn’t escape from headlines like “Superfoods everyone should live by”, “Top ten superfoods for better health”, “The superfoods that can turn around your life”.
Somehow, the world had gone “superfood” mad. We were told by supposed health gurus that we were doomed if we didn’t eat beans, blueberries, soy, walnuts, and yogurt, and drink lots of green tea. The lists grew to include more and more exotic things, like açaí berries and chia seeds.
But if you speak to dieticians and nutrition experts, you find most of them don’t like the term “superfood,” and some outright dismiss it. “It’s highly exaggerated”, says Francis Morean, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s leading authorities on indigenous plants and herbs. “Having a balanced diet is more important than all this superfood stuff.”
A superfood is supposed to be one that provides superior benefits both in health and taste. Like other experts, Morean thinks the term is a marketing cliché. “I think it is something that shows the frivolity of the American market. They always need something new, and you know what gets popular in the US usually also gets popular here.”
The noni craze, which lasted for about two years at the turn of the century, illustrates this fickleness. Noni (Morinda citrifolia) is a small, green, prickly fruit that smells bad and tastes bitter, but somehow it became known as a panacea for a range of ailments. I remember visiting friends and seeing these ugly fruit soaking in water in large jugs. People swore by the cleansing properties of the water. On television and in magazines, there was a swathe of advertorials extolling the virtues of the smelly little fruit.
“The noni craze was quite amazing” Morean says. “It’s widely available throughout the Caribbean and known by many names. People used to be afraid to go near it because of the smell. But in 1999 you couldn’t find a ripe noni tree anywhere in the Caribbean — everywhere you went, people were like hawks for noni,” he adds with a laugh. He recalls going to a conference in St Croix where he met a woman who had basically converted her home into a factory for noni products. “She had everything — even cigarettes made from the noni leaf.”
Morean believes that the huge marketing drive that made noni so popular was a precursor to the superfoods era. Now, in the wake of the long-dead noni craze, the trees are ignored and fruit rot in their shade.
In the Caribbean, a common plant, fruit, or vegetable often graduates to “superfood” status when people realise it’s being heavily touted internationally as a remedy for damaging lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, or obesity.
Today’s superfood du jour is moringa (Moringa oleifera). It’s not native to the Caribbean, but was brought here from India in the nineteenth century. It’s sometimes called “the miracle tree,” and is said to alleviate diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, cardiac disorders, and kidney disease, among other ailments.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, all parts of the moringa tree are beneficial. The leaves are rich in protein, vitamins A, B, C, and minerals. In Trinidad, the fruit — known as saijan or drumsticks (because of the long and pointy shape) — are cooked and eaten. I first saw saijan for sale at a market in south Trinidad, and when I asked my Indian friend Natasha about it, she said her grandmother used to chop it up and cook it in curries. Interestingly, for all its benefits, I’ve never heard anyone make claims about its taste. In fact, the powder derived from ground moringa leaves is bitter, but that is usually masked by other ingredients when it’s added to smoothies and juices.
Morean dislikes the term superfoods, but he does say that in the case of moringa most of the touted benefits are indeed real. But when it comes to other local foods that have a similarly large number of health benefits, Morean says many of these are not widely known.
One of those plants is pursley, or nuniya bhaji. It is a variety of purslane (Portulaca oleracea), and is known for being rich in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. It grows wild and is often dismissed as a weed.
The website Mother Earth News describes purslane as “somewhat crunchy [with] a slight lemony taste. Some people liken it to watercress or spinach, and it can substitute for spinach in many recipes. Young, raw leaves and stems are tender and are good in salads and sandwiches. They can also be lightly steamed or stir-fried. Purslane’s high level of pectin (known to lower cholesterol) thickens soups and stews.” Morean says it is particularly beneficial to women. “I tell women it is a plant they should use more regularly because it can slow down the development of fibroids,” he explains.
Morean is keen to stress that many of the Caribbean foods now regarded as superfoods have been a part of our lives for many years — but now, because of scientific research, their importance is being recognised.
Look at the soursop or guanabana fruit (Annona muricata), which is most commonly consumed in ice cream and punches. It is now being used for treating cancer and tumours in South America. “Soursop is something I always recommend to people,” says Morean. “It’s high in fibre, which helps remove waste without purging, and it plays a great part in a balanced diet.”
In the Caribbean, there’s a growing interest in wild indigenous plants. And it seems we’re on the right track, because a similar movement is taking place in Kenya, where scientists are exploring wild plants eaten by local communities and believed to have health benefits, such as potent antioxidant qualities. “These plants are thought of as poor people’s food,” says Morean, “but [by doing this work] what we’re doing is giving new life to plants that have always been here.”
It will take some effort, but given the explosion in lifestyle diseases, it makes sense for the Caribbean food industry to work more closely with those exploring our local food plants to give chefs and consumers greater choice. “We need to revisit our traditional food styles,” Morean says. “I guess we’re waiting for a foreigner to come and tell us that our stuff is great.”