Food Plants

New food fads and functions​

Eating healthier isn't as boring as you might think

I don’t know about you, but I’ve eaten some pretty strange things in my time:

  • Australian animals and ferals – camel, crocodile, kangaroo – but then who hasn’t
  • Big game in East Africa – giraffe, zebra, gazelle, eland
  • Guinea Pigs in South America
  • The eggs of the horseshoe crab in Thailand
  • A range of fungus, lichen, moss, ferns and conifers in China
  • And even part of a human placenta – although I didn’t realise it at the time – during a tribal ritual in Tanzania

Some of these are a bit on the adventurous side, but trying new foods is part of our DNA. Consuming, and being seen to consume, exotic new fruits and vegetables and sumptuous meals clearly appeals to us, and has been used down through the ages to demonstrate social standing and wealth.

“Basically, all food is functional – we derive energy from it – but the key concept behind functional foods is that eating them can help make us healthier.”

A recent study by Cornell University found that our obsession with food-porn dates back centuries, and over the last 500 years, artists have consistently painted glorified, extravagant meals based on desire rather than reality. Paintings tended to feature shellfish and exotic fruit, rather than representing typical diets of the time.

But what about some of our recent food fads? What has replaced lobsters and lemons as the exotic or desirable? Well apart from the #foodporn craze sweeping Instagram (top 50 labels), depicting cloud eggs, cronuts, galaxy frosting and goth lattes, some of the latest trends are actually pretty good for us.

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The dreaded goth latte

Forbes magazine recently listed five healthy foods trends, including Buddha bowls, vegan diet, avocado, sushi burrito and coconut. Some of these items come under the global megatrend of functional or superfoods, but what are these?

Basically, all food is functional – we derive energy from it – but the key concept behind functional foods is that eating them can help make us healthier.

Functional foods can be:

  • Naturally occurring
    • Oats with their naturally high levels of soluble fibre which reduces cholesterol
    • Tomatoes and tomato products containing lycopene which helps reduce prostate cancer
    • Leafy Greens – like spinach, kale and broccoli, which contain phytochemicals such as carotenoids, sulforaphanes and lutein, which can block carcinogens from entering cells, provide heart protection or reduce blindness in the elderly
  • Selected for or bred as part of crop improvement programs
    • such as selecting for purple or golden potatoes that have enriched anthocyanin or carotenoid levels, which are cancer protecting phytochemcials
  • or have healthy components added
    • such as omega 3, which helps improve cardiovascular health, and can be elevated in eggs by feeding chickens food rich in omega 3 such as flaxseed, fish oil or sea algae
    • plant sterols which can be added to margarine again to reduce cholesterol levels

We’ve all heard of most of these, and we know that eating them is good for us, but how do we keep our healthy food choices linked with the search for the exotic?

Maybe try some of these new functional foods that are trending:

  • Quinoa – an important food of the Inca Empire who referred to it as the “mother of all grains” and believed it to be sacred.
    • Quinoa is one of the most protein-rich foods we can eat and contains all 9 essential amino acids
    • It contains almost twice as much fiber as most other grains, and has high levels of iron, lysine, magnesium, Riboflavin (B2), manganese
  • Chia – again from Latin America and important in Aztec and Mayan cultures.
    • These small seeds are very high in soluble fibre, which is good for gut health, but also makes them very low in calories, adn a good part of a weight control diet. Chia also contains high levels of protein (again rich in essential amino acids), omega-3s, calcium, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus
  • Teff – from north eastern Africa, around Ethiopia
    • Teff is high in fibre and a good source of protein, manganese, iron and calcium. The array of vitamins and minerals found in teff contribute to its role as a healthy, weight-managing and bone-strengthening food.
  • Coix – also known as Job’s tears, is well known for its health benefits. It is a type of branched grass with broad leaves, and found in India and China.
    • Coix is rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, and is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory in nature.
  • Seaweed – a relatively untapped resource, but common in Asian diets. Interestingly South Australia has the highest diversity of seaweeds in the world.
    • Seaweed is high in iodine, iron, vitamin C, antioxidants, soluble and insoluble fibre, vitamin K and vitamin B-12 and red seaweeds such as dulse are also high in protein. Although seaweed needs to be eaten in moderation (however shouldn’t any food), as too much iodine can cause thyroid problems
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entomophagy, or eating insects
  • Insects – With over 2 billion people engaging in entomophagy, eating insects is a key part of many diets, including; crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, ants, various beetle grubs (such as mealworms), the larvae of the darkling beetle or rhinoceros beetle, various species of caterpillar (such as bamboo worms, silkworms and the witchetty grub), scorpions and spiders (particularly tarantulas).
    • Insects are an excellent source of protein, and are very efficient to produce. It requires 10 times as much plant matter to produce a kilo of mammal flesh compared to a kilo of insect biomass. The carbon footprint of insect rearing, particularly in terms of methane production, is also much lower when compared to production of mammal biomass.

So with these, and potentially many more, health-giving functional foods out there to be explored, why not liberate your adventurous side or start a new #functionalfood Instagram trend.

This blog post was also published in The Adelaide Advertiser during my time with them as Scientist in Residence.

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert on plants and trees, particularly the monitoring, management and utilisation of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered new species, lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime and has been responsible for securing multi-million dollar research funding. He is an experienced and respected executive leader, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy is the inaugural Director of Food Innovation at the University of Adelaide serving as the external face for all significant food industry and government sectors across South Australia, and the world.

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