Health food shops sell an array of mysterious extracts and food products with simple labels that can leave us unsure about what the product is, what it tastes like and what it’s used for. Some of these products have amazing health benefits, while others don’t have the science to show that they’re worth including in our diet.
Here are 5 food products that are definitely worth your while in terms of their nutritional profile, and exactly how to use them.
Most vegans know and love ‘nooch’, but for those who haven’t heard of it, nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of yeast that contains a significant amount of the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B6, folate and even B12 if it is fortified) as well as iron and zinc.
It’s an excellent source of a type of soluble fibre called ‘beta glucan’, which has numerous benefits, like lowering cholesterol, and is one of the most effective natural immunomodulators (immune system-regulators) that we know of. Eating just 2 teaspoons (2.5g) daily can reduce our risk of developing a cold and reduce the symptoms that come with a cold. It can also significantly improve athletes’ recovery following strenuous exercise.
It has a nutty, cheesy flavour so is a popular cheese substitute ingredient. It tastes great as a seasoning for vegetables, sprinkled over chips or popcorn, or added into a salad dressing. By itself it also works well as a dairy-free, low-fat and low-salt alternative to parmesan cheese.
Psyllium comes from the outer husks of the seeds of the ‘Plantago Ovato’ plant. Psyllium is an excellent source of soluble fibre, which makes it a great cholesterol-lowering, blood sugar-stabilising food. It absorbs liquid, which keeps you feeling full and makes food transit through the body and beyond very smooth.
The best ways to use psyllium husk are to sprinkle some into a smoothie or over cereal, add into batter when preparing baked goods like bread or cupcakes, or mix into soups, stews, casseroles and similar dishes. Because it has a very mild taste it can be added to many foods without affecting the overall taste. Just make sure to pair it with liquids or water-rich foods for easy digestion because it soaks up so much liquid!
Adding some to your juice has the potential to make up for the fibre removed (if you’re drinking pulp-free juice, but I’d recommend having the pulp) and is especially effective for preventing blood sugar spikes that can occur with non-pulpy juices (particularly sweet fruit juices).
If it’s your first time trying psyllium, use a small amount to get your gut used to the fibre, then work your way up. A tablespoon (5g) per day is a suitable dose to work up to and contributes to 13% (for women)/16% (for men) of our daily fibre needs.
Flax (linseeds) or Chia Seeds
Both of these seeds have very similar nutritional properties. They’re mostly known for their high omega-3 fat content, which is important for heart health and good skin. They’re also high in fibre.
Studies have shown that both seeds have many health benefits, including blood pressure-lowering, anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering effects. In addition, due to the high content of a particular nutrient known as lignan in flax seeds, studies have shown that certain cancer patients (mostly with breast cancer) consuming flax seeds had less tumour growth and higher survival rates!
The seeds also have similar physical properties. When exposed to liquid they will soak it up and become gelatinous. For this reason they’re great to use as an egg substitute in baking, or try making a chia pudding. They’re also a great way to thicken up smoothies.
To ensure you reap the nutritional benefits of these seeds, grind them up before eating them in order to absorb their nutrients, because our guts can’t break them down very well. You can do this with a blender, coffee grinder, or if you don’t have these you could even go old-school with a mortar and pestle. Avoid the pre-ground ones in packaging though, as the fats in chia and flax seeds can go rancid easily – freshly ground is best. Store in the fridge for this reason too.
Dulse is a type of red algae seaweed that contains high levels of iodine, iron, vitamin B6 and certain beneficial phytonutrients only found in sea vegetables. Studies show that consumption of sea vegetables is linked to lower rates of breast cancer.
Dulse flakes taste like your typical seaweed (think nori seaweed, used to make sushi) – pretty salty. For this reason, they’re a good substitute for regular salt and taste great in many savoury dishes (especially Asian dishes like stir-fries, curries, miso soup or any with rice), and add a seafood flavour to dishes (like my chickpea ‘tuna’ dip). Another yummy way to eat dulse flakes is to sprinkle them into a salad.
This fermented condiment popular in European countries is full of probiotics, a.k.a. living ‘good’ bacteria like the ones that live (or that we want to have living) in our guts. Probiotics are known to strengthen the immune system (they help fight off ‘bad’ bacteria), prevent asthma in children and reduce side effects of antibiotics.
Sauerkraut contains organic acid, which can improve iron and zinc absorption, as well as high levels of vitamin K and vitamin C.
Because it’s predominantly made from cabbage, a cruciferous vegetable, it has various health benefits including anti-cancer properties (due to the isothiocyanates). Also, cabbage is a prebiotic (i.e. food for probiotics to eat and live off of) so it not only introduces those good bacteria but helps to keep them alive and working for longer. Make sure it’s a raw or unpasteurised version so that the bacteria are still alive, and try to choose ones lower in salt (some brands use a lot of salt).
However, it’s not always necessary to eat probiotics if you’re eating a diet that promotes the growth of those good bacteria in our guts – which is a plant-based diet. If you eat this way, sauerkraut is more of a bonus if you include it in your diet.
Sauerkraut tastes very sour and is a good addition to a coleslaw, can be added to sandwiches (try a Reuben sandwich) or sushi, or my personal favourite – on top of avocado toast (it goes incredibly well with avocado!). You can also add it to cooked dishes like soups or stews, but you won’t get the benefits of the probiotics if it’s heated.