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Wonder Foods: New Ideas From Some Experts

--by Susan O. Henry

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"The Latest Wonder Foods." "12 Wonder Foods." "14 Wonder Foods."

These are just some of the titles you may have seen lately in any magazine, newspaper or book store. The articles name specific foods which fit the superlative the title indicates. The list may very well have been accurate when the items were listed. But new research comes in weekly; facts change.

To get an update on the very latest nutritional adjudications, we asked six experts, all of them working researchers in food sciences and members of the Institute of Food Technologists Science Communications. Their answers were surprising -- but unanimous. When so many experts drawing from so many individual studies are so concerted in their conclusions, we have to pay attention.

There are no "wonder foods."

At least no standout wonderfoods. "No food should be identified as a 'miracle' food. That undermines good nutrition," said Pennsylvania State University's Dr. Ralph Kroger. "The 'secret' lies in a balanced, varied diet of many choices."

"I do not feel that there are any 'magic' foods," agrees Dr. Nancy Cohen of the University of Massachusetts Nutrition Education Program. "You need a variety of foods for good health, and relying on only a few, even those on a (select) list, will not ensure good health. I strongly believe that ALL foods can fit into a good diet." Yes, all foods, echoes Dr. Kroger. "Even soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, and steak and potatoes."

"I do not recommend special 'power foods' other than a balanced combination from the food pyramid," said Christine M. Bruhn, University of California Davis. "Foods from each section of the pyramid have special nutrients and make a contribution to the diet." Dr. Mark Kantor, University of Maryland, concurs, adding that the only reliable "lists" come from solid research, and current research underscores the importance of variety.

Having said that, some of our consultants did mention favorites. And though there is no one wonder, there is one food every one of our experts singled out. "Of all the foods on the market, broccoli is the most nutrient dense," Dr. Kroger said.

The tomato is the runner-up recommendation. Other foods our advisors noted as nutritionally-packed include whole grains, beans, and anything dark green or deep orange. "A good rule of thumb is that the more highly colored a food is, the more nutritious it is," said Dr. Mary Ellen Carmine of the University of Maine. "Rice and potatoes are good, but pigments are better." Interestingly, lowfat or skim milk is the only animal product on anyone's "packed with nutrients" list.

A very important reason nutritionists are increasingly reluctant to name individual wonder foods is that scientists are discovering new wonders all the time. Within the past few months, for example, researchers have confirmed:

  • Phytochemicals uniquely present in grapes protect against heart attacks
  • Vitamin E protects the immune system, particularly in the elderly, and may lower the risk of developing various dementias
  • Lycopene in tomatoes may protect men against prostate cancer
  • Potassium lowers blood pressure if one is hypertensive, and helps maintain normal BP if one is not
  • Compounds in garlic help maintain bloodflow and thus lower the risk of stroke or thrombosis.

Nutritional elements often enhance one another when eaten in combination. Says Dr. Cohen, "There are many (compounds and combinations) that may be healthful, and scientists have not identified them all. That's why a wide variety of food is the way to go."

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