By Guest Dietitian, Dr Joanna McMillan

The word superfood is thrown around rather arbitrarily these days – with the trouble being that there’s no scientific definition to be found.

But generally, the foods we think of as superfoods are those that give us something a little more exceptional than regular foods in the way of our health and wellbeing. High levels of a vitamins or minerals, impressive antioxidant power, stacks of fibre – the list goes on.

Superfoods needn’t come from remote places of the world, either. You’ll find many of the best ones locally in your own supermarket. While they can’t fix up your health on their own, when combined into an awesome mix of whole foods, they have a lot to offer.

Here are five superfoods you may not have heard about, but should promptly add to your shopping list.

1. Teff

Teff is a tiny grain that has been traditionally grown in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s incredibly resilient and thrives in the many difficult conditions of these areas in Africa – and it’s now gaining attention from the rest of the world due to its nutritional properties.

Why? For one, teff is high in a special type of fibre called ‘resistant starch’. This promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, boosting immune function and promoting good gut health. It’s also gluten free, and is especially high in calcium – terrific for those on dairy-free diets. It also has more iron, zinc and magnesium than wheat, with less phytic acid that reduces the absorption of these minerals.

Teff is similar to millet or quinoa in cooking, and so you can use it as an alternative in any recipe. You can also buy teff flour to use in baking. Don’t be put off by the dark colour – I’ve made awesome pancakes and cookies for my kids using teff and they just thought they had chocolate in them!

2. Maca

If you’ve picked up the new Freedom Foods Crafted Blends bars, you might have noticed one of the flavour combos contains maca. So what on earth is it?

Maca is the root of a plant native to Peru and the Andes mountains. It has been consumed there for several thousand years, but is gaining in notoriety as a health food in the West. Maca is said to help numerous conditions including chronic fatigue, menstrual problems, menopause, to enhance energy, and as an aphrodisiac. There’s some evidence to suggest it may be useful for the latter – at least in men – but unfortunately there just isn’t the evidence to prove it helps the other listed conditions.

Nutritionally, maca is an incredibly rich source of vitamin C, iron, copper and calcium, and a very good source of riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 (possibly explaining the benefit for menstrual symptoms), potassium and manganese. As with most roots, lots of the energy comes from carbohydrates, but maca powder also contains about 14% protein and provides a good dose of fibre.

You can buy maca powder in whole food shops and then you simply add to smoothies, juices, sprinkle on your breakfast or use in baking.

3. Sprouted Grains

You may have noticed some funny looking bread in the fridge section of the supermarket or health food store called sprouted grain bread. So what are sprouted grains?

A whole grain consists of three parts: the starchy endosperm (the store of energy for a new plant), the germ (the embryo of the new plant) and the bran (provides additional nutrients and protects the endosperm and germ until the new growth commences). When conditions are favourable to allow new growth, then the grain seed will start to sprout. The starchy endosperm is broken down into smaller compounds ready to feed the new plant and other nutrients the plant needs are made available. In this state, just before the plant has begun to grow, is what we call a sprouted grain.

What’s interesting is that many people seem to find sprouted grains easier to digest. The enzymatic changes that take place seem to release nutrients to our benefit, just as they would do for any new plant. This is actually the way we used to eat many of our grains, probably just by accident. However, once we learnt that grains could be stored for far longer in a dry, cool place, this became the norm. Today we are starting to realise that sprouting may just be beneficial for our health.

As a result research is growing in this area and while we still have much to understand, there is emerging evidence of benefit to cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of type diabetes and lowering blood pressure.

4. Chickpeas

You’ve all heard of chickpeas, but do you think of them as a superfood? The creative new product team at Freedom Foods and I talked earlier in the year about the ingredients they should be using more. We all agreed that legumes were an amazing way to boost the nutrition of both the cereals and the bars. So you’ll see many of the new products contain chickpeas. So what’s so super about them?

Chickpeas are the dried seeds of podded plants. They are known to have been cultivated for many thousands of years in the Middle East and are eaten in many cuisines including Italian, French and in the Middle East.

Nutritionally, chickpeas are pretty impressive. They are a good source of plant protein and essential amino acids are present in good quantities. This makes chickpeas a smart addition to vegetarian and vegan diets, but I encourage meat-eaters to reduce their reliance on animal foods and include more plant sources of protein in their diets too.

5. Pepitas

The other seeds you’ll see regularly in the new Freedom Foods products are pepitas. These are pumpkin seeds, and like all other seeds (including grains) they’re loaded with nutrients.

Around 70% of the energy in pepitas comes from fat, but it’s primarily healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats. Including these fats in your diet is important for heart and brain health, and can even help you to stay lean.

They are especially rich in iron, making them a valuable addition to vegetarian and vegan diets. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies around the world. A tablespoon of pepitas provides about 10% of the daily iron requirement for adult women and over 20% for men and post-menopausal women.

They’re also rich in manganese, phosphorus and magnesium, and pretty good for vitamin K and copper too. So all up, Pepitas are truly a nutrient dense food that is worthy of adding to your shopping basket.