What irks me most about healthy food trends is that while you gain body benefits, your bank balance invariably suffers. Superfoods like berries, grains and exotic-sounding vegetables might well be rich in the nutrients and compounds we need to stay healthy and slim, but the stress that comes with splashing out a small fortune on them can offset any long term boost to your wellbeing. It is possible, however, to eat super-healthily on the cheap, to buy enough real superfoods to fill you up for an entire day and yet set you back less than the amount you would pay for a bowl full of goji berries.
A word of advice: spend the cash you save on these budget buys wisely. A study by psychologists at the University at Buffalo showed that consumers are prone to splash out on unhealthy snacks when they save money on their food shopping. In the trial, 42 women were asked to select food and drinks with ever-changing prices. When high-calorie, nutrition-poor foods like biscuits, Doritos and fizzy drinks were priced highly, they bought far fewer calories overall. But when the price of healthy items like low fat yogurt, green peppers and porridge oats also went down, they compensated by buying more junk food.
Here are nine of my personal favourite budget superfoods, each costing £2 or less:
Barley (55p per 500g): Much cheaper than trendy grains like quinoa, barley is highly nutritious despite the hull being removed to make pearl barley edible. It is packed with fibre and nutrients as well as soluble fibre which can help to lower cholesterol. Naturopaths say it is soothing and fortifying for the body. Throw it into homemade soups, stews and casseroles where its chewy texture and slightly sweet taste while add flavour as well as nutrition.
Almonds (£1.15 per 100g): Less calorific than Brazil nuts and packed with protein which has a satiating effect, Almonds are a superb standby for snacking. High in vitamin E, which protects against UV light damage, they also contain minerals such as manganese, which helps the body form strong bones and regulates blood sugar, and magnesium which is essential for healthy nerve function, blood glucose control and regulating blood pressure. One study showed that women who consumed 40 almonds a day didn’t gain weight in a six month trial. It could be that not all of the fat in the nuts is absorbed by the body. Buy them with the skin on (usually even cheaper) as it contains an impressive collection of flavonoids that act as antioxidants, protecting the body against ageing.
Oats (£1.50 per 100g): For all the exotic breakfast options available, none comes close to good old fashioned oats in either price or health benefits. Studies have proven time and again that a regular consumption of oats can help the body to hoover up cholesterol, fend off heart disease, suppress the appetite and even beat depression. It can also keep you from flagging - it’s long lasting energy boost has been shown to keep you going for precisely four hours and 21 minutes.
Tinned tomatoes (80p per 400g): These should be on standby in any cupboard, ready to be made into a classic tomato sauce to add to pasta, fish or meat. Despite their reputation, tinned foods like frozen often have a nutrient value that is as good as, if not better than, that of the fresh version. Cooked tomatoes are a rich source of the phytochemical compound lycopene that has been shown to fight cancer and other diseases as well as boost male fertility. One Swiss study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that women who consumed the most lycopene reduced their risk of developing breast cancer by 36 percent.
Prunes (£2 per 500g): The humble dried plum contains neochlorogenic and chlorogenic acid, which protect against cell DNA damage (translation: they're anti-aging). They're also a good source of fiber and contain potassium, crucial for helping to maintain healthy blood pressure. Eating dried prunes was shown to reduce the risk of osteoporosis in a study at Florida State University. Women given about 10 prunes a day for 12 months had significantly higher bone mineral density compared with those given dried apples as a snack. This is thought to be due in part to the ability of the prunes to slow down the breakdown of bone which usually accelerates as people get older.
Button mushrooms (£1 per 200g carton): Often overlooked in favour of trendy chestnut organic or shiitake mushrooms, the plain white button variety has a lot going for it. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that just a handful has about 12 times more L-ergothioneine, an antioxidant that does DNA damage control, than wheat germ, and four times more than chicken liver, previously thought to be the best source. They are also loaded with nutrients our bodies need to generate energy and repair cells - including a spectrum of B vitamins. Chuck them in your salad.
Kale (£1 per 200g bag): A celebrity favourite, this is one of a crop of trendy superfoods that won’t break the bank. Kale’s dark green leaves are loaded with vitamins and minerals like, calcium and iron. Granted, iron from veg is not as easily assimilated as iron from meat, Cooked badly it is tough and bitter, but strip off the tough stems or add to a smoothie and it is delicious.
Frozen berries (£2 per 400g): Forget ridiculously pricey acai and goji berries and opt for a frozen collection of blueberries, strawberries and raspberries instead. Last year two independent studies found more beneficial nutrients in everything from frozen broccoli florets to berries than in the fresh versions. In fact, in two out of three cases the frozen fruit and vegetables scored better on antioxidant-type compounds – including Vitamin C, polyphenols, anthocyanins, lutein and beta-carotene. Bags of frozen berries are a great standby for a dessert or as a porridge or yoghurt topping.
Lollo Rosso: Bagged salads are expensive and often a waste of money. Researchers reporting in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that manufacturing techniques used to keep the bagged greens crispy for longer also destroys vitamins and protective antioxidants. Opt instead for a variety of cheaper whole lettuce and leaves. Among my favourites is Lollo Rosso which has deep red leaves, a result of the antioxidant rich anthocyanidin pigment it contains, believed to reduce the risk of heart disease by preventing the build-up of blood clotting.