Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Surprising Superfoods

Michaels Top Ten Simple Superfoods

I get annoyed by endless stories about exotic and very expensive Superfoods that are flown in from far flung corners of the world. Mostly, the only thing super about them is the profit they make for the commercial outfits behind their promotion.

Here are ten simple Superfoods that you will find in any food shop at ordinary, every-day prices. Do not fall into the trap of believing all the hyped magic berries, juices made from grass and £20 pots of dried pond scum that will, altogether, help you live a cancer, heart disease, stroke and wrinkle free life till you reach your one hundredth birthday.

Next month I will tell you the truth about these health food scams and show you equally healthy alternatives that cost a quarter of the price and can often be found free in the hedgerows or grown for next to nothing in your own garden.

But for now, find out the good news about my top ten great and surprising Superfoods, including Avocados, beer, cherries, eggs, peanuts, prunes and watercress!

1. Avocado Pears

Almost every woman I know believes avocados are fattening. In fact they're fabulous food containing a little protein, some starch, heart-protective monounsaturated fat, plenty of potassium, and vitamins A, B, C and E.

They've been grown in South America for 8,000 years where indigenous tribes used fruit, dried leaves, fresh leaves, rind, bark and the seed medicinally.

Calorie for calorie they offer super nutrition and the high content of oleic acid makes them a powerful antioxidant. Consequently they protect against heart disease, strokes and some forms of cancer.

Pureed avocado is an ideal food for anyone who's unwell, recovering from illness or surgery, and especially valuable for ill children. It's easy to digest, and a rich source of natural antibiotic and antifungal chemicals. You may think that guacamole is just an excuse for eating lots of tacos, but it is in fact a dish which provides lots of energy, important amounts of protein, and an extremely valuable source of naturally protective chemicals.

Because they're rich in vitamin E, avocados are important in the diet of anyone planning conception or with fertility problems and their B vitamin content will help you cope with stress, tension and anxiety. Because they contain B6 they're an ideal food for women suffering from PMS and should be eaten regularly in the ten days leading up to the next period.

Another totally different benefit is the way in which avocados help improve and maintain healthy skin. The natural oils and vitamins A and E are antioxidant and so prevent premature ageing of the skin and the formation of wrinkles. When applied externally a puree of avocado mixed with live yoghurt makes a fabulous face mask for cleansing and nourishing. It will increase the amount of collagen which helps to reduce existing wrinkles and so maintains clear and youthful skin.

2. Beer

If you think the idea of ‘laddettes' swigging pints of bitter is not very appealing – think again as there are plenty of reasons for women to indulge in this most traditional of all British drinks.

Beer is one of the best nutritional sources of the mineral silicon, essential for strong bones and the prevention of osteoporosis. Even more importantly it's easier for the body to use the silicon in beer than almost any other foodstuff. As little as half a pint a day could help prevent the osteoporosis that causes more than 200,000 fractures every year – most of them in women.

There's more good news as recent research reveals that hops used in traditional brewing are a good source of phytoestrogens – natural plant hormones that protect against osteoporosis. If you really want strong bones, next time you have a pub lunch order a ploughman's and a glass of beer. Calcium in cheese and phytoestrogens in beer are perfect bone-builders.

This wonderful drink is also an excellent source of B vitamins, notably B12, B6 and folic acid, which many women lack in their diets. As a bonus hops have a natural antibiotic action which kills the Helicobacter pylori bug, a common cause of stomach ulcers. For this reason regular but modest beer drinkers are much less likely to suffer from this problem.

Beer contains lots of potassium but very little sodium so it's good for your blood pressure. Its high levels of magnesium and small quantities of calcium help to prevent kidney and gallstones, and you'll be surprised to know that a pint provides up to 30 percent of your daily fibre needs thanks to the barley content. It's this special form of soluble fibre that prevents constipation and keeps your cholesterol low.

Beer is Nature's tonic – it looks good, tastes good and really does you good.

3. Barley

Barley is a sadly much neglected grain which has amazing nutritional and health properties. The grains contain natural soothing lubricants which have a direct healing action on mucous membranes which explains the traditional use for the treatment of sore throats, oesophagitis, gastritis and colitis. It contains calcium, potassium, and plenty of B-complex vitamins, so it's good if you're feeling stressed, exhausted or recovering from illness.

Lemon barley water is a traditional remedy for cystitis and other urinary problems. Add a tablespoon of washed pot barley to half a litre of water and two quartered unwaxed lemons. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain, refrigerate and drink several glasses a day.

The Latin name for barley is Hordeum and to Romans it was such a strengthening food that gladiators ate it regularly which is why they were called Hordearii – barley eaters. The great 4th century Roman gastronome, Apicius, lists several recipes for barley soups including Tisanam and Tisanam sic facies formulated to the Roman medical idea of tisanam – barley waters used as medicine – which is where the word ‘tisane' originated.

Barley is the oldest cultivated cereal and you can benefit from this strengthening and protective grain. Use barley flour in biscuits, bread and cakes, add barley flakes to breakfast cereals, and use plenty of the whole grains in soups, stews and casseroles. Barley is rich in soluble fibre and other natural chemicals which reduce cholesterol levels and specifically protect against many forms of cancer. Modern research has shown that barley inhibits the manufacture of cholesterol in the liver as well as increasing its elimination from the body.

Pot barley is highly superior to the more widely available pearl barley as it retains much more of the fibres and gut soothing chemicals, though more processed forms do provide good quantities of minerals but considerably smaller amounts of vitamins.

4. Cherries

Is there anything that tastes better than the first cherries of the season, especially as they're one of the few seasonal fruits only available for a few months of the year. It may be convenient to have other fruits and vegetables in the supermarkets 365 days a year, but the best nutritional content comes from fruits and vegetables eaten in season, grown as close to where you live as possible and harvested in peak condition. They probably came originally from the orchards of Mesopotamia in pre-biblical times and were certainly highly valued by the ancient Greek physicians.

Cherries are a fairly recent arrival in Europe, introduced as the wild cherry from Asia and though most wild fruits are quite bitter the wild cherry is sweet and succulent. Of the cultivated varieties my favourites come from the orchards of Kent though most cherries in supermarkets are imported.

Of the sour cherries, Morello are wonderful for cooking, bottling, juicing and liqueurs and the Acerola is the richest in nutrients, especially bioflavonoids. Wild cherry bark was used medicinally but the dried fruit stalks and fruits are an effective diuretic. Cherries contain plenty of potassium and virtually no sodium, so they're excellent for anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease. They're a reasonable source of vitamin C but also contain significant amounts of bioflavonoids and other plant chemicals which make them pretty near the top of the list of protective antioxidant foods. It is the ellagic acid content which adds extra value to their anti-cancer properties.

In folk medicine cherries have been used for the relief of arthritis and gout and dried cherry stones make the most wonderful hot bag for muscular pain, joint disorders and stomach ache. Though there is no scientific evidence for this, the anecdotal stories are legion and even if they don't help, they can't hurt and they taste delicious.

5. Eggs

Eggs are the ultimate protein. 90% is utilised by the body compared with only 67% from steak and 30% from lentils. They're also a wonderful source of zinc and vitamins A, B, D and E.

One of the most important substances in egg yolk is lecithin which is vital as part of many of the body's metabolic processes, including the dispersal of dangerous fat deposits and cholesterol. Lecithin prevents the development of heart disease and the formation of gall stones and also encourages speedy conversion of body fats into energy.

Because of their high lecithin content eggs are an important brain food, contributing not only to memory and concentration, but also to good mental and emotional status.

Today's obsession with cholesterol means that people have drastically cut down on the number of eggs they eat and go to ridiculous lengths like making disgusting omelettes from one whole egg and three egg whites. But there is a difference between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol. The body manufactures cholesterol when you eat saturated animal fats but the cholesterol in eggs does not add to the circulating blood levels and is only a factor in people with extremely high cholesterol or hereditary diseases which means they make too much of their own.

You'll be happy to know that the World Health Organization advises a maximum of ten eggs a week. Factory farmed battery eggs should be avoided as they are much more likely to be infected with salmonella and contain chemical additives which are added to the feed. Always choose organic hens eggs.

Duck and goose eggs are also delicious but need to be thoroughly cooked and just hard boiled quails eggs with a little celery salt take a lot of beating. If you want the ultimate ‘eggstacy' try gulls eggs for the most wonderful creamy textured yolks.

6. Peanuts

I can hear you all throwing up your hands in horror and saying ‘This man's mad – what on earth are peanuts doing in a guide to healthy eating?' Well, I'm telling you the truth about this wonderful and highly nutritious food. Many people do not realise that peanuts are not, in fact, nuts. They are a member of the legume family, like all the peas and beans. That is why those with nut allergies can usually eat peanuts without problems.

When I ask my patients if they like peanut butter most of them hang their heads in shame and whisper yes as if it were their guiltiest secret, because almost every woman I know believes that peanuts, and even worse peanut butter, is guaranteed to pile on the pounds. The facts reveal the exact opposite.

Over the last two or three years scientists have proved that the common low fat diet is not nearly as effective for weight loss, nor does it protect against heart disease as well as the Mediterranean concept of a moderate fat diet which consists mostly of vegetable fats and oils. Most recently a large scale experiment demonstrated that eating a teaspoon of peanut butter five days a week helped the participants to lose on average a pound a week.

What's more, the monounsaturated fats in peanuts reduce cholesterol levels and protect you against clogged up arteries and heart disease. Additional benefits come from the high content of fibre, folic acid, vitamin E, potassium and the amino acid arginine, which is crucial to heart health.

Peanuts are also one of the great preventers of adult onset diabetes as they have a super-low glycemic index which means they hardly raise your blood sugar levels so your body doesn't need to pump out lots of insulin. All this protection, prolonged energy release, and a wonderful source of nutrients means that peanuts and peanut butter should be part of your regular eating pattern – as long as you're not allergic to them.

Obviously fresh peanuts out of the shell or peanut butter made without the addition of salt is the ideal but even a packet of salted peanuts is far less salty than a pack of crisps and surprisingly a little bit less salty than most commercial bread. Considering the small quantities of peanuts that you need to get the health benefits, the intake of salt which you get with them is not very significant, especially if you are keeping your salt intake from other sources - processed foods and the salt cellar - to a minimum.

7. Prunes

How dreadfully maligned these wonderful dried fruits are. In countries like France where food is so much appreciated they're considered a delicacy, whereas we tend to consider them for one purpose only and that's the least of their value.

Prunes are the dried fruit of a variety of plum which grows around the French town of Agen below Bordeaux. The Crusaders brought them to Britain from the Middle East but it was certainly the Arabs who planted the plum trees in France much earlier. ‘Pruneaux d'Agen' is the name unique to this area and as strictly controlled as any fine wine Appellation.

In the 21st century 70% of the total world supply of prunes comes from sunny California which produces twice the crop of the rest of the world put together. It's fascinating that this now huge Californian industry began when Louis Pellier, a French nurseryman living in California, persuaded his brother to bring cuttings of the prune plums from Agen back to California after his marriage in France in 1856.

Prunes are rich in potassium making them valuable for those with high blood pressure, they're rich in fibre and iron and also contain useful amounts of niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin A. They're an excellent source of energy, being easily digested and producing 160 calories per 100g. Prunes also contain a chemical (hydroxyphenylisatin) which stimulates the smooth muscle of the large bowel, which makes them a gentle, non-purging laxative.

Most importantly of all, weight for weight, prunes are the most powerful of all the protective antioxidant foods. The US Department of Agriculture has calculated the ORAC value (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) – a measure of the protective value of foods – at 5770 units per 100 g, compared with 2000-odd for raisins, blueberries and blackberries, and 980 for a plateful of Brussels sprouts. A handful of prunes provide the optimum protection of 5000 ORACS a day.

8. Sardines
Fresh sardines cooked on a barbecue with a bowl of salad, a glass of wine and a chunk of real bread is a royal feast which almost everyone enjoys on a Mediterranean holiday but hardly ever cooks at home. Fresh sardines are cheap to buy and widely available – even in supermarkets. They're rich in protein, iron and zinc and a very important source of vitamin D, without which you can't absorb calcium and build strong bones.

Like all oily fish they supply the essential Omega-3 fatty acids needed for proper development of the brain and all other nervous tissue.

Here you have one of the great Superfoods. Cheap, hugely nutritious and easy to cook quickly under the grill, in a frying pan, or for my money, best of all on a BBQ, sprinkled with a little coarse sea salt and a few sprigs of fresh dill.

Even quicker, open a can, they are now ring-pull so you don't need an opener, or to search for the long lost key. If your like me, I always used to put them on the wrong way round first time!

Canned sardines are just as nutritious and have the added bonus of providing lots of calcium as weight for weight they're the only food which supplies more of this bone-building mineral than milk. That is, as long as you eat the bones. Mashed up with some Worcester sauce, balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice and eaten with hot toast and a ripe tomato, they're a brain, bone and body building feast.

9. Watercress

Hippocrates described watercress and its medicinal values in 460 BC, he built the world's first hospital next to a stream flowing with pure spring water so that he could grow fresh watercress for his patients. The Greeks and the Romans believed watercress was a cure for madness, though taking it as a puree mixed with vinegar didn't do much for Nero. The watercress you eat today is identical in every respect to that eaten by Hippocrates, Nero and even Henry VIIIth.

Thanks to its high vitamin C content it's been used since the 1500s to prevent scurvy but there's more to this nasturtium family. Both watercress and nasturtiums contain a benzyl mustard oil which is powerfully antibiotic. But unlike conventional antibiotics these are kind to your friendly gut bacteria. Eating watercress and nasturtium flowers strengthen your resistance and fight chest and urinary infections.

Dr. Stephen Hecht, Professor of Cancer Prevention at the University of Minnesota, USA, has studied the importance of watercress as a preventer of lung cancer in smokers. The best way to avoid lung cancer is to stop smoking, but for those who can't, they should make sure that they eat a large bunch of watercress every day. These peppery tasting leaves contain a unique chemical, phenethyl isothiocyanate, which helps neutralize the important tobacco-specific lung carcinogen NNK. This extraordinary protective chemical, also known as gluconasturtiin, is only released from watercress when it is chewed or chopped.

Add all this to the fact that watercress is also a useful source of iodine – essential for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland – and you'll understand why it isn't just a garnish on top of the steak, but a nutritious, protective and important food which should be eaten in generous quantities by everybody.

Always wash watercress thoroughly in plenty of running water to remove any residual grit or bacteria. It makes great soup, wonderful sauce to go with fish, is delicious in salads and turns a mundane sandwich into a taste sensation.

10. Yoghurt

Yoghurt in some form or other has been made since time immemorial. The ancient Bedouin found that the combination of heat, movement and obviously a few good bacteria fermented the milk in their goatskin bags. The resulting yoghurt then kept for days.

Most commercial yoghurts starting with pasteurised milk inoculated with cultures of beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus or bulgaricus, Bifidobacteria or Streptococcus thermophilus. Many yoghurt products are then pasteurised again and contain none of the live and beneficial organisms that give yoghurt its unique properties.

Live, or ‘bio' yoghurts contain health-giving bacteria which synthesise the B vitamins, biotin, folic acid and B12. They increase absorption of calcium and magnesium, and keep your bowels regular. These good bugs also attack and destroy the bad guys which cause food poisoning.

Because antibiotics kill all the bugs, good and bad, they should always be taken with a daily carton of live yoghurt which helps prevent diarrhoea. It also encourages the synthesis of B vitamins so helps prevent depression that commonly follows antibiotic therapy.

Yoghurt is an excellent source of calcium, one 150g carton provides 210mg – well over a quarter of the minimum daily requirement – and for weight conscious women, low fat varieties contain even more at 285mg per 150g pot. Yoghurt also contains small traces of vitamin D which is essential for the absorption of calcium, making it an even more important source.

Veterinary scientists have found that the ‘probiotics' – good bugs - produce enzymes absorbed directly through the gut wall, which strengthen the immune defences.

The Russian scientist Metchnikoff published a book in 1908 called ‘The Prolongation of Life'. He had studied Bulgarian peasants, who ate lots of yoghurt and lived amazingly long lives. Metchnikoff's word was enough for most of Europe to start eating yoghurts on a grand scale.

A daily live yoghurt is a huge health bonus. Choose a live plain variety and add your own fruit to avoid sugar, preservatives and a host of other chemicals.


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