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Foods that put the ‘super’ in supermarket

Want to find the foods that deliver for your health? Here's "‘Today"  food editor Phil Lempert’s guide to the best of the best.

As an increasing number of Americans realize that they are overweight — and therefore more liable to fall victim to heart disease and diabetes — they are taking extra time to read those nutrition labels and seek out the most healthful foods.

But with more than 40,000 products in the typical supermarket, this can be a tough task. And while many food marketers claim that their products are the best for your health, only a few can really make that claim.

To help cut the confusion, we've put together some great choices for you to consider the next time you head to the supermarket — great snacks, great drinks and great ways to add nutrients to just about every meal you consume.

Juices
Orange juice is a mainstay at many breakfast tables and is the richest citrus in antioxidants, but did you know that the average 8 ounce glass of orange juice has 112 calories and 20 grams of sugars?

For a refreshing and nutritious choice, try guava juice. With three times more Vitamin C than OJ, this juice is also loaded with potassium (to help regulate blood pressure) and beta-carotene. Fresh, 100 percent guava juice is hard to find, so you may want to head to a squeezed-to-order juice bar. This juice will have about the same calories but less than 25% of the sugars. Be careful — packaged guava juice is usually blended with either apple or pear juices and can have up to 30 grams of carbs. (In general, always read those labels, as many "juice" products on the shelves are loaded with ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup or other added sugars, which add calories and may reduce the nutritional benefits.)

TomatoesTomatoes are rich in lycopene, which reduces risk of prostate cancer and is the best of the oxygen-quenching carotenoids (roughly double the amount in beta-carotene). In addition, they contain coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid, which block the effect of nitrosamines (identified as causing some cancers). These vegetables — yes, according to the USDA tomatoes are vegetables and not a fruit — also are rich in Vitamin A (fights eye disease), Vitamin C (aids the immune system) and potassium (which lowers blood pressure). In 1995 a Harvard Medical School study of 48,000 men found that those who ate 10 or more servings a week of tomato products had a 35% lower risk of prostate cancer.

And you don’t have to eat just fresh tomatoes. Because they are made with concentrated tomato products, pasta sauce, ketchup and other cooked tomato products (choose ones without high fructose corn syrup for lower sugars) are 400% richer in lycopene than fresh tomatoes.

OatmealNot everyone agrees that "low-carb" should be the diet of choice. In fact, oatmeal, the first food product to receive the FDA endorsement claim for its benefit in fighting heart disease and some cancers back in 1999, has a long history of qualifying for our "super-food" categorization.

Oats contains soluble fiber (1/2 a cup of day has been proven to reduce cholesterol) and also to strengthen white blood cells called glucans, which bolsters immune functions.

A study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health also found that eating oatmeal on a regular basis could help reduce the risk of adult onset, Type 2, diabetes.

Regular oatmeal contains about 54 grams of carbs for a 1-cup portion, but only 1 gram approximately comes from total sugars. Oatmeal also is rich in calcium (42 grams in one cup) and protein (13 grams in one cup).

Not all oatmeals are created equal, and it's important to read those labels and look for added ingredients and sugars as well as the type of oats being used. The two most popular varieties are "steel cut" and "rolled".

Steel cut oats are whole-grain, the inner portion of the oat kernel, cut into two or three pieces. Nothing is added or taken out.

Rolled oats are oats that have been flaked, then steamed, rolled, re-steamed then toasted. Some nutrients can be diminished in the processing.

ChocolateChocolate is one of America’s favorite treats. For most, the draw is the great aroma and taste. Others like the hint of it being an aphrodisiac. For some, it's all about the polyphenols!

Polyphenols?

As an antioxidant, polyphenols help the body's cells resist damage from free radicals, which damage cell structure and are formed in our normal body processes. Recent research indicates that polyphenols may even enhance the proliferation and activation of T-lymphocytes -- white blood cells that fight infections and regulate other immune responses. Polyphenols can also prevent cardiovascular disease as they minimize the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is a major factor in the promotion of coronary disease such as heart attack and stroke.

But not all chocolate is "super" — the amount varies by the type of chocolate. In 1.25 ounces you find these levels of the nutrient:

  • Cocoa powder: 1,300 mg
  • Dark chocolate: 700 mg
  • Milk chocolate: 300 mg
  • White chocolate: 0 mg (White chocolate is made just from the cocoa butter and technically is not a chocolate.)

The higher the amount of cocoa content, the higher the amount of antioxidant. Most high-quality chocolates now list the cocoa content on the label.

And what’s the latest on all that talk about chocolate as an aphrodisiac?

It turns out that chocolate is a mood-enhancer after all. Chocolate contains phenethylamine (PEA), which stimulates the nervous system, triggering the release of endorphins, opiate-like compounds that dull pain and give a sense of well-being. There are also chemicals in chocolate that increase the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter directly associated with feelings of sexual arousal and pleasure. Additionally, chocolate can also boost levels of serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter, especially in women (who tend to be more sensitive to chocolate than men). And yet another way chocolate can make us feel good: It inhibits the natural breakdown of anandamide, a neurotransmitter normally found small amounts in the brain, which can produce a feeling of euphoria.

That’s the good news. Chocolate, of course, is heavy in fat and sugar, with the general rule that the better the chocolate, the less harm it will do you. Good quality chocolates are made with a higher proportion of cocoa butter, a fat composed of approximately one-third proportions of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat like in olive oil, and stearic acid and palmitic acid, which are saturated fats. Oleic acid has been shown to lower both total and LDL cholesterol. And interestingly, although stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid (SFA), unlike other SFAs, it does not seem to affect blood cholesterol. Palmitic acid, however, does raise blood cholesterol, so even good quality chocolate should be eaten in moderation. Remember, not all chocolate is made with cocoa butter, so be sure to read labels.

And don’t forget that chocolate contains caffeine. One 1.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate contains about 30 milligrams of caffeine, milk chocolate contains 10 mg, and an 8-ounce serving of hot cocoa contains 5 mg. In comparison, an 8-ounce serving of brewed coffee contains 135 mg of caffeine, 12 ounces of Mountain Dew contains about 56 mg, and cola contains about 35 mg.

SpinachThe healthful and strengthening benefits of spinach have been known for a long time (think Popeye). It is a major source of antioxidants Vitamin C, E and beta-carotene (decreases risk of heart disease, cataracts, and some cancers boosts immunity and slows the aging process) as well as being ultra-rich in iron (nearly 2 mg in one cup with only 15 calories). It's also loaded with significant amounts of riboflavin, vitamin K (to strengthen bones), dietary fiber and folate (can reduce risk of heart disease).

Spinach salads, which are on many restaurant menus, are low in calories (just 7 calories a cup) and contain 167 mg of potassium. (Don’t forget that to get the full benefit they should not be loaded with goopy dressings.)

Frozen spinach has just as much of these nutrients and is often less expensive and easier to cook with. To retain more of the nutrients, boil fresh spinach in just one cup of water rather than the two that most recipes suggest.

FruitsThe average American consumes just 3.2 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, far below the recommendation of 9 servings a day that most nutritionist tout. Eating more fruits is easy – put them on top of your oatmeal (or other breakfast cereal), work them into salads and entrees, or eat as a snack instead of a chocolate bar or packet of chips.

Here are some superstar fruits:

  • Blueberries are high in antioxidants and also contain anthocyanins (the phytochemical that fights cancers). They have been found to help promote a healthy urinary tract and night vision. Rich in lutein and fiber, they have also has been found to reduce the risk of diabetes and circulatory problems. Half a cup contains just 40 calories and 7 grams of sugars and with one of the sweetest tastes of all fruits is perfect to use as a sweet snack.
  • Bananas come in all shapes, sizes and colors and are about 120 calories, less than 20 grams of sugars and contain 525 mg. of potassium. Potassium is one of the body's most significant minerals, which is critical for proper cellular and electrical functions. As an electrolyte, potassium actually carries a tiny electrical charge with it throughout the body. It regulates our water and acid balance in both the blood and tissues. It's also one of the most important nutrients for normal growth and building muscle.
  • Strawberries, the most popular of all berries, is also the highest in Vitamin C, iron and potassium. Just one cup of raw strawberries delivers 220 mg. of potassium and 85 mg. of Vitamin A. Low in sugar (just 6 grams); strawberries are also low in calories (just 45 calories for a whole cup), making them a terrific snack for those watching their sugar and calorie intake.

NutsAlmonds are probably the best all-around "nut" — low in fat, high in protein and rich in linoleic acid (Omega-6s which can reduce cholesterol levels, acts as an anti-inflammatory, and improve our skin's tone and youthfulness).

Walnuts contain a significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid, an Omega 3 fatty acid that can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and improve mental and visual functions). Just one ounce of walnuts is 100% of the Recommendent Daily Allowance. (Omega 3s are usually associated with fish.)

Want to know more about Phil and food? Visit his website at .