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Making the most of Superfoods at Thanksgiving

Sysco Shape November 2014

Thanksgiving is one of our most food-focused holidays, reflected in images of families gathered around a dining table crowded with customary favorites like roast turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, pumpkin pie and other much-loved dishes. What few Americans realize, however, is that while Thanksgiving is associated with eating well, it also can be a day when we eat healthfully.

Thanksgiving's traditional roster of dishes contains a sizable number of superfoods — foods found to be nutrient-dense relative to their caloric content, high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, and associated with disease prevention and management. “They are generally recognized as being foods that give great benefit,” says Angela Ginn, registered dietitian, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But Thanksgiving is not just for the home cook, either. Chefs and restaurateurs can seize the opportunity to showcase seasonal superfoods and lure customers in with holiday-centric ingredients.

Among the more traditional Thanksgiving superfoods are:

Apples: This extremely popular autumn fruit is full of fiber, which helps to regulate blood sugar, and quercetin, a flavonoid that can combat inflammation. The skin of the apple contains Ursolic acid, which some say lowers the risk of obesity and even cancer. Apples also contain malic acid, a phytonutrient that can improve energy production.

Berries: Berries contain phytonutrients that function in the body as anti-oxidants, which help with inflammatory conditions like arthritis and cardiovascular disease. They also contain Vitamins B, C and K, magnesium, Omega 3, potassium, iodine and folate.

Broccoli: A member of the cruciferous vegetable family broccoli is considered to be a great detoxing agent. It contains Vitamins C, K, A, B6 and B2, among others. It also is full of folate, fiber, manganese, and tryptophan. Among its properties broccoli works as an anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-oxidant agent.

Brussels sprouts: Brussels sprouts also are a cruciferous vegetable that is a good source of Vitamin A, which is important for healthy vision, cell growth and a strong immune system. They also contain contain potassium, which contributes to lowering the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity. In addition, they are high in calcium and folate, which prevents anemia.

Carrots: Carrots are packed with beta carotene, an antioxidant that converts Vitamin A and helps improve eyesight. In addition, carrots are a good source of Vitamin C, potassium and fiber.

Cinnamon and nutmeg: One of the oldest spices, cinnamon is being studied for its potentially beneficial effects on people with type II diabetes. Fans of nutmeg say it acts as a sedative, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and detoxifying agent for the liver and kidneys.

Cranberries: Full of disease-fighting antioxidants, cranberries are recognized for preventing urinary tract infections. The little red berries are low in calories, full of fiber — which helps to reduce bad cholesterol — and high in Vitamin C.

Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure and the risk of blood clots, improve blood flow, increase endurance and boost overall heart health.

Pecans (and other nuts): Pecans — which often show up in the form of a pie on the Thanksgiving table — are a good source of protein, fiber, Vitamin E and magnesium, which helps improve muscle strength.

Pomegranates: Pomegranates possess anti-inflammatory properties that can address high cholesterol and high blood pressure. They're also a source of fiber, Vitamins B, C and K, folate and potassium.

Pumpkin (or pumpkin seed): Like other members of the squash family, pumpkin is high in Vitamin A and beta carotene. It is also a source of complex carbohydrates, which help regulate blood sugar. Pumpkin seeds contain protein, manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, tryptophan, iron, copper, Vitamin K, and zinc, which is good for the prostate.

Spinach: A highly regarded superfood, spinach is full of Vitamins A, B2, B6, E, and K, manganese, folate, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, tryptophan and protein. Spinach also is viewed favorably by experts as being a good weight loss food.

Squash: Winter squash like acorn, butternut and Hubbard are rich in Vitamin A and beta carotene, which is good for healthy eyesight and gives vegetables their orange color. They also are high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, which is filling and helps to prevent overeating.

Sweet potatoes: A great source of fiber and potassium, sweet potatoes contain plenty of antioxidants, are rich in beta-carotene and vitamins A and C, which some say helps to keep colds at bay. They also contain phytochemicals, which battle aging, cancer and arthritis.

Turkey: One of the leanest proteins on the menu, the star of most Thanksgiving feasts is high in B vitamins and amino acids like tryptophan, which aids with sleep. It also contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Turkey breast is good for dieters, too, containing fewer than 90 calories and less than 2 grams of fat per a three-ounce serving, the USDA says.

While Thanksgiving is one of those holidays usually associated with home and family, it is increasingly important to the foodservice industry as well. According to a study conducted in 2013 by the National Restaurant Association, about 79 million people were expected to visit restaurants on Thanksgiving Day that year or while they were shopping the following day, Black Friday.

The NRA’s consumer survey found that while 15 million Americans planned to visit a restaurant for a Thanksgiving meal in 2013, an additional 14 million said they would order parts of their Thanksgiving meal from a restaurant to be eaten at their home or someone else’s home. Four million said they planned to order a full takeout Thanksgiving meal from a restaurant. Meanwhile, 46 million Americans said they planned to dine out while shopping on Black Friday.

Ginn agrees that restaurateurs can make the most of the holiday. “Thanksgiving is a good opportunity [for restaurants] to serve healthful foods,” she says. “Why not add the different flavors of superfoods? People are looking for foods that taste good and are healthy for them.”

Ginn also points out that anything that is vibrant in color tends to contain more antioxidants. “If you can make Thanksgiving as colorful as possible, you'll be reaping the benefits of superfoods.”

In addition, she advises chefs and menumakers not to emphasize the term “superfoods” in their marketing or menuing. “The buzzwords people are looking for are “fresh” and “natural” and “local,” she says. “Chefs can still add [superfoods] and customers don't even notice that they're eating healthy. For example, pecans and pomegranates can be added to salads, sweet potatoes or pumpkin can be added to quick breads or rolls. And dark chocolate is a wonderful ending to any meal.

“You don't have to promote them — just use them,” she says.


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