Throughout my career I've seen a lot of food trends emerge and evolve. Some-like clean eating and the growth in organics-have been awesome, while others, like processed, fat-free, sugar free, diet foods, have been downright dreadful. Fortunately, most of the current "it foods" are pretty amazing, with an overall emphasis on getting back to basics and tapping into natural health benefits. Here are five of my favorite currently in fashion, and how to include them into your eating repertoire.
I am a huge fan of nuts-I eat them daily and have long advised my clients to do the same. Undoubtedly you've seen headlines about research pertaining to almonds, walnuts, and pistachios, which have run the gamut from weight loss to heart and brain protection.
I will remain a nut nut, but lately I find myself talking a lot about seeds, including chia, pumpkin, hemp, sesame, flax, and sunflower. Like nuts, these healthy plant fats provide antioxidants, minerals, fiber, and bonus protein, and they can be enjoyed raw or used in a variety of ways.
I add sesame seeds to slaw and stir frys, whip up chia seed puddings, blend ground flax seeds into smoothies, and sprinkle pumpkin, hemp, and sunflower seeds onto garden salads, roasted veggies, fresh or warmed fruit, hot oatmeal, and cold or hot whole grains, like quinoa and wild rice. Seeds are increasingly sprouting up in packaged products like whole grain crackers, cereals, bars, and bread, as well as butters-I currently have pumpkin seed, hemp seed, and sunflower seed butters in my pantry-and even in desserts and as dark chocolate covered treats.
I love this trend, and I'm hopeful that the interest will grow, and seed products will become more mainstream and easier to find.
Sprouted grains are hot. At my local markets I can buy sprouted grain bread, tortillas, English muffins, crackers, and cereal, as well as sprouted grain flour. So just what is a sprouted grain?
In a nutshell, grain kernels contain the raw materials needed to grow a new plant. When temperature and moisture conditions are just right, the kernel sprouts into a new baby plant, and sprout proponents believe that this version of grains offers extra health benefits.
Sprouting requires enzymes, which allow the baby plant to digest the starch in the kernel, to supply its fuel, and boost the plant's access to nutrients to promote its growth. Sprouted grain enthusiasts say that when we eat these plants, we'll enjoy the same benefits: easier-to-digest starch and more nutrition. And you still get the benefits of eating whole grains.
While I'll still keep eating and recommending "regular" whole grains, technically called "non-germinated" (right now black rice, purple barley, and red quinoa are three of my faves), I'm keen on this trend and excited to see how it develops.
Before Whole Foods expanded out of Texas, I remember needing to go to my local indie health food store to buy any sort of "milk" that didn't come from a cow or goat. I even learned how to make my own plant-based milk by soaking nuts or seeds, pureeing them, then squeezing the liquid through a nut milk bag. Fun, but not very convenient.
Boy, are those days are over. Today, you can find milk alternatives in every mainstream supermarket, and even at discount stores. And that's just the beginning. With more people ditching dairy, or at least cutting back, a variety of plant-based, dairy-free products are emerging, including pea and hemp protein powder, as well as yogurt and ice cream made from coconut and almond milk, and we'll definitely be seeing more.
At this year's Natural Products Expo West, I saw algae milk, which isn't in stores yet, but it's another addition to the long list of milk substitutes, including options made from nuts (almond, hazelnut), seeds (hemp, sunflower, flax), and whole grains (oat, brown rice, quinoa). This trend is definitely ripe for more growth!
Natural functional foods
For years I've seen products engineered to provide functional benefits (like bars and shakes formulated with isolated nutrients) or foods bolstered with amino acids or vitamins they don't naturally contain. But these days the emphasis is on the functional benefits of whole foods that have antioxidants and nutrients built-in, courtesy of Mother Nature.
For example, beets enhance endurance, blueberries protect against the sun's UV rays, tart cherries reduce pain and improve sleep, a combo of tomato paste and olive oil has been shown fight wrinkles by boosting pro-collagen, and dark chocolate elevates mood by triggering the same sense of euphoria you experience when you're in love.
I can't get enough of this research, and passing it onto my clients and readers is one of the things I love most about my job. Stay tuned: There's a whole lot more of this trend to come.
Unusual superfood combinations
Adding spinach or kale to fruit smoothies has been hip for some time but these days, nutritionists, chefs, and health enthusiasts have been getting incredibly creative with combinations that may seem gross at first but they turn out to be delicious. Mish-mashes currently in vogue include veggie desserts, like eggplant cake, tomato ice cream, chocolate covered kale, and my very own vegan spinach brownie recipe.
At Expo West, I saw bars made with both dried fruits and veggies, plus savory spices, like turmeric, cumin, and chili pepper, and my favorite find was a cocoa and chipotle flavored hummus (trust me, it's amazing!).
I've been into this trend for some time now. My last book, S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim, included recipes for a pineapple almond peppercorn parfait, mango mint avocado smoothie, and strawberry avocado tacos garnished with cilantro and balsamic vinegar.
If you're thinking, "No way!" give some of these odd pairings a try-you may be surprised just how much you like them, and mixing things up can be a great way to reignite your excitement about eating healthfully.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's Health's contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance.