Heroic Ingredients: The New List of Superfoods

Top superfoods are the new menu superstars.

As unlikely as it seems, the drink that outsells every other libation at The Proprietors Bar & Table is a $13.50 cocktail featuring quinoa and kale. 

No longer relegated to hippie joints and juice bars, “superfood” grains and leafy greens like these are becoming culinary superstars. Along with farro, freekeh and others, they’re enjoying newfound popularity across all segments because of their perceived health benefits.

“I am always searching for ingredients and preparations that allow me to provide interesting tastes and textures, and are also wholesome and delicious,” says Tom Berry, executive chef and co-owner of The Proprietors Bar & Table in Nantucket, Mass. 

Boosted in part by the farm-to-table movement and a growing interest in gluten-free and “clean” eating, many consumers—especially those attracted to healthy dining buzzwords—are embracing so-called superfoods. Ingredients like beets, pistachios, kiwi, lentils and wild-caught salmon are associated with fighting illness and shown in studies to far surpass the nutritional content of other fruits, vegetables and good-for-you foods.

“Kale is now served in some of the best restaurants in America,” says Martin Oswald, chef-owner of Pyramid Bistro in Aspen, Colo., a restaurant that showcases seasonal, nutrient-dense foods. “It’s a clear message to eat your greens. It’s a huge step forward.”

More restaurants are adding healthful ingredients like avocado, brown rice, blueberries and walnuts to their recipes, according to Datassential, a Chicago-based foodservice market research firm. In fact, avocado saw the greatest menu increase, appearing on nearly 38 percent of menus in 2013, up 15 percent from 2008.  

But for many chefs, healthy, seasonal and often locally sourced ingredients were driving their menus long before superfoods achieved trend status.  

“I’m not ruling foods in or out based on their nutritional profiles,” says Mark Purdy, chef at Alizé, a contemporary French restaurant in Las Vegas. “I’m using really beautiful seasonal ingredients like white asparagus, kale or morel mushrooms, and as it turns out, they have all these healthful properties.”

True Food Kitchen, where menus are based on Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet, features dishes like roasted sea bass with portobello, freekeh and Brussels sprouts ($24) and grilled steelhead salmon with smoked onion quinoa, roasted beets, arugula, cilantro, pumpkin seeds and Cotija cheese ($20). Brand Chef Michael Stebner says its six locations in Arizona, California and Colorado have the highest guest repeat rates out of the 38 restaurants in the Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts family. 

“Our emphasis is on food that tastes great first and happens to be good for you,” he says. “People coming through the door expect to be satisfied.” 

Healthy dining is in demand, but it doesn’t come cheap. 

Many chefs and consumers believe that superfoods and other healthful ingredients are better when they are organic, sustainable or humanely raised. These specifications often come with higher costs, as do fluctuations in supply and demand for foods like quinoa and kale. Other foods, like macadamia nuts, almonds and avocados, are expensive to grow.  

Some diners, however, are happy to fork over the extra cash. More than one-fifth of consumers say they are willing to pay at least slightly more for foods containing antioxidants, immunity-boosting ingredients and probiotics, according to a 2012 report by Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research firm.  

But boosting prices isn’t always the answer. 

“Our formula is based on putting the vegetable at the center of the plate and scaling back on the size of protein,” Stebner says. “We may pay two times the price of conventional produce, but organic still often comes out under $2 a pound. There’s no meat out there that comes in at that price.”

To balance costs, Oswald uses organic growers but chooses conventional ones for produce he says are less susceptible to pesticides, such as root vegetables, cantaloupes, asparagus and eggplant. These varieties are consistently part of the “Clean 15,” a list of produce least likely to test positive for pesticide residues, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy organization.  

“If I went 100-percent organic, I’d be out of business,” Oswald says.

At The Proprietors, Berry regularly highlights local artisans and ingredients harvested on small Nantucket and New England farms. He says what he gains in quality far outweighs the extra costs.

“I’ve found if you’re honest with your customers and give them well-executed, pristine ingredients with sensible portion sizes, they’re not going to complain about price,” he says.  

Superfoods are certainly of the moment, but Berry sees them as “another step in the progression of American dining.” 

“Foods that used to be exotic, like sushi, mesclun greens and tofu, slowly became mainstream,” he says. “And I think that’s what we are continuing to see with items like quinoa and farro.” 

After researching this story, Chicago-based writer Monica Ginsburg is adding more locally sourced superfoods to her grocery list.


What makes foods super? While no medical guidelines exist, foods claiming powerhouse status are nutrient rich and associated with reducing the risk of disease or promoting optimal health. 

Scientific evidence supports the idea that some foods might have positive effects on health: blueberries boast heart-healthy antioxidants, avocados share the same good fats as olive oil and tomatoes contain cancer-fighting lycopene. But “we do not know how much is needed in order to reap the benefits,” says Karen Langston, a certified nutritionist and board member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. 

Not all claims are backed by science. For example, acai berries, which are native to the rainforests of South America, may be a good source of antioxidants, fiber and heart-healthy fats. But research is limited and claims about the health benefits of acai haven’t been proven, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Your best bet is still to eat a balanced and varied diet,” Langston says.

Superfood Science 

Terms to know

ANTIOXIDANTS are molecules that protect the body’s cells from free radicals (molecules involved in disease development). Too many free radicals in the body may lead to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. A diet rich in antioxidant foods (including spices like turmeric, cinnamon and ginger) helps maintain a healthy balance. Many vitamins have antioxidant effects, including A, C and E, which can be found in most fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and some cold water fish.

FLAVONOIDS are powerful plant-based antioxidants, similar to vitamins, that have an anti-inflammatory effect. The best known flavonoids (flavonols, isoflavones and catechins) are found in oranges, grapefruits, blueberries, red and purple grapes, green tea and some spices. 

CAROTENOIDS are pigments that protect dark green, yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables from sun damage, which work as antioxidants in humans. Beta-carotene, which is converted in the body into vitamin A, is found in leafy greens, spinach and collard greens. Other carotenoids, such as lycopene and lutein, are found in many red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes and grapefruit. 

Superfoods on the Menu 

Organic quinoa salad with fresh pineapple, avocado, bibb lettuce, goji berries, cilantro, and carrot-ginger and sesame vinaigrette, $12

Pyramid Bistro, Aspen, Colo.

Powerhouse salad with grilled chicken, quinoa, spinach, feta, tomatoes, cucumber, roasted red peppers and egg, with cilantro-lime dressing, $11.75

BLD, Chandler, Ariz.

Lentil ricotta "metaballs" with lemony kale-basil pesto, garlic-roasted spaghetti squash, shaved fennel and kale chips, $19

The Herb Box, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Crisp, roasted chicken breast with sweet potato-chorizo hash, black currant and balsamic braised Swiss chard and roasted chicken jus, $19

Open Kitchen Bistro and Wine Bar, Falls Church, Va.

Duck with beluga lentils and maitake mushrooms, $28

Recette, New York City

Niman Ranch pork loin, pickled peach, fennel, kale, poached radish, mustard jus and farro, $28

Ruka's Table, Highlands, N.C.