Hungry History

The Ancient Origins of Superfoods

By Laura Schumm

super foods
It would be hard to miss the hype surrounding the latest and greatest “superfoods” and by some accounts there are 100 so-called superfoods available today. While most nutritionists and doctors agree that these foods can indeed be good for you, many believe the “super” label should be dropped. In 2007, the European Union passed legislation banning the term superfood on packaging unless the claim could be backed by scientific evidence. Though there currently are no regulations or legal definitions as to what can and cannot hold the label in the United States, superfoods are generally considered to contain a wide variety of essential nutrients while packing large doses of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals. The health benefits of fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, broccoli, and kale are well documented, but which foods did our ancient forebears consider to be exceptionally healthy?

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the foods that were believed to be superior thousands of years ago are commonly found in most supermarkets today. Ubiquitous garlic, for example, is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. Inscriptions on the pyramids at Giza indicate that the ancient Egyptian laborers who built them valued the plant for its ability to increase their physical strength and stamina. Likewise, both the military and athletes in ancient Greece consumed garlic before engaging in battle or competing in the earliest Olympics. In ancient China, garlic was prescribed for digestive and respiratory complaints as well for those suffering from depression. In fact, references to the various medicinal properties of garlic—from protection against infections to treatment of headaches—can be found across many ancient civilizations, including Rome, Sumer, Assyria, Babylon and India among others.

Grown high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia and Chile for more than 5,000 years, quinoa is a grain-like seed that was vital to the Incas, who referred to it as the “mother grain.” The plant was considered so sacred that priests made offerings of the grain to the sun god Inti, while Inca armies relied on a mixture of quinoa and fat called “war balls” to sustain them on long marches. Touted as the only plant-based source of complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, quinoa’s popularity and demand has risen dramatically in recent years. In fact, the United Nations declared 2013 to be the International Year of Quinoa.

Many other ancient power-packed foods, however, are still awaiting worldwide recognition. Teff, a poppy seed-sized grain that is believed to have originated in Ethiopia sometime between 4000 and 1000 B.C., is traditionally used to make a spongy flatbread known as injera, which is either eaten alone or beneath meats, vegetables and sauces. Teff is high in fiber, protein and many essential minerals, including calcium, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus. The naturally gluten-free grain contains a relatively low amount of phytic acid, allowing the human body to more readily absorb the grain’s nutrients and, consequently, helping Ethiopians to stave off diseases such as anemia and osteoporosis. Samples of what is believed to be teff have been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, indicating that the grain may have been cultivated—and revered—outside of Ethiopia thousands of years ago.

Categories: Ancient History, Food, Health