An edited version of this article, written by Lela, was first published in The South African Journal of Natural Medicine, available in stores nationwide.
Here are ten healthy, easy-to-store basics you can use in all sorts of ways. Stock up, and you’ll be able to create and enjoy delicious dishes with the knowledge that they are providing you with good health from the inside out!
I love food, it’s no secret – ask any of my friends or family! I do know, however, that what I have in my cupboard inevitably influences what ends up on my table, so it makes sense to stock up on healthy staples in order to ensure healthy meals. To this end I’ve come up with ten store-cupboard basics, which are both nutritious and easy to store in bulk.
So here, in no particular order, follow my ten favourites.
Raw honey is honey that has not been heated or pasteurised. It is a naturally sterile substance and has been used since ancient times as a home remedy for coughs or sore throats. Used on sterile dressings, it has recently been proved to be beneficial in reducing scarring and accelerating healing after operations. It contains vitamins C, D and E as well as some B vitamins and traces of minerals, levels varying according to the region in which it is harvested . It is said that honey from any particular area contains components specifically needed to boost the immune systems of those living there, so local may well be best! Manuka honey from New Zealand is considered to have many healing properties, but I prefer to opt for ’home-grown’ versions.
Use raw honey over cereals, in teas (add it when the liquid has cooled down), in delicious smoothies and natural unflavoured yoghurt, basically almost everywhere you would usually use sugar.
Brown rice is rice that has undergone minimal refining and polishing and therefore still contains high levels of nutrients and fibre. Typically brown rice contains thiamine, niacin, folic acid, biotin, panthothenic acid and pyridoxine. If grown in selenium-rich soil it can be a useful source of this trace mineral, and it also has good levels of potassium, iron, zinc, manganese and magnesium and low levels of sodium. The Chinese words for rice and food are the same, namely fan, and in some of the world’s poorest countries rice is a staple food. Many products, such as cereals, milks, desserts and crackers, are made from rice and can form a valuable part of a wheat-free diet.
Beans, peas and lentils, collectively known as pulses, are the dried seeds of the legume family. There are approximately 13 000 species, and the Leguminosae is the second largest family in the plant kingdom.
Health-wise, pulses are important as they are good sources of protein and soluble fibre and are low in fat. In order to make complete protein it is necessary to combine pulses with nuts, seeds and whole-grain cereals. Think brown basmati rice and lentil dahl, chickpea curry and brown rice pilaf, or even whole-wheat spaghetti with kidney bean ‘bolognaise’.
Soya beans are particularly nutritious, as they contain more protein than other pulses and are also a source of iron and calcium. Be aware that they must be fermented or thoroughly cooked – this is important because undercooked soya beans contain a trypsin inhibitor that prevents assimilation of methionine (an amino acid). Fermented soya beans are used to produce tempeh and miso. Make sure the soya products you buy are fermented and made from non-genetically modified beans. Many pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas and mung beans, among others, can also be sprouted, which significantly increases their already impressive nutritional value.
Scientifically known as Avena sativa, oats are a powerhouse of nutrients and as such a welcome addition to any store cupboard. High in protein (12 g per 100 g), oats are also a good source of the minerals potassium, calcium and magnesium, as well as many of the B-complex vitamins. Oats contain beta-glucan, a special kind of fibre that makes them a good food for blood sugar control (slow energy release) and therefore potentially beneficial to those who are at risk of diabetes or managing their diabetes through diet. Various studies have also shown oats to be useful in lowering blood cholesterol, and with the wide range of oat products available today there really is no reason not to include them in your diet on a regular basis. Rolled oats (large flakes) are less refined and therefore healthier than the other versions. Unfortunately oats are not suitable for coeliacs or those following a strictly gluten-free diet.
The nutritional properties of oils are damaged in varying degrees by processes involving heat and exposure to light and oxygen. The best oils are therefore those which are unrefined and have been mechanically cold-pressed without solvents. When properly stored and correctly used, some unrefined oils can be a good source of essential fatty acids. Soya bean oil, for example, is high in essential fatty acids and provides good quantities of lecithin and phytosterols. Some unrefined oils that may be beneficial to health are flax oil, hemp oil, wheat germ oil and olive oil. Almond, apricot and prune oils can also be used as moisturisers for the skin.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts and seeds are good sources of fat, protein, some fibre and many minerals. With the exception of coconut and pine nuts, most nuts contain linoleic acid which may counteract cholesterol deposits and protect against heart disease. It may be difficult for the body to absorb the minerals in nuts and seeds, as these can be bound up with phytic acid, or oxalic acid in the case of peanuts. Soaking, grinding or sprouting the nuts or seeds or eating them along with a food high in vitamin C can improve absorption. Nuts and seeds do contain some B vitamins but are unfortunately not good sources of vitamin B12.
Some nuts and seeds have their own distinctive properties; for example, pumpkin seeds are thought to be good for male fertility, and Brazil nuts are one of the richest sources of the mineral selenium, which may help protect against heart disease and cancer. Add nuts and seeds to salads, fruit medleys and stir-fries, or eat them raw and unsalted as healthy snacks.
Garlic was taken to Britain by the Roman legions, who used to wedge cloves between their toes to help prevent fungal infections on long marches. Fortunately today we have creams for that, but this bit of history is proof of how early on garlic was used as a medicinal herb.
In 1858 Louis Pasteur scientifically proved that garlic has a broad antibacterial effect, and today it is also known to be an antidote to heavy-metal poisons. Countries where the population consumes large amounts of garlic on a regular basis seem to have a lower rate of death from heart attacks, and this amazing herb has also been shown to be an effective remedy for catarrh, bronchitis and sinus problems when crushed and taken with honey and lemon juice in a cup of hot water. Although dried garlic flakes and garlic powder are easier to store than the fresh cloves, it is at its best nutritionally when eaten raw. Use it in salad dressings and hummus, and blend it into stir-fries and soups just before serving.
Seaweed is the richest source of natural iodine of all foods and is also high in vitamin B12, which makes it an excellent choice for vegans and vegetarians. With its good levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium, eating it can be a good way to add these important minerals to your diet, and as an added bonus it also contains protein and soluble fibre. Seaweed is rich in beta-carotene, and in China and Japan especially it has long been used in both food and natural medicine.
Some varieties of seaweeds are kombu, nori and wakame. Buy them dried and soak them just before use, unless of course you are adding them straight to your soup or stew.
Another food which the Chinese and Japanese have been using for years, mushrooms have recently been shown to be a good source of phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins (including B12) and even some vitamin E. Mushrooms also contain zinc, which can make them a good food for persons with high levels of anxiety or the potential for depression. Oriental varieties such as reishi and shitake are most commonly used for drying and can be used in sauces, soups, stews and stir-fries. Don’t discard the water you have soaked them in, as it can make a delicious base for a stock.
Mmm, cacao – but isn’t that the base ingredient for chocolate? Yes, I too was surprised to learn that raw cacao is one of nature’s true superfoods, and according to the friendly folks at Soaring Free Superfoods (their website is listed below) it is the highest antioxidant superfood known to man. However, that is only in its raw state, so no, it does not mean you should stock up on milk chocolate by the box-full!
Raw cacao is a really good source of the mineral magnesium, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (which allow serotonin and dopamine – the ‘good mood’ neurotransmitters – to stay in the bloodstream longer without being broken down) and some B vitamins, among other nutrients. It’s not surprising that eating a block of dark chocolate with a high cacao content helps with those PMS blues!
As stated before, cacao is at its best in the raw, and as it comes in many forms – beans, nibs or even butter – it’s fairly easy to include it in your dishes as often as you like!
So there you have them, ten foods that you can use to create all manner of delicious dishes with the full knowledge that they are healthy and wholesome, providing you with good health from the inside out!
The following books and websites were used to gather information for this article:
Van Straten M. The Healthy Food Directory. Goldenbridge, Dublin: Newleaf, an imprint of Gill & Macmillan, 1999: 203.
Haas EM. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkeley, Calif: Celestial Arts Publishing, 1992: 349.
Haas EM. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkeley, Calif: Celestial Arts Publishing, 1992: 326-327.
Nuts and seeds:
Van Straten M. The Healthy Food Directory. Goldenbridge, Dublin: Newleaf, an imprint of Gill & Macmillan, 1999: 100-103.
Pulses and legumes:
Erasmus U. Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill. Burnaby, BC: Alive Books, 1986, 1993: 236-238.
Van Straten M. The Healthy Food Directory. Goldenbridge, Dublin: Newleaf, an imprint of Gill & Macmillan, 1999: 146.
Van Straten M. The Healthy Food Directory. Goldenbridge, Dublin: Newleaf, an imprint of Gill & Macmillan, 1999: 71 -73.
Van Straten M. The Healthy Food Directory. Goldenbridge, Dublin: Newleaf, an imprint of Gill & Macmillan, 1999: 90-92.
Van Straten M. The Healthy Food Directory. Goldenbridge, Dublin: Newleaf, an imprint of Gill & Macmillan, 1999: 94 -95.