Whether via your Facebook news feed, the juice store around the corner, or even in articles about healthy living, chances are you've heard of buzzword-y health foods like acai, spirulina and wheatgrass. You know these foods are healthy. But have you ever stopped to think about why they are -- and whether it's worth shelling out the extra cash for them?
We talked to Keri Gans, R.D., author of "The Small Change Diet," to walk us through some of the more trendy health foods to explain what they are exactly, why we eat them, and whether they're actually worth the hype.
Jakob Kamender via Getty Images
They're hard to pronounce, so they must be good for you, right? Sure, acai (pronounced ah-sah-YEE) berries -- which are usually found in a processed form, such as a powder, or found in yogurts or smoothies -- are a boon to health because of their high levels of antioxidants. But ... so are other berries. "Blueberries and raspberries are also high in antioxidants," Gans notes. So sure, go ahead and try out products with acai berries if you want to, but local berries -- especially when in season -- are probably a cheaper and more readily accessible way of obtaining antioxidants. (It's also important to note that any claims about acai berries having special weight loss powers
have not been backed up by research.)
Acai berries are a good source of antioxidants, but you'd be just as well off buying regular berries/berry products.
weerapatkiatdumrong via Getty Images
If you've ever stepped foot in a juice or smoothie shop, you've probably seen the option to add a shot of wheatgrass to your concoction. Wheatgrass is a young grass from the wheat family, and is typically seen in capsule or liquid form. And while it's certainly packed with nutrients -- it's got iron, calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E -- it doesn't really provide anything that special that other vegetables can't also provide, Gans says. "It's not going to cause any harm to do a shot of wheatgrass, but is it going to do much more than just having a healthy snack?" she explains. "It is good for you, and it is nutrient-packed," but you could also just opt to put in a handful of spinach or kale into your smoothie.
Bottom line: Wheatgrass does have health benefits, but other veggies could probably provide you with similar ones.
Chia seeds are tiny, edible seeds that are packed with big benefits -- in fact, just 1 tablespoon has 5 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein. They also don't have much of a taste -- which makes them a great way to amp up the nutrients of of a salad, smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal, Gans says. They can also help keep you full because they're such a good source of fiber.
Bottom line: Chia seeds are a good way to sneak some extra fiber and protein into your dishes.
Paul Williams - Funkystock via Getty Images
Quinoa may be known as an "ancient grain," but it's technically a seed
. And it's probably one of those healthy foods you've heard buzz about in the last few years -- but is it actually worth the hype? Gans calls it a "great addition to an already hopefully varied diet." It's high in protein -- it's actually a "complete protein,"
with all nine essential amino acids -- and also contains fiber and iron
Quinoa is a great way to get protein.
marekuliasz via Getty Images
Spirulina is a dark green algae that is most commonly found in dried powdered form. It's very high in protein -- making it an option for vegans who have fewer protein options available to them, Gans says. An ounce of dried spirulina
gives about 15 grams of protein, which is around the amount in two jumbo eggs. And spirulina also has beta carotene -- an antioxidant -- and iron. But for those who eat animal products, you can likely get all these nutrients through cheaper, more readily accessible foods. "So if you're eating a well-balanced diet, do you need to start spending money and running to the health food store to buy spirulina? I don't necessarily think so," Gans says. Instead of adding spirulina powder to a smoothie, you could instead add milk or yogurt to get the protein.
Spirulina is a good way to get protein particularly if you're a vegan. But if you're not a vegan, there are other more accessible ways to get protein.
Photick/I. Rozenbaum & F. Cirou via Getty Images
Nutritional yeast is often fortified with vitamin B12, which is a vitamin that many vegans are deficient in because they don't eat animal products. So just like spirulina, nutritional yeast is a great way of getting B12 -- but there's not really a reason for a consumer of animal products to seek it out if they're getting B12 from other sources, Gans says. Because of its cheese-like taste, some people sprinkle it on foods in place of cheese -- which Gans says is completely fine, if you want to get creative culinarily.
Bottom line: Nutritional yeast is a good way to get vitamin B12 particularly if you're a vegan. But if you're not a vegan, there are other more accessible ways to get vitamin B12.
Zbigniew Ratajczak via Getty Images
Wheat germ is the inner-most layer of wheat. It's high in fiber, and also has monounsaturated fats and protein. It can be added to foods like oatmeal or salad, or used as a breading for meat. Basically, wheat germ is "another hidden way to add nutrients to something in areas where most people are lacking," Gans said.
Bottom line: Wheat germ is a way to add extra fiber to your dishes.
banarfilardhi via Getty Images
Tempeh is similar to tofu in that both are made from soybeans. However, tempeh is made from cooked soybeans that have been fermented, that are then put into a mold. It's mostly sold prepackaged in stores, and flavors or spices are added to it. Tempeh is high in protein -- providing around 18 grams of it for a 3.5-ounce portion, which is comparable to protein provided by chicken. Tempeh is a good option for people wanting to go meatless -- even if not full-time, but just one day a week -- since it can be used in place of meat in many dishes, Gans says.
Bottom line: Tempeh is a good meat alternative for people looking to eat a plant-based diet.
Chris Parsons via Getty Images
Flaxseed, also known as linseed, is another great way to sneak extra nutrients into your smoothies, cereal or baked goods. It's high in fiber, and also contains omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Like chia, it doesn't really have much flavor. But unlike chia, it needs to be ground up in order for the body to digest it fully
Flaxseed is an excellent way to add extra fiber, protein and omega-3s to your dishes.
Boyrcr420 via Getty Images
Seitan is made of wheat gluten, which is the main protein of wheat, and is often used as a meat replacement in dishes. It's -- not surprisingly -- high in protein. However, unlike tempeh or tofu which are also commonly used as meat replacements, it actually has a similar texture and flavor to meat. It doesn't have much flavor on its own, so keep in mind that commercially prepared versions of seitan may be high in sodium or other extra ingredients. Gans notes that seitan is another good meat alternative if you're looking to go meatless or more plant-based, or just wanting to get creative with your protein sources -- just keep in mind how it's prepared. "Just because it's seitan, if it's a fried version, thats not making it any healthier," she says.
Bottom line: Seitan is a good meat alternative for people looking to eat a plant-based diet; just beware of hidden ingredients added to it to give it flavor.