Maybe your mom always made you have a spoonful of honey for a sore throat or cough, or your grandmother offered prunes for constipation. Whole grains have always been touted as being excellent for our health, but why, exactly? And we're told that in countries where people cook regularly with olive oil, they tend less towards obesity - and that a handful of almonds makes a healthy snack. Now we have almond milk as a dairy replacement on the shelves in the health-food section. It's hard to know what to believe - with all the investment in pharmaceuticals, it is really possible that simple, organic substances could be enough to keep us in perfect health, or is it all one big scam? Should we be paying closer attention to information on the benefits of these natural health foods, or should we stick to popping our sanitised vitamin pills every morning?
While scientists have no time for homoeopathy, there seems to no denying that the body of evidence around the purported nutritional and health benefits of some foods seems to be overwhelming. The foods we've added to our top 10 list are proven not just by time, trial and error, but also by science. Cynics might be quick to point out that these studies probably aren't as highly funded as pharmaceutical trials, and it must be acknowledged that the amounts consumed and results depend on self-reporting and aren't always 'measurable' or, for that matter, falsifiable. For instance, are you going to weigh the amount of garlic you cook with and consume? How can one decide on the qualitative efficacy of a random quantity of a thing chopped and thrown into a pot?
However, more and more studies have built up more and more evidence, and certain themes and trends recur too often to be coincidental. Thanks to informationisbeautiful.net, a large volume of studies has been collated on all the foods that are most commonly cited as having certain specific health benefits. All the foods on this list have demonstrated -according to the studies amassed - the most substantial proof that they help with some aspect of one's health, from the banal to the seriously life threatening. As we count down, the volume of corroborating evidence for the item’s scientifically proven benefit increases, though everything on this list has at least “good” to “strong” evidential proof. There are no wishy-washy maybes here—these common or garden foods have proven benefits.
9 Prunes: Digestive Health
Remember thinking how gross your grandmother was when she drank a glass of prune juice? Was it the thickness of the juice, its colour, or what it represented that turned you off? Maybe it was the image of the prunes themselves. Turns out it’s not an Old Wives’ Tale. Several studies have demonstrated that prunes are better than psyllium husk (aka Metamucil) at solving the problem of mild to moderate constipation. If anyone tells you grandmas have nothing new to offer, tell them they’re right! The knowledge has been around for a long time, but the cynics among us may have been ignoring it.
“Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” Did Mary Poppins have her sweeteners right? Not only is honey saccharine-tasting, but IT is the medicine. Honey has natural antimicrobial properties that have been linked, according to a substantial number of varied studies, with reducing inflammation and killing harmful intestinal bacteria. Not only that, but it can help with surface infections, too! Got a cut? Just smear on some of the sticky stuff—and don’t lick it off!
8 Almonds: Lowers Cholesterol
Honey, almonds…. Hmm. It’s starting to sound like a recipe for an Arabian Nights open-air market snack. Yum! Almonds are high in calcium, but better than that its been pretty well proven that they lower LDL levels (i.e. bad cholesterol) in healthy individuals. Got high cholesterol or diabetes? Almonds will help with that, too! Unless you’re allergic to nuts, these are a great and portable snack for your all-around health.
7 Fish Oil / Omega 3: Healing Properties
These days you can get Omega 3 capsules that don’t come from fish. That’s good news for anyone with a sensitive palate, as fish oil tends to leave a bit of an after-taste. But fish oil is still one of the best sources for the amazing healing properties of Omega 3. After surgery or while living with cancer, this oil has been substantially proven to increase appetite and weight gain, and generally improves one’s health. A great way to boost your quality of life without going to the spa.
6 Probiotics: 'Friendly' Bacteria
You may have these in your fridge in the form of a drinkable yoghurt, but you can also buy probiotics over the counter in capsule form. Either way, probiotics are a proven wonder food. If you’ve taken antibiotics recently or too often, probiotics will help replenish your body’s natural “friendly” bacteria. More research is needed to cement just exactly which strain is the most effective, but various studies have shown that there is a 42% lower rate of diarrhoea after antibiotics if you take Lactobacillus or another probiotic. There are dairy-free options, too.
5 Hawthorn: Improves Heart Function
No, this is not just another prickly shrub. A member of the rose family, Hawthorn is the only item on this list which requires speaking with a doctor or pharmacist before taking, as there can be contraindications with certain heart medicines and beta-blockers. The berries have been used to treat heart problems since the 1st Century, and American doctors began using them in the early 19th Century to deal with circulatory and respiratory problems. In modern studies, an extract from the dried plant (more potent than the berries, it has been discovered) has been shown to improve heart function, enable people to resume exercise and even, preliminary studies confirm, help reverse the effects of heart failure.
4 Garlic: Lowers Blood Pressure
This pungent member of the onion genus is not just to ward off vampires or unwanted admirers—it has been proven to lower blood pressure, especially in those with high blood pressure. This is sometimes called colloquially 'the stinking rose'. If you're a fan of garlic, you can try the restaurant by the same name in San Francisco - where whole roasted cloves can be squeezed and spread on a piece of baguette, followed by everything else you could desire in garlic flavour - even ice cream. While you’re enjoying the decadent experience, know that you’re doing your body good; garlic has been extensively proven to lower blood pressure.
3 Oats: Detox Bad Cholesterol
Despite at times getting a bad rap - for high gluten and sugar levels - this amazing grain is still as good for you as it was when you were little. There are brands that have taken the trouble to avoid cross-contamination with gluten-containing grains, so unless you’re hypersensitive, go ahead and eat your porridge. Beta-glucans, oats’ natural sugars, have been proven to lower your blood cholesterol as well as the amount of triglycerides and LDLs in your blood. LDL - or low-density lipoprotein - is another name for what is commonly known as “bad cholesterol”— natural oats literally clean that bad stuff out of your system. How does a bowl of porridge get in your blood and scrub it out? Who cares, so long as it’s working!
2 Barley: Lowers Cholesterol
Like oats, this cereal grain lowers blood cholesterol, LDL levels and triglyceride levels. Unlike oats, barley has naturally occurring gluten, but if this isn’t a problem for you then it’s great in soup. It’s also great in beer and alcohol. Fermented barley can be brewed into beer or distilled into whiskey- that may not be the best way to maximise the barley's health benefits, but it's likely fun. A member of the grass family, it has a chewy texture when cooked, almost like pasta or wheat berries. Several, and varied, studies have proven the health benefits of this naturally occurring foodstuff.
1 Olive Oil: Healthy Heart
One of the most well-corroborated facts on this list is that olive oil is good for your heart. For centuries in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries, this liquid gold reduced the chance of cardiovascular disease. An anti-hardening agent for your arteries, you can get Italian, Greek, Spanish or Turkish olive oil, among others. There's even a gourmet culture around this oil; you can have an olive-oil tasting party instead of a wine-tasting, where brown-bagged bottles add flavour to sauteed mushrooms or a variety of salads. Don’t know what cold-pressed or extra-virgin means? That's ok, it's all good for you. Let your taste buds do the work, and your heart will thank you!