Chemicals in Superfoods That Make Them Super Healthy

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Superfoods Contain Healthy Chemical Compounds

Superfoods
Superfoods contain chemical compounds that support good health. John Lawson, Belhaven, Getty Images

Superfoods are the superheroes in your kitchen, working from within to promote good health and fight disease. Have you ever wondered exactly what chemical compounds are in specific superfoods that make them better than other dietary choices?

Here's a look at the compounds in top superfoods and what they do to help you.

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Pomegranates Reduce Risk of Cancer

Pomegranate
Pomegranates are rich in antioxidants. Adrian Mueller - Fabrik Studios, Getty Images

Just about every fresh fruit you can name contains healthy fiber and antioxidants. Pomegranates are one of the superfoods in part because they contain ellagitannin, a type of polyphenol. This is the compound that gives the fruit its vibrant color. Polyphenols help reduce your risk of cancer. They also help combat cancer, if you already have it. In a recent UCLA study, the rate of prostate cancer growth was slowed in over 80% of the participants who drank an 8-ounce glass of pomegranate juice daily.

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Pineapples Fight Inflammation

Pineapple
Pineapples contain the enzyme bromelain. Maximilian Stock Ltd., Getty Images

Like other fruits, pineapples are rich in antioxidants. They gain superfood status because they are rich in vitamin C, manganese, and an enzyme named bromelain. Bromelain is the compound that ruins gelatin if you add fresh pineapple to the dessert, but it works wonders in your body, helping to reduce inflammation. The yellow color of pineapple comes from beta-carotene, which helps protect against macular degeneration.

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Olive Oil Fights Inflammation

Olive Oil
Olive oil helps fight inflammation. Victoriano Izquierdo, Getty Images

Some oils and fats are known for adding cholesterol to your diet. Not olive oil! This heart-healthy oil is rich in polyphenols and monounsaturated fats. The fatty acids in extra virgin olive oil help reduce inflammation. A couple of tablespoons a day is all you need to promote healthy joints. A study published in Nature identifies oleocanthal, a compound that inhibits activity of cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes. If you take ibuprofen or another NSAID for inflammation, take note: the researchers found premium olive oil may work at least as well, without the risk of liver damage from the drugs.

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Turmeric Protects Against Tissue Damage

Turmeric
Turmeric contains a powerful polyphenol named curcumin. Subir Basak, Getty Images

If you don't have turmeric in your spice collection, you might want to add it. This pungent seasoning contains the powerful polyphenol curcumin. Curcumin offers anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, and anti-arthritis benefits. A study published in the Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology shows this tasty component of curry powder improves memory, decreases the number of beta-amyloid plaques, and reduces the rate of neural degradation in Alzheimer's patients.

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Apples Help Protect Your Health

Red Apple
Apples contain the flavonoid quercetin. SusanHarris, Getty Images

It's hard to find fault with an apple! The main drawback from this fruit is that the peel may contain traces of pesticide. The skin contains many healthful compounds, so don't peel it. Instead, eat organic fruit or else wash your apple before taking a bite.

Apples contain many vitamins (especially vitamin C), minerals, and antioxidants. One of special note is quercetin. Quercetin is a type of flavonoid. This antioxidant protects against numerous ailments, including allergies, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and cancer. Quercetin and other polyphenols also help regulate blood sugar. Fiber and pectin help you feel full, making an apple a perfect superfood snack to tide you over until your next meal.

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Mushrooms Protect Against Cancer

Shitake Mushrooms
Mushrooms are rich in the antioxidant ergothioneine. Hiroshi Higuchi, Getty Images

Mushrooms are fat-free source of selenium, potassium, copper, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. They gain superfood status from the antioxidant ergothioneine. This compound protects against cancer by protecting cells from abnormal division. Several mushroom species also contain beta-glucans, which stimulates immunity, improves allergy resistance, and helps regulate sugar and fat metabolism.

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Ginger May Help Prevent Cancer

Ginger
Ginger is a modified plant stem, not a root as many people believe. Matilda Lindeblad, Getty Images

Ginger is a piquant-tasting stem added as an ingredient or seasoning, candied, or used to make tea. This superfood offers several health benefits. It helps to calm an upset stomach and ease nausea and motion sickness.  A University of Michigan study shows ginger kills ovarian cancer cells. Other research indicates gingerol (a chemical related to capsaicin in hot peppers) in ginger may help prevent cells from abnormally dividing in the first place.

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Sweet Potatoes Boost Immunity

Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes contain glutathione. Kroeger/Gross, Getty Images

Sweet potatoes are a tuber rich in antioxidants. This superfood helps protect against liver disease, heart disease, and cancer. The chemical glutathione in sweet potatoes is an antioxidant that repairs cellular damage by reducing disulfide bonds formed in proteins in the cytoplasm of cells. Glutathione boosts immunity and improves the efficiency of nutrient metabolism. It's not an essential nutrient, since your body can make the compound from amino acids, but if you lack cysteine in your diet, you may not have as much as your cells can use. 

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Tomatoes Fight Cancer and Heart Disease

Tomato
Tomatoes contain all four major types of carotenoids. Dave King Dorling Kindersley, Getty Images

Tomatoes contain many healthful chemicals that gain them superfood status. They contain all four major types of carotenoids: alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. Of these, lycopene has the highest antioxidant capacity, but the molecules also exhibit synergy, so the combination packs a more potent punch than adding any single molecule to your diet. In addition to the beta-carotene, which acts as a safe form of vitamin A in the body, tomatoes contain antioxidant vitamin E and vitamin C. They are also rich in the mineral potassium.

Put together, this chemical powerhouse helps protect against prostate and pancreatic cancer and heart disease. According to an Ohio State University study, eating tomatoes with a healthy fat, such as olive oil or avocados, increases absorption of disease-fighting phytochemicals by 2 to 15 times.