How To Buy, Store and Prepare Nutritional Superstars for even More Fighting Power
It is extra important to eat foods with an immune-boosting ability above average during stressful times in our lives and during cold and flu season.
In this article, I will list my top 5 immune-boosting foods. When they are part of your diet on a regular basis, which means most days, they make a real difference to your resilience.
We will dig deeper into how these immune-boosting foods can deliver even more nutritional bang. I was amazed by the difference smart selection, storage and preparation can make when I read Jo Robinson’s book Eating on the Wild Side, from which most this article is sourced.
Remember, it is also about what you’re not eating, so in addition to getting more of these potent foods be sure to avoid foods that put your immune system to sleep and create oxidative stress, i.e. make you rust on the inside. I am talking about processed and ultra-processed foods that are high in refined sugars and grains and inflammatory fats.
So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at these immune-boosting powerhouses.
Top 5 Immune-Boosting Foods
Garlic is part of the allium family and has been celebrated throughout history for its culinary and medicinal properties.
Hunter-gatherer societies around the world understood the healing properties of garlic and used it for many ailments such as a tonic for colds and sore throats, earaches, and to soothe bee stings to name a few. During world war II, before penicillin was widely available, Russian medics used raw garlic to treat infected wounds.
Garlic’s superpower allicin and has many proven and promising “anti” properties such as being antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anticlotting and anticancer. Hence the nickname Allicin in Wonderland.
In general the smaller and more pungent a fruit or vegetable is the higher its nutritional value. Fortunately, garlic growers have not attempted to make a larger and milder tasting variety of garlic. This means that the garlic found in grocery stores has retained most of the nutrients found in wild garlic.
As recent as in 2001 food chemists in Israel discovered that the conventional way of preparing garlic destroys most of its health benefits.
Raw garlic contains the two compounds needed to make garlic’s superpower allicin, alliin and a heat-sensitive enzyme called alliinase. In a raw garlic clove, these compounds are isolated in separate compartments, they join when the garlic is sliced, minced or chewed and allicin is created.
If garlic is heated right after it is sliced or crushed, the heat-sensitive enzyme is destroyed and no allicin is created. The result is that garlic flavour is added to the dish, but its immune-boosting allicin has gone up in smoke, literally.
To get that garlic aroma in your cooking without losing the health benefits, let the garlic sit for 10 minutes after it has been minced or sliced.
From a practical standpoint, this means that it is a great idea to always start with the garlic when cooking so there is time for biochemical magic to take place and create allicin.
The best and most convenient way to prepare the garlic to use a garlic press since it thoroughly crushes the garlic into a paste. Scrape the minced garlic into a small glass bowl where it will sit for at least 10 minutes before it is added to the pan.
If the garlic is eaten raw, or used raw in dressings, hummus, salsas etc, there is no need to follow this 10 minute rule. However, I tend wait 10 minutes before mixing the minced garlic with other ingredients even when using it raw to make sure as much allicin as possible is created.
For this reason, all recipes on this blog always start with the garlic, if it is part of the recipe.
If properly stored garlic can last for 2 months or longer depending on how fresh it is when purchased. In August or September, I go to my local farmer’s market and buy fresh garlic to last me through Winter and Spring. Some varieties of garlic stores better than others, so be sure to ask the garlic grower which varieties last the longest.
Store garlic at room temperature away from direct light in a mesh bag, open paper bag or in a garlic keeper. Air circulation is important to keep the garlic from spoiling. If garlic is stored in the fridge, don’t put it in the crisper since the humidity is too high. Too much humidity will make the garlic sprout.
Here’s an interesting garlic fact, the pungency of garlic increases the longer it is stored.
Garlic pairs very well with Ginger and it is next on my list of immune boosters.
Ginger’s health benefits are well-documented and numerous, such as helping with nausea, menstrual cramps, and digestive aid. Ginger has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and contains several therapeutic compounds, the main one being gingerol.
As immune-booster ginger blocks bacterial infections and calms inflammation.
Make sure the skin on the ginger root is thin and shiny and that the root is firm without spots.
Look for organic ginger, since conventional ginger may contain heavy metals.
Ginger is often sold in small mesh bags to allow for air circulation keeping the ginger from developing mold. Store ginger in the mesh bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge for 3-4 weeks, or as long as it stays firm.
When cooking with ginger it is best to peel off the skin since it can be bitter. The skin can be removed with a spoon, scraping off the skin around bumps on the ginger root. My favourite spoon for this purpose is a grapefruit spoon since it has a serrated edge. You can also use a paring knife and slice off the skin.
After it is peeled, grate ginger by hand or in a mini-chopper. The ginger can also be thinly sliced and used to make ginger tea, or added to smoothies and when juicing vegetables for a healthy zing.
Since garlic and ginger go so well together and is a quick way to make the simplest dishes taste amazing I often make a batch of Ginger Garlic Paste for the week.
Among the cruciferous vegetables kale reigns supreme. Kale goes way back and was first cultivated 2000 BC in ancient Greece and Italy. Kale has changed very little over the centuries.
As a rule, the wild varieties of fruit and vegetables are more nutritious than cultivated varieties. Kale is an exception in that it has the same, or higher, nutritional value compared to wild greens.
Kale boasts heart-healthy and cancer-protective properties due to a compound called glucosinolates. It is also high in immune-boosting antioxidants and is a rich source of calcium and fiber.
Kale is on the Environmental Working Group’s list of the “Dirty Dozen”. These are the fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue. For this reason, it is wise to buy organic kale so you get all the amazing health benefits without damaging pesticide residue.
Colour also makes a difference and darker green and the red-leaved varieties of kale are even higher in antioxidants.
As with all cruciferous vegetables, the nutrient value drops quite rapidly during storage. Store your kale in the crisper drawer and use it within a few days to a week.
Some varieties of kale have softer leaves and are better suited to eat raw. Raw kale is great in salads and smoothies. Slice or tear the leaves from the center stem and chop. Raw kale is higher in vitamin C, antioxidants and phytonutrients compared to cooked.
When cooking kale, which is nice during the colder months of the year. Kale’s nutritional value is best preserved by steaming or sautéing in avocado oil for just a few minutes to wilt the leaves.
Onion is another member of the allium family, just like garlic. And just like garlic, onions have a long history of therapeutic use. During the civil war, soldiers were fed ample onion in their diet. Finely chopped onions in poultices were also used as field dressings on wounds.
Quercetin is one of the most beneficial phytonutrients in onion. It is a compound that has been explored for its antiviral, antibacterial and anticancer properties.
The onion family brings us yellow, red and white onions, leeks, shallots, scallions, and chives. Rest assured that all of these onions are good for you but I don’t have space to explore more than the regular yellow and red onion here.
Before World War II the only type of onion available was potent and pungent, serving up powerful phytonutrient and antioxidant protection. The post-war era saw new varieties of onion being introduced with higher sweetness and less therapeutic benefit. Vidalia is one of the most popular sweet and mild onions.
Replacing pungent onions with these new mild and sweet onions in our diet makes us more vulnerable to disease, including cancer. A test-tube study compared extracts from strongly flavoured onions to extract of sweet onions. The stronger onions destroyed 95 percent of human cancer cells of the liver and colon, while the sweet onions only killed 10 percent.
The sweet onions are also less effective at thinning the blood, providing less protection from a heart attack and stroke.
Onion size has also increased during the last half-century, and as size goes up nutrient content goes down. Larger onions contain more water and weaker concentration of phytonutrients. This means that two small onions have twice the antioxidants as one large onion of the same variety.
Put together the mild and sweet taste, combined with the large size and high water content has reduced antioxidant power.
When buying onions in the grocery store look for regular round yellow and red onions. Avoid the large and jumbo-sized onions and those with a sticker that says sweet or Vidalia if your goal is to maximize nutritional value.
Onions can be stored for months in a mesh bag, open paper bag or in a dark, cool and moderately humid location such as a basement cellar or on a refrigerator shelf. Avoid the crisper since it is too humid unless it is set to the lowest humidity setting.
Sweet onions don’t keep as well due to their higher water content and thinner skin. These onions should be stored on a shelf in the fridge for one or two weeks.
Sautéing, roasting and frying onions increase the quercetin content. By contrast, boiling reduces quercetin content in the onion but can be found in the cooking liquid so be sure to use it in the form of soup or stock.
When regular red and yellow onions are cooked they become less pungent and their sweetness comes out. To benefit from onions therapeutic properties while enjoying their flavour, cook these stronger onions and use in place of milder and sweeter onions for bigger nutritional boost.
To avoid teary eyes when chopping onion I keep my onions in the fridge and take out the onion only when I am ready to chop. This basically removes all discomfort at the cutting board. It’s easy and effective.
GARLIC + ONIONS AND DIGESTIVE DISCOMFORT – Some experience digestive discomfort when eating onion or garlic, especially when raw. For most it is the allicin that causes the distress since it stimulates the valve between the esophagus and stomach to open and close more often, leading to heartburn or reflux. Sweet onions are less likely to cause digestive discomfort since they are lower in allicin. For others, the source of digestive distress is an inability to break down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars due to the lack of the enzyme alpha-galactosidase. Digestive enzymes containing alpha-galactosidase can be helpful in this case.
Lemons stem from the mountain in southern China and northeastern India and have been grown for at least 4000 years.
We all know that lemons are high in vitamin C. Lemons are also being rich in a compound called flavanone with antioxidant and anticancer properties.
There is little difference nutritionally between the lemons available in grocery stores, so focus on buying the freshest and juiciest lemons you can find.
Quality lemons should have a rich yellow colour with no trace of green. They should be firm but not hard with glossy skins and no soft spots. Juicy lemons are heavy for their size.
Be sure to buy organic lemons if you intend to use the peel to avoid being exposed to pesticide residue.
Lemons can be stored at room temperature for up to one week if kept longer place keep them in the fridge. Don’t store lemons in plastic bags since it promotes mold. Lemon juice and grated lemon peel can both be frozen.
It is smart to use both lemon juice and lemon peel to flavour and preserve foods when cooking since the peel has many times the phytonutrient content compared to the flesh of the lemon. Be sure to buy organic lemons when using the peel.
Lemon peel, or zest, also brings intense lemon flavour and can be added to salads, smoothies, stir-fries, desserts and as an eatable garnish. Lemon peel is high in the immune-boosting antioxidant limonene.
Lemons bring acidity to a dish and balance out the flavour profile. Adding acidity often reduces the need for more salt.
Use lemons when making marinades, salsas, dips such as guacamole and squirt lemon juice into soups at the end of cooking for a brighter flavour. In my mind, everything is better with some lemon!
Lemons also help preserve the phytonutrients in other foods. This means that adding lemon to a dish protects the nutrients other ingredients bring to the dish.
TIP! Add a squirt of lemon to your teacup before making tea to increase phytonutrients content and make them easier to absorb.