Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compiled a list of foods that are attributed to reducing risk of chronic diseases and named them as powerhouse fruits and vegetables (PFV).  These foods are packed with nutrients that help fight diseases and maintain cellular function. Based on the study, Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach, the CDC developed a systematic ranking of foods based on the ratio between nutrient density and energy intake and bioavailability.

Nutrient Density and Bioavailability

PFVs are full of vitamins and minerals, but in order to compare the amount of nutrients in a food, nutrient density is calculated for the amount of nutrients per unit of energy. In science terms, calories are commonly referred to as energy because a calorie is, by definition, a unit of energy.  Nutrients includes both micro (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats).  The opposite of nutrient-dense foods are commonly known as energy-rich or nutrient poor.  Therefore, the more nutrients packed into a smaller amount of calories results in a more nutrient-dense food.  Consuming nutrient-dense foods makes it easier to reach the daily value intake of nutrients that are set by Dietary Guidelines of America (DGA).

While nutrients are abundant in PFVs, the amount of nutrients absorbed by the body is different.  Bioavailability is the actual amount of nutrients being absorbed and metabolized by the bodyWhile foods inherently contain a certain amount of nutrients, the body absorbs and utilizes only a percent of the total.  Therefore, in order to more accurately define PFV, the bioavailability of the nutrients were taken into consideration when ranking each food.

How are Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables Ranked?

PFVs are ranked based on their nutrient-density and bioavailability.  These two metrics are associated with reducing risk of chronic diseases.  PFVs are classified on the basis of providing 17 nutrients that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  These nutrients are:

  • Potassium
  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Thiamin
  • Riboflavin
  • Niacin
  • Folate
  • Zinc

Additionally, the ranking includes the amount of nutrients per 100 grams which provides a higher score on the PFV list.  In order for the food to be included in the ranking, the foods must provide 10%, or more, in daily value of the 17 nutrients for every 100 calorie-serving.  Both nutrient density (expressed per 100 calories) and energy density (expressed per 100 grams) are taken into consideration in the ranking.

The CDC studied 47 fruits and vegetables and found 41 were considered a PFV by a criteria based on bioavailability and nutrient-density.  The higher the PFV score, the more nutrient dense the food is.  A score of 100 indicates that a food contains 100% Daily Value (as defined by the DGA) per 100g serving.  Below shows top 20 powerhouse fruits and vegetables.

PFV Scores of Top 20 Foods

Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables                                                                                                                                             Noia et al., 2014

Even though some foods scored lower, it does not mean they are unhealthy.  They still provide vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that help in cellular function–just not as abundant as other foods per 100g.  Foods that didn’t make the list at all include raspberries, tangerines, cranberries, garlic, onions and blueberries.  Although many blogs and news articles create lists of top healthy foods, some of those didn’t even make the ranking.  Kale, for example, didn’t even make the top ten.

Difference Between “Powerhouse” and “Superfoods”

While it is common to use the terms powerhouse and superfoods interchangeably, there is a difference between the two terms.  Superfoods is often found in pop magazines, blogs, and other media as a catchword with no scientific research behind it.  Although superfoods often includes nutrient-dense foods, the term lacks a clear definition of what a superfood entails.  Therefore, a more accurate, research-based approach to classify nutrient-dense foods is a powerhouse food.

Be weary of superfoods that are commonly associated with generalized health benefits and catchy phrases like “natural” because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not define the term.

 Reducing Disease

The benefits of PFVs are well researched and are associated with reducing risk of chronic disease including cancer and cardiovascular disease.  Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals that offer antioxidant benefits to reduce oxidative stress in the body.  Since body functions inherently release oxidants into the body, antioxidants serve a protective function against oxidants that can interrupt cellular function causing long-term diseases.

Phytochemicals are naturally abundant in fruits and vegetables adding color and multiple health benefits.  They have been shown to reduce the risk of cancers including, lung, breast, cervix, esophageal, and others.  Phytochemicals are also associated with reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease, and myocardial infarction.

Since PFVs are abundant in Phytochemicals, it is important in consuming a colorful diet for the health benefits.  In fact, consuming PFVs is an efficient way to obtain a variety of nutrients in a small amount of food.

Final Thoughts

Powerhouse fruits and vegetables are not only a good sources of nutrients helping the body survive, these nutrients are associated with decreasing risks of chronic diseases.  However, it is important to eat a well-balanced diet, as well as a colorful diet, and not just the foods listed as PFVs.


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