Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables Ranked According to Nutrient Density

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently created a list of foods that can reduce the risk of chronic diseases and named them “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” (PFV).  These are foods packed with nutrients that help fight diseases and maintain health.

How were the Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables Ranked?

PFVs recieved their ranking based on the densitybioavailabilty and total quantity per serving of 17 different nutrients in each food.

Nutrient Density

Density of nutrients is calculated per calorie.  So, the researchers calculated out how many micrograms/milligrams/grams of a given nutrient are 100 calories of each food.  The more densely packed nutrients are in a food, the few calories of that food you have to eat to get enough nutrients for your body.

Bioavailability

Bioavaility is a measure of how well your body can actually get the nutrients out of the food.  A food can have an enormous nutrient density, but if the nutrients are all trapped up in fiber you can’t break down, then none of it will actually make it into your body.  Of course, if it doesn’t make it into your body, your body can’t use it!  It might as well not be in the food at all!

Total Quantity

In addition to having a high density and high bioavailability, to make the PVF list, foods also had to provide reasonable amounts of each nutrient in the types of serving sizes people actually eat.  After all, it’s great if the nutrient density of a nutrient in lettuce is super high (because lettuce has so few calories).  But if you have to eat 12 heads of lettuce to reach the amount of that nutrient you are supposed to consume each day, it’s not going to do you much good.

To make sure all the foods the made the list were really practical for people, the CDC only included foods if they included 10% or more of each nutrient’s Recommended Daily Intake in a single 100 calorie serving.

The Nutrients

To creat the PFV list, the CDC calculated the nutrient density and nutrient bioavailabilty of:

  • Potassium
  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Vitamin A
  • Thiamin
  • Vitamin B6
  • Riboflavin
  • Vitamin B12
  • Niacin
  • Vitamin C
  • Folate
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

What are the Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables?

When the CDC ran the numbers, they found 41 fruits and vegetables that could be considered PFVs!  The table below summarizes the top 20 powerhouse fruits and vegetables.

Table 1: Top 20 Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables

1. Watercress 11. Turnip Greens
2. Chinese Cabbage 12. Mustard Greens
3. Chard 13. Endives
4. Beet Greens 14. Chives
5. Spinach 15. Kale
6. Chichory 16. Dandelion Greens
7. Leaf Lettuce 17. Red pepper
8. Parsley 18. Arugula
9. Romain Lettuce 19. Broccoli
10. Collard Greens 20. Pumpkin

Source: Noia et al., 2014                                                                                                     

Look at those leafy greens darn near sweeping the board!

Foods that surprisingly didn’t make the list at include raspberries, apples, oranges, garlic, onions, and blueberries.

Even though some foods scored lower, or didn’t make the list, it does not mean they are unhealthy.  They still provide vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that help in cellular function.  They just don’t have as many foods that made the PFV list.

Similar Story: A Guide to Organic Foods

“Powerhouse” vs. “Superfoods”

While people commonly use the terms powerhouse and superfoods as if they were the same, there is a difference between the two terms.

“Superfood” is a term you often see pop magazines, blogs, and other media as a catchword.  This term has no backing from science.  It has no clear, defined, scientific definition.

The more precise, research-based approach to classify healthy foods is powerhouse foods, which, as I just explored, has a very well defined definition.

Health Benefits of Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables 

The benefits of PFVs are well researched and are associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.  Scientists think this is because PFVs, by defintion, contain antioxidants (vitamin C and vitamin A, for example) that reduce oxidative stress in the body.

These antioxidants help stop oxidants from harming cells, halting chronic diseases before they start.  Powerhouse fruits and vegetables may be able to reduce your risk of cancers, (including lung, breast, cervical and esophageal cancer), heart disease, and heart attack.

Take Home Message 

Powerhouse fruits and vegetables are not just good sources of nutrients.  They also help reduce the risk of chronic diseases.  It is important, however, to eat a well-balanced diet and not just the foods listed as PFVs.  This is because other foods still contain healthy nutrients, if not as much as PFVs.

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