The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a list of foods that can reduce the risk of chronic diseases and named them “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” (PFV). These foods are packed with nutrients that help fight diseases and maintain health. 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
Of course, PFVs are full of vitamins and minerals. In order to compare the amount of nutrients in them to one another, though, you have to calculate something called the nutrient density.
Nutrient density is calculated as 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 include both micro- (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats). The opposite of nutrient-dense foods are known as energy-rich or nutrient-poor foods. 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 Dietary Guidelines of America (DGA) daily nutrient intake goals.
While there are lots of nutrients in PFVs, the amount of nutrients absorbed by the body are different. Bioavailability is the term for the actual amount of nutrients being absorbed and used by the body. In general, 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.
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How are Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables Ranked?
PFVs get their ranking based on their nutrient density and how well their nutrients are absorbed. In fact, the CDC looks at the amounts and absorption of 17 specific nutrients. These nutrients are:
- Vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E and K
In addition, the ranking includes the amount of nutrients per 100 grams which provides a higher score on the PFV list. In order for a food to rank, the foods must provide 10%, or more, in daily value of the 17 nutrients for every 100 calorie-serving. Both nutrient density (per 100 calories) and energy density (per 100 grams) are used to help set 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. The table below shows top 20 powerhouse fruits and vegetables.
PFV Scores of Top 20 Foods
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. They just don’t have as many as foods that made the PFV list.
Foods that didn’t make the list at include raspberries, apples, oranges, garlic, onions and blueberries. Although many blogs and news outlets 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.
“Powerhouse” vs. “Superfoods”
While it is common to 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, however, has no backing from science.
Although superfoods are often nutrient dense foods, the term does not have a clear definition. Therefore, a more precise, research-based approach to classify nutrient dense foods is powerhouse foods.
You should also be weary of superfoods that are commonly associated with generalized health benefits and catchy phrases like “natural”. This is because the FDA does not define when brands can use the term “natural” or other common catchy terms.
Lower Disease Risk
The benefits of PFVs are well researched and are associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer and heartdisease. Scientists think this is because PFVs contain antioxidants that reduce oxidative stress in the body.
Since body functions release oxidants into the body, antioxidants are important to help protect the body. They can help stop oxidants from harming cells in the first place, halting chronic diseases before they start.
Fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in phytochemicals, adding color and multiple health benefits. They can reduce the risk of cancers, such as lung, breast, cervix, throat, and others. Phytochemicals may also reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack.
Since PFVs are rich in phytochemicals, it is important to consume a colorful diet in order to reap the health benefits. In fact, eating lots of PFVs is an efficient way to obtain a variety of nutrients in a small amount of food.
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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