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Nutrition

What’s The Deal With Superfood Powders?

A nutritionist looks at five superfood powders meant to best supercharge your food and take your nutrition and fitness gains to the next level.

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These days, athletes of all stripes are looking for any edge they can get over the competition or father time. This is why more of the fit crowd are turning to so-called “superfood powders” to give their diets a little nutritional boost. The belief is that stirring a bit of one of these powders into water or wake-up coffee is the best way to deliver the nutrition needed to rev up immunity, improve recovery, increase energy levels, and even detoxify the body. From moringa to acai to camu camu, there is no shortage of superfood powders on the market these days that claim to be the best and go well beyond basic protein that has typically lined endurance athlete’s shelves.

RELATED: Top Recovery Nutrition Mistakes Runners Make

But let’s clear up something from the start: The most super way to bolster the nutrition of your diet is through the food that you can actually chew. And many of the health claims surrounding these powders are overblown. That said, certain food powders can deliver a more concentrated source of healthy nutrients and plant compounds than you’ll get from a bowl of kale or a handful of blueberries. And because they are powdered, they are easy to sprinkle into your diet from morning to night.

Here are our picks for the best superfood power powders to keep on your radar and perhaps add to your grocery list this week.

RELATED: Ask The RDN: Rest Day Nutrition

“Greens“ Powder

While their benefits tend to get oversold, “greens” powders have a wide nutritional profile that can be the best superfood powder to round off an already healthy diet. And certainly, they can make it way easier for you to work more nutrition into your diet when on the go including traveling for competition. Though formulations of greens powders vary by brand, they’re generally made with a blend of powdered ingredients including greens such as spirulina, kale and broccoli, fruits, and/or rhizomes like ginger and probiotics. Herbs and mushrooms may also sneak in there. All of which can team up to provide an impressive array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and friendly microbes to support the heightened nutritional needs of triathletes’ bodies in motion. In a four-week study from the International Journal of Molecular Sciences healthy adults who took in up to two tablespoons of a greens powder daily raised their blood antioxidant firepower which could help improve recovery from training—not to mention offer up more protection from several ailments including heart disease. And improved flavors mean you won’t be drinking something that tastes like grass clippings. Just don’t use these products in place of actual salads—you still have to eat plenty of whole veggies and fruit, as these are more like a booster than a replacement.

How to use it: It’s easy to stir green powders into water or juice, but blending them into smoothies is also a smart move.

Try: Gnarly Performance Greens Blueberry Acai

gognarly.com, $9-42

RELATED: Ask The RDN: Fatigue And Diet

Mushroom Powder

Is there a bio-hacker these days who isn’t waxing poetic about mushroom coffee on their podcast? It’s not so much the mushrooms you order on your Friday night pizza that are trending, but instead “functional” shrooms like cordyceps, lion’s mane, reishi, and chaga that—once dehydrated and pounded into powder—appear to have some medicinal benefits. (They have been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine for eons.) Though plenty more human research is required, some scientists speculate that bioactive compounds such as polysaccharides in the fruiting bodies of the earth which are not present in other vegetables may improve brain functioning, deliver anti-tumor powers to slash the risk for certain cancers, and help tamp down inflammation in the body. Different mushrooms likely have different targets in the body and may also be the best superfood powders to boost your workouts. A preliminary investigation in the Journal of Dietary Supplements showed that people who took in 4 grams a day of a mushroom blend for a three-week period experienced improvements in fitness metrics such as VO2Max during an exercise test. Since you are not likely to find these mushrooms in your supermarket produce aisle, getting them and their healthy compounds via powders is the most viable option. Some “greens” powder blends also include mushrooms, but the amount added is typically small. Generally, you want to consume about 2 teaspoons daily for the biggest benefit. Just don’t expect the stuff to be the ultimate panacea as some proponents want you to believe.

How to use it: Dissolve a teaspoon with hot water for an afternoon umami tea, blend into dips, stir into soups and sprinkle over pasta dishes, scrambled eggs or roasted vegetables. And, yes, you can also steep some with your morning coffee—which may or may not help you live well past the century mark.

Try: Om Fit Mushroom Powder

ommushrooms.com, $20-25

RELATED:5 Nutrition Truths For Trail Runners

Flax Powder

Here’s some good news for your bank account: Not all healthy powders need to cost an arm and leg, and flax is one of the best superfood powders on your bank account. Readily available and super cheap, flax is a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fiber—two items that make it especially heart-healthy. For instance, a study in Pharmacological Research shows that daily flax consumption can improve cholesterol numbers, while another investigation in Cytokine shows that it may help lower inflammation in the body. As soluble fiber dissolves in your stomach, it creates a gel that can help regulate appetite and blood sugar. Each tablespoon serving of flaxseed powder provides 2 grams of total fiber, so it definitely can help you get enough of the chronically under-consumed carb. These nutty-tasting seeds are also a good source of lignans—plant compounds with antioxidant powers that may lower the chances of developing certain cancers including breast cancer, according to The British Journal of Nutrition.  As our bodies are unable to fully digest whole flaxseeds, it’s best to consume them in ground form for better nutrient absorption. Once ground, the clock is ticking until the fats in flax turn rancid, so store in the fridge or freezer to maintain freshness.

How to use it: Stir flax powder into oatmeal, blend into your post-training smoothies, add it to baked goods, make flax-based crackers, sprinkle on roasted vegetables, and use instead of breadcrumbs in recipes like meatloaf. The powder can also be combined with water to create an egg substitute for baking.

Try: Bob’s Red Mill Flaxseed Meal

bobsredmill.com, $4-45

Cacao Powder

If you want a sugar-free way to add chocolate-y flavor to your day, look no further than cacao powder. Cacao powder is made when fermented and dried cacao beans are pulverized into a bitter-sweet powder with a surprisingly impressive nutritional resume. The dark delight contains healthy amounts of dietary fiber (about 5 grams in a 2 tablespoon serving), magnesium to support bone health, and flavonoid antioxidants. These antioxidants have been linked to improved heart health measures including lower blood pressure numbers. And here is the kicker: Research from the Chemistry Central Journal shows that cacao can contain an even higher antioxidant capacity than other fruit powders including acai and blueberry. A study in Planta Medica says that naturally occurring compounds in cacao may also help improve your mood—but you probably already knew that. The best thing about this superfood powder? Gram for gram, cacao contains about one-third fewer calories than dark chocolate, making it more waistline-friendly.

Though some people use the terms cacao and cocoa interchangeably, “cacao” generally refers to the raw bean and powder, while “cocoa” is the powder that has been alkalized to reduce acidity and bitterness, a process that also lays waste to much of the naturally occurring antioxidants. (Cocoa powder is typically darker in color than cacao powder.) Cacao powder is also sometimes labeled as “natural.”

How to use it: Cacao powder can add chocolate essence and a boost of nutrition to everything from a pot of oatmeal to smoothies to pancakes to homemade energy bars. If you’re a mocha fan, jazz up your morning coffee with a spoonful of cacao powder. You can also stir it into nut butter for a more indulgent tasting spread. A tablespoon or two can also add depth of flavor to a pot of chili or use as part of a spice rub mix for chicken, pork or steak.

Try: Wilderness Poets Peruvian Cacao Powder

wildernesspoets.com, Starting at $9

Elderberry Powder

Perhaps the most niche of the bunch here, but potentially the most useful in keeping you on your feet. With increased interest in boosting immunity (thanks, COVID), elderberry products including powder have experienced a significant resurgence. This fruit of the Sambucus tree has been used for centuries by cultures around the globe to strengthen immune functioning, a benefit with increasing support from modern-day research. A meta-analysis published in Contemporary Therapies in Medicine determined that elderberry supplementation can help reduce upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections including influenza and the common cold. Remember that hard tri training may place you at an increased risk of coming down with sniffles and body chills. And if you are starting to once again jet around, one study from Nutrients even found that the use of elderberry can reduce cold duration and severity in air travelers. Since sweet-tart elderberries have an especially high skin-to-flesh ratio they are packed with immune-boosting, heart-benefiting compounds including the same anthocyanin antioxidants you find in blueberries. Ideally, you want to source out a brand that freeze-dries the berries before blitzing them into a powder, a quick-acting process that will preserve nutrition.

How to use it: Stir into yogurt or cottage cheese, add to chocolate desserts like puddings, blend into smoothies and whipped cream, steep in warm water with lemon juice and a touch of honey before chilling for a heat-beating drink, and whisk into vinaigrettes.

Try: Navitas Organics Elderberry Powder

navitasorganics.com, $23