If you vowed to eat better this year, it can be a challenge knowing which foods you should eat, and which you should avoid. Worse, some of the most popular health foods come with high price tags that can hurt your food budget.
But when it comes to superfoods, the sticker price might be worth the investment. Dr. Steven Pratt, author of five SuperFoods Rx books, believes these nutrient-dense foods can help optimize health and prevent disease. While Pratt's list of superfoods include staples like onion, spinach and broccoli, it's the more exotic offerings that capture headlines.
Salmon occupies a top spot on the superfoods list, thanks in part to its high level of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, not all salmon is created equal. Some species contain higher levels of fat, and therefore more omega-3s, while others offer clear environmental benefits.
King salmon, or Chinook, is the obvious choice for conscientious eaters. Rivaled only by Atlantic salmon for its fat content, king salmon is typically wild caught, so diners can avoid the ethical and environmental issues surrounding farmed salmon. Along with being a healthy food choice, king salmon offers a rich, full flavor and is firm enough to stand up to grilling and broiling. Additionally, this species is a potent source of B vitamins — especially B-12 — and selenium, a mineral that helps your body manufacture antioxidants.
King salmon season starts in May and lasts through the warm months. As a result, the fish is most affordable during that time of year. However, you can buy frozen salmon year round. While prices for king salmon start at $22 per pound, premium kings from the short-season Copper River spawning run can reach $50 a pound. Farmed Atlantic salmon, in comparison, costs about $9.99 per pound.
Price: $10 for a 4-ounce package
The notion of chowing down on algae might not sound very appealing, but spirulina aficionados do just that and tout the benefits.
A form of blue-green algae that grows in fresh and brackish waters around the world, spirulina has been a popular food source in Africa for centuries. It contains animal-like levels of protein and offers a unique mix of vitamins. Additionally, the food is believed to offer various health benefits. Small studies have shown that spirulina can help beat back certain oral cancers and reduce cholesterol; others suggest its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds hold promise for treating multiple ailments so you can stay healthy and save money on medical costs.
Spirulina is usually sold in dry powder form, so it's easy to incorporate into your diet. Just sprinkle a bit over whatever you're eating or drinking. Because spirulina has a vivid green color, you might want to incorporate it into foods like green smoothies, where it won't be a distraction.
Although spirulina is pricey when measured by the pound, you'll only use a little at a time. Expect a 4-ounce package of bulk powder to set you back $10. A bottle of 90 spirulina capsules costs around $4.88.
Price: $3.77 per pound
No longer considered an exotic food, quinoa enjoys a permanent place on many families' weekly menus. However, the potent nutritional punch of these tiny seeds ensures they retain superfood status.
Despite its grain-like consistency, quinoa is actually a pseudo-grain, as it is not grown from a grass. Containing all nine essential amino acids, quinoa is a complete protein, making it a boon for vegans and vegetarians. It's also gluten free and rich in fiber, fatty acids and antioxidant compounds.
While quinoa costs more than conventional grains like rice, it's not especially pricey as far as superfoods go. A pound of conventionally grown quinoa retails for as little as $3.77, and you can find organic quinoa for less than $4. Given its versatility and nutritional value, this particular superfood is an outright bargain.
Price: $20 for a pint of juice; $12 for 2 ounces of powder
The native people of Central and South America have eaten the fruit of the acai palm for centuries, but in recent years the berries have become a staple among supplement vendors and hipster juice bars everywhere.
Roughly the size of grapes, acai berries get their deep purple hue from the anthocyanins they contain. Powerful antioxidants, anthocyanins are thought to have numerous health benefits. While more studies are needed, preliminary evidence suggests they might offer protection against cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and age-related loss of brain function.
Acai is widely available in juice form, purees and dry powders and can be found in the health foods section of your local supermarket or at specialized retailers. Add these berries to smoothies or put them in cereal or fruit salad. Pure acai juice starts at around $20 for 16 ounces, and the powder costs about $12 for a 2-ounce package.
Acai aficionados should note that the berries can affect the results of an MRI scan, so be sure to talk to your doctor if you have one scheduled.
Price: $9.42 for 2 pounds
Boasting fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and other key nutrients, chia holds a prominent position on the list of superfoods. While there haven't been many chia seed-specific studies to date, extensive research exists on the value of dietary fats and fibers.
It's easy to incorporate chia into a healthy diet. You can sprinkle whole seeds over cereal or add them to baked goods as a garnish. You can also grind chia seeds and add the powder to smoothies. The seeds bring a pleasantly nutty flavor to meals and snacks and add a bit of crunch, if they're left whole.
The ground seeds also have the useful trait of turning gelatinous when mixed with liquids. As a result, chia serves as a gluten-free and vegan-friendly thickener and — like ground flax — works as a versatile egg substitute. Two pounds of chia seeds will set you back less than $10, depending on where you shop.
Price: $1.66 for an 8.4-ounce can
You might enjoy a glass of sweet tea on occasion. Well, the beverage is also appealing to several strains of yeast and bacteria. Under the right conditions, these microorganisms can turn ordinary sweet tea into a fermented beverage called kombucha.
Offering a flavor that's been compared to everything from wine to vinegar, kombucha is a popular superfood with a number of rumored health benefits. Rich in antioxidants and B-vitamins, this beverage has shown promise for its ability to counter pathogens in the gut, improve cardiac health, reduce tissue damage from oxidative stress and lower bad cholesterol.
A single bottle of kombucha isn't going to strain your budget, but drinking the beverage every day could be costly, especially if you're shopping at a pricey market. Expect to pay around $36 for a 24-pack of 8-ounce cans. Or, if you're the hands-on type, you can keep the cost down by getting your own kombucha starter kit and brewing at home.
Price: $3.76 for 12 ounces, frozen
One of Dr. Pratt's pioneering superfoods, blueberries remain a worthwhile addition to your shopping list. And while newer, more exotic offerings like acai and goji berries might be enjoying a moment in the spotlight, blueberries won't disappear from American fridges any time soon.
The small, dark fruit — available in cultivated (high bush) and wild (low bush) varieties — is a nutritional powerhouse loaded with potassium, fiber, folate and vitamins A and C. It's also rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals, including no fewer than 26 kinds of anthocyanins, the same pigments found in acai berries. Clinical trials have shown that blueberries could help promote heart health, fight cancer, preserve brain function and even aid diabetics in regulating glucose levels.
Unlike some nutrient-dense foods, blueberries are delicious — and they taste great fresh, frozen, raw or cooked. You can use them as a garnish on salads, stir them into your cereal, bake them into treats, juice them, blend them into smoothies or even use them in a sauce for salmon or poultry.
Best of all, in a market crowded with expensive superfoods, blueberries are moderately priced year round. You'll find them frozen and dried at most supermarkets, but the availability of fresh berries might fluctuate throughout the year. A 12-ounce bag of frozen berries costs around $3, and a 6-ounce package of fresh berries varies from $2.50 to $4, depending on time of year and location.