Power up with hidden superfoods

Rich in fiber, minerals, and vitamins C and B6, onions may lower the risk of some cancers and help maintain heart health and immune function.

Acai berries, mangosteen and macqui berries — they've all been deemed superfoods because of their high antioxidant status. Even mainstream fruits such as blueberries have joined the superfoods club, thanks to research proving their health benefits.

But you don't have to focus solely on high profile — and often expensive — fruits to promote optimal health.

"It's far too easy for people intrigued by the idea of superfoods to choose these often, in lieu of other foods that can be in the same category," said dietitian Elisa Zied, author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips."

In fact, many of the most nutritious, health-protective foods are quietly lurking in the bottom of your refrigerator drawer or in the back of your pantry.

These unlikely superfoods can be mixed into your favorite dishes, and every extra sprinkle or handful increases the nutritional power of your diet.

So, stock up on the underappreciated foods listed here and include them in your favorite dishes every day.

Top underappreciated plant foods

Canned tomatoes

Did you know that a can of tomatoes is loaded with vitamin C, fiber, potassium and iron? What makes these ruby gems even more special is their rich load of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that becomes more bioavailable to your body when it is cooked. Lycopene has a host of benefits, including inactivating free radicals, protecting against cancer and slowing the development of atherosclerosis which leads to heart disease. Stir canned tomatoes into pasta dishes, soups, stews, curries, casseroles, Mexican dishes and side dishes for delicious, nutritious comfort.

Onions

You might relegate onions to the list of old-fashioned kitchen standbys, as you can slice and dice them into everything from home fries and soups to omelets and casseroles. But onions can lend your dishes a powerful nutritional punch in addition to their trademark flavor. These pungent bulbs are rich in fiber, minerals and vitamins C and B6. Scientists are interested in onions' abundant polyphenol and sulfur-containing compounds, such as quercetin and allyl sulfides, that may lower the risk of some cancers and help maintain heart health and immune function, Zied said.

Sunflower seeds

The sunflower gets more attention than its edible progeny, sunflower seeds. Yet, these black-striped, tear drop-shaped shells housing grayish seeds are amazing in their own right. Naturally rich in heart-healthy polyunsaturated oils, sunflower seeds are very high in the powerful antioxidant, vitamin E — a 1/4-cup serving provides over 90 percent of the Daily Value (based on 2,000 calories/day.) These nutty seeds also provide protein, B vitamins and important minerals, such as manganese, magnesium and selenium. And that's not all; sunflower seeds are one of the best sources of phytosterols, a compound known to lower blood cholesterol levels.

Garlic

The "stinking rose" — the name derives from Greek and Roman antiquity — offers far more than its characteristic flavor and aroma; garlic may help protect you against heart disease. Studies have linked this member of the onion family with lowering cholesterol levels, as well as providing anti-clotting activity and reductions in blood pressure. "Garlic contains lots of phytochemicals, such as allicin, saponin and coumaric acid," Zied said. Such compounds are behind garlic's anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects that contribute to heart health. Consider the supply of manganese, vitamins C and B6, and selenium in garlic, and you can see why it should always have a home in your kitchen.

Peas

When you were a kid, you probably heard your mom tell you to "eat your peas." She was right, as these jade pearls are packed with nutrition. Whatever pea you prefer — garden peas (fresh from the pod,) snow peas (flatter pods,) snap peas (plump pods,) or dried peas (from field peas that are less sweet) — know that they are plump with vitamins A,C, K and B, minerals, fiber and protein. Studies have linked diets rich in green and yellow vegetables, including green peas, with heart disease prevention. Peas also supply a significant quantity of the eye-healthy compounds beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.

Black pepper

One of the simplest seasonings in your spice rack reaps significant rewards. "Black pepper provides zero calories and adds a lot of punch to meals," Zied said. But that's not all. Considered so precious in ancient times it was used as currency, black pepper has been valued for its culinary properties, which include enhancing flavor as well as preserving freshness. And capsaicin, the substance that gives pepper its heat, has anti-cancer effects and works to reduce inflammation, a root of chronic disease.

Beans

The sustenance of diverse cultures throughout the centuries, "Beans are superstars, because not only do they contain complex carbohydrates, they're great sources of protein," Zied said. Beans also contain important minerals, vitamins and fiber. Eating beans has been linked with lowering blood cholesterol levels, body weight, and rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, some types of cancer and diabetes.

Bell peppers

Don't forget the colorful impact that bell peppers — red, yellow or green — can make on your health. Virtually swimming in the powerful antioxidant vitamins C (291 percent DV per cup) and A (105 percent DV per cup), adding slices of peppers to your favorite dish is an excellent strategy for battling cell-damaging free radicals. Red peppers also contain carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin, which are linked with reduced risk of certain cancers.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date information about health and nutrition. For more information, visit environmentalnutrition.com. Copyright 2010, Belvoir Media Group, Distributed by Tribune Media Services.