By now, you’ve heard a few zillion times that you should eat more fruits and vegetables—five to nine servings per day. But how to choose the most nutritious ones is confusing: Is kale really the superhero of all greens? Are blueberries the rock stars of the farmers’ market?
That’s where researcher Jennifer Di Noia, Ph.D., comes in: She has ranked the produce most associated with reducing chronic disease, assessed the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables by nutrient density, and calculated the presence of 17 nutrients that are important to health, including protein, fiber, potassium, iron and vitamins A, C, D, E and K.
The ranking yields some surprises: Watercress is the most nutrient-dense food on Di Noia’s list, followed by Chinese cabbage, chard and beet greens. Lemons, strawberries and limes are the most nutrient-dense fruits.
Di Noia, a sociologist who teaches at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, says she got interested in this topic after reading confusing (and often contradictory) consumer messages about produce.
“My study aims to better define powerhouse fruits and vegetables,” she tells Life Reimagined. “Previously, these foods were defined based on food groups—for example, whether items belonged to citrus, yellow/orange, cruciferous, or green leafy groups.” With this new classification, “people have a list of foods as well as information on the nutrients the food provides relative to the energy it provides. The list can help people choose more nutrient-dense foods.”
When Di Noia started her research, she hoped to include information about phytochemicals, which nutrition researchers say provide powerful (even disease-fighting) nutrients. “But uniform data on phytochemicals are lacking, so the ranking scheme is based on the qualifying nutrients only,” she explains. Many of the hyped “superfoods,” like blueberries, didn't make the cut. If phytochemicals were included, more anti-oxidant foods might have scored higher.
It’s a good idea to eat a wide variety of produce, no matter how your choices rank—all fruits and vegetables are pretty healthy. Here are the 41 that scored the best: watercress, Chinese cabbage, chard, beet green, spinach, chicory, leaf lettuce, parsley, romaine, collard green, turnip green, mustard green, endive, chive, kale, dandelion green, red pepper, arugula, broccoli, pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, scallion, kohlrabi, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, tomato, lemon, iceberg lettuce, strawberry, radish, winter squash (all varieties), orange, lime, pink or red grapefruit, rutabaga, turnip, blackberry, leek, sweet potato and white grapefruit.
So go ahead, squeeze a lime on your salad, or sautée some Chinese cabbage tonight.