Tired of acai berry? Try these authentically Arab super-foods

Various foods from all over the world have been making it to the super-food list, but what about Arab offerings?

Racha Adib

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Various foods from all over the world have been making it to the super-food list for being nutrient powerhouses without too many calories.

These include acai berry, indigenous to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and quinoa, grown in the high plains of the Andes.
While some of these super-foods are not readily available at local supermarkets, there are super-foods in staples of Middle Eastern cuisine.


The ancient Middle Eastern grain freekeh is only starting to be discovered internationally.


It is basically wheat, but because it is harvested when it is still young, green and moist, it retains more fiber, protein and minerals than whole wheat.

Freekeh contains twice as much fiber as quinoa, and three times as much as brown rice.

It also ranks low in the glycemic index. This means that not only is it suitable for diabetics because it maintains average blood-sugar levels, it is also recommended for weight-loss because it keeps you full for longer.

Freekeh can be used as a substitute to rice dishes.


Za’atar is a centuries-old mix of nutritious ingredients, including thyme, sumac and sesame seeds. It is full of antioxidants, specifically flavonoids, which protect cells from damage.


There is a Middle Eastern belief that za’atar makes the mind strong, and is given to children before going to school.

In a clinical study published in the journal “Biochemical and Biophysical Research,” scientists found that thymol, an oil found in thyme, helped protect against age-related changes in the brain cells of rats by increasing the amount of healthy fats, in particular omega-3, in the brain.

Sumac is rich in gallic acid and quercetin, which give za’atar its anti-cancerous, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties.

There are also essential minerals in sesame seeds.

Mix za’atar with olive oil, add it to wholegrain bread, and top it off with labneh for a nutritious brain-boosting breakfast.

Purslane (bakleh)

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies purslane as a weed, it is commonly consumed in the Middle East.
Soft and succulent, purslane leaves - or “bakleh” in Arabic - have more heart-healthy omega-3 than some fish and all vegetables.


Purslane has 0.01 mg/g of Ecosapentaeonic Acid, an omega-3 fat, which is considered an unusually high amount when it comes to vegetables.

Also present are two types of pigments: red betacyanins in the stems, and yellow betaxanthins in the leaves. Both are potent antioxidants and have anti-mutagenic properties, thus protecting DNA from mutating and causing cancer.
Add it to your salad for a boost in nutrients and flavor.

Black seed

For Arabs, black seed is a valued traditional medicine. It is also known as “habbat al-baraka,” or the seed of blessing.

A study at Texas A&M University published in 2011 found that thymoquinone, a component of black seed, had anti-cancer properties and inhibited tumor growth.


Another study on black seed examined its anti-inflammatory benefits. Carried out at the University of South Carolina, the 2004 study revealed that the oil of the seed protected against the inflammatory diseases arthritis and intestinal colitis. This was due to its immune system-boosting properties, which in turn helped fight off infections.

The seed can protect you from allergies, asthma and eczema. Researchers believe it blocks the release of histamines, the compound behind many of the symptoms of allergies, such us a runny nose and sneezing.

In a study published in the journal “International Immunopharmacology,” 600 allergy patients were given 500mg of black seed oil twice a day for three months. Researchers noted an 85% improvement in patients.

Mix it with honey, add it to your pastries, or sprinkle it over your favorite cheese.