For all their hype, so-called "superfoods," says Dr. Lissa McNiel, are nothing new.

For all their hype, so-called "superfoods," says Dr. Lissa McNiel, are nothing new.

Most superfoods have been around as long as humans. They are foods that in a single serving provide copious amounts of nutrients, along with other disease-fighting properties. And a label isn't needed to explain their benefits, says McNiel, a naturopathic physician in Medford.

"There is no such thing as a 'super' packaged food," she says.

From-scratch cooking with superfoods is the focus of a class McNiel plans next week at Ashland Food Co-op. Working in tandem with Ashland natural-foods chef Jeff Hauptman, McNiel says she wants participants to learn how to combine nutrient-dense foods in delicious ways without worrying about fancy cooking techniques.

"It's just learning how to chop and combine flavors," she says. "The more nutrient-dense foods you can have in a recipe, the better off you're gonna be."

Although McNiel has hosted private cooking classes for patients, this is her first event open to the public. She tapped Hauptman last summer to give patients an avenue toward healthful meal preparation.

"I think people just need to start thinking broader about their diets and not thinking about it as a trend," she says.

The duo's menu features squash, wild greens, coconut and hazelnuts, among other superfoods. But because McNiel and Hauptman rescheduled the session from fall, some of McNiel's favorites — tomatoes and pomegranates — aren't on the list. Spring, she says, still provides plenty of seasonal superfood options, including avocados.

"I think avocados are a major super food," says McNiel, explaining that they're high in fiber and potassium and have "appropriate" fats and proteins, making them nutrient-dense.

"You could practically live off of them."

Also earning that distinction, says McNiel, is coconut. Along with being nutrient-dense, coconut has been shown to combat viruses, bacteria and fungi, says McNiel. The doctor also touts the tropical fruit's high smoke point, which keeps beneficial fatty-acid chains intact.

"It does not clog arteries," says McNiel, citing research reported in professional journals. "Fats aren't necessarily bad for you."

Hazelnuts, incorporated in the dessert course of the class, contain high levels of beneficial proteins, fats and trace minerals, says McNiel. And fewer people tend to be allergic to them than walnuts, she adds.

Plant-based fats will be used in McNiel's and Hauptman's class, which is vegetarian but not because the superfood lexicon lacks meat. McNiel says she aims to promote more variety and familiarize participants with ingredients less commonly consumed in the United States. Some of those superfoods include chickpeas, fennel and quinoa.

"I think that we're better off with a plant-heavy diet."

Leafy, green plants, such as kale and collards, that are lauded as superfoods also are inherently bitter-tasting, says McNiel. Her lessons in balancing that bitterness with other flavors "opens up people's repertoires."

And packing meals with superfoods means that people don't have to pack away large portions to be well nourished and satisfied, says McNiel.

"It's basically kind of nature's pharmacy."

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