Our research dietitian Genevieve James-Martin breaks down some fancy food trends to see if they're worth the cash splash.

Interest in plant-based foods is on the rise and from it we’ve seen some fancy food trends. Read: trendy and expensive, or bougie.

Kombucha was the big wellness trend in 2019. We investigated the nutritional value of booch beyond the hype. Recently, we’ve spotted black garlic, nutritional yeast, hemp seeds and seaweed popping up in recipes and menus.

These ingredients promise to add a flavour punch and nutritional value to our meals. But are they worth the splurge? We’ve asked our Research Dietitian Genevieve James-Martin to give us the low down.

Two cloves of black garlic on a white background.
Black garlic is aged garlic. The process changes its colour and its nutritional profile.

Black garlic (aka black gold)

At around $150 a kilo black garlic is near the top of list for most bougie food trend of all. It promises an umami flavour tsunami. But is it an improvement on the garden variety white garlic we all know and love?

Black garlic is made by aging good old-fashioned white garlic. The result is a gummy black garlic with that sweet, savoury taste we commonly call umami. You can add it to dishes like you would with white garlic or grate it over a dish like parmesan. It really complements plant-based meals, lending a strong, earthy flavour. And there’s some evidence the benefits may extend beyond the flavour.

Black garlic goes through a slow fermentation process, giving it an increased concentration of many compounds with antioxidant properties. In short, these help to prevent and repair cell damage. Also, the more mellow flavour it takes on through the aging process means you can enjoy more of it than in its pungent white form (if your bank balance allows!). 

There is limited evidence from human studies on the effects of black garlic. However, one study showed daily consumption resulted in favourable improvements in blood lipids (fats) in people with mildly elevated cholesterol levels.

Raw Yellow Organic Nutritional Yeast in a Bowl. Credit: Getty Images

Nutritional yeast (aka nooch)

Nutritional yeast is making a comeback. At around $40 dollars per kilo, it’s looking pretty fancy these days.

But it’s far from new. People have been using nooch as a nutritional supplement since the 1900s. It became a hippy diet staple in the 1970s, when it experienced a surge of popularity with the exploration of vegetarian diets. Now, nutritional yeast is on the rise again, along with increasing interest in plant-based meals.

Nooch flakes, which are a granular form of deactivated baker’s and brewer’s yeast, could be mistaken for fish food! But this unassuming ingredient is a great way to add a dash of nutritional goodness along with a cheesy flavour punch in your vego and vegan dishes, minus the salt.

There are two types of nutritional yeast, fortified and unfortified, so it’s best to check the label. The unfortified form contains some B vitamins and is a good source of protein at 2-3g per tablespoon. It also contains beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre that has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. The fortified version has additional vitamins and minerals. It often includes B12, a vitamin that is in short supply in vegan and vegetarian diets.

Nooch is certainly not something to rely on as a source of any one nutrient. It’s best to think of it more as seasoning than supplement. If you’ve had vegan mac ‘n’ “cheese”, chances are it had a dash of nooch in it.

Hemp seeds in a pottery bowl with a teaspoon of hemp seeds above it. 
Hemp seeds are full of omega 6, omega 3 and protein. These tiny seeds punch above their weight.

Hemp seeds

Coming from the Cannabis genus of plants, hemp seeds might seem a bit of a hippy ingredient. But hemp seeds come from a different variety to the illicit kind. So, fear not, you can enjoy these nutritional powerhouses without worrying about an altered state of consciousness! And that’s a good thing because when it comes to nutritional value these small nutty flavoured seeds hold their own. 

Hemp seeds are about 30 per cent fats making them a rich source of the essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (LA) and α-linolenic acid (ALA). These are particularly important for vegetarians and vegans who can’t get long-chain omega-3 fats from their diet and need to make them in their body using LA and ALA as the ingredients.

In addition, they are 25 per cent protein, which is high quality, containing all the essential amino acids. Again, this makes them an attractive addition to a meat-free meal. They are also high in fibre, containing both insoluble and soluble fibre, which is important for maintaining gut health.

If you’re keen on trying this bougie buy, try adding them to your smoothies, salads and protein balls. It’s worth mentioning that hemp seeds are usually added by the tablespoon full and nooch is usually added by the teaspoon full. So while both the above ingredients are an expensive buy, a little goes a long way.

Wakame salad on a plate with sliced avocado on top
Get some extra healthy fats, add avocado to your wakame salad.

Seaweed

Seaweed has been eaten for centuries, largely because it was free and available to harvest along coast lines. But those days are long gone!

Today if you want to add dulse seaweed to your soup, wakame to your salad, or to snack on dried nori, chances are you’ll be buying it. And at hundreds of dollars per kilo.

It tops the list for the most expensive buy. If your budget and tastes stretch, seaweed is an excellent source of iodine. Important for normal thyroid function and brain development, iodine is one nutrient some Aussies aren’t getting enough of. Iodine deficiency began to re-emerge in parts of Australia in recent times. It was such an issue that it lead to the fortification of certain bread with iodised salt to ensure that all Australian’s are getting their daily dose.

Along with being a very rich source of iodine, seaweeds also contain other important nutrients like iron, calcium, prebiotic fibres and omega-3 fats. For regular seaweed consumers, it’s been found to be associated with a reduced risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and related factors such as elevated blood pressure. So, try noshing on some nori sheets, whacking wakame in your salad or cooking up a kombu-infused broth.

So what’s worth it?

Do you need to get these ingredients on your plate to be healthy in 2022? Absolutely not.

A fancy diet does not equal a healthier diet. But ingredients like this can take you meal to flavour-town. And if adding flavour helps to get you eating more of the good stuff, then that’s a great thing!

So, while they may not be pantry staples, think of these as four ways to supercharge your vegetable-based meals, so you can enjoy a plate packed full of vegetables, grains and a variety of proteins like lean meats and fish, because a varied diet is where the real health benefits lie.

If you don’t want to stretch your budget to cover these bougie food trends, there are alternatives. Other ingredients that pack a punch on your taste buds but not your wallet include fresh herbs, spices, citrus and toasted nuts and seeds.

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