Last updated by Dr Sarah Brewer on
Trail mix was originally developed as a healthy, energy-boosting snack for hikers, but some versions pack more nutritional punch than others. My Pecan Punch Trail Mix combines some of the richest polyphenol sources on the planet: pecan nuts, cacao nibs, goji berries, pumpkin seeds and cinnamon.
Pecans provide, on average, a massive 1,284mg polyphenols per 100 gram weight, including the same sort of catechins as are found in green tea, and a similar range of long, polymer flavanols that make dark chocolate such a healthy food.
Many people avoid eating nuts because they worry about putting on weight, but fear not.
Although pecans are relatively high in calories, providing around 680 kcals per 100g, their consumption does not appear to cause a net gain in body weight for several reasons.
Pecans have a high protein and fibre content, which fill you up and curb your appetite so you tend to eat less after having them as a snack.
Pecans also contain the right polyphenols to turbo-charge your cells’ equivalent of batteries (mitochondria). This suppresses fat storage, boosts fat metabolism and increases the amount of energy you ‘waste’ as heat.
As a result, several studies show that people who eat the most tree nuts, including pecans, tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI), a lower waist circumference and less visceral fat, than those who eat the fewest or no nuts.
Pecans also provide monounsaturated fats which have beneficial effects on cholesterol balance.
All in all, a super food to kickstart my trail mix blend.
If pecan nuts are dietary dynamite, then cacao nibs are the equivalent of a nutritional H-bomb.
These innocuous-looking pellets are the purest form of dark chocolate and are made by first fermenting cacao (also known as cocoa) beans to develop a darker colour and fuller flavour.The fermented beans are dried or roasted, before husking to remove their bitter shells, then milled and sieved.
When making chocolate or cocoa powder, the resulting cacao nibs are further processed to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. Here, they provide delicious chocolatey, bitter-sweet notes along with a massive polyphenol boost. Cacao nibs provide as much as 1860mg polyphenols per 100g.
Again, you may worry about eating cacao nibs if you are watching your weight. As with nuts, research consistently shows that people who eat the most cacao products do not have a higher weight or Body Mass Index than those who do not. This is largely due to cocoa polyphenols which, like those in pecans, mimic the effects of regular exercise to boost fat burning, increase lean muscle mass and promote weight loss. They also have beneficial effects on blood pressure and heart disease risks.
Goji berries (also known as wolfberries) have an unusually high protein content for a fruit – around 10%, which is similar to that of pecan nuts.
When dried and eaten, goji berries provide around 414mg phenols per 100g weight. What’s more, scientists have found that hydrochloric acid, which just happens to be in the stomach, is the best solvent for ensuring these phytonutrients are released for absorption.
Goji berries are also an excellent source of vitamin C – even when dried, they provide around 45mg vitamin C per 100g.
Pumpkin seeds are fabulously high in protein (25%) and are also a rich source of healthy oils, which make up around 42% of their weight.
What’s more, this pumpkin seed oil consists of over 80% ‘healthy’ polunsaturated or monounsaturated oils which are great for cholesterol balance. The seeds are also full of fibre, and just 100g of pumpkin seed oil supplies as much as 88mg vitamin E.
The main type of polyphenol in pumpkin seeds are lignans which have a hormone-balancing effect similar to that of soy isoflavones. Pumpkin seeds provide a lovely crunch to offset the softer texture of the goji berries.
On a weight for weight basis, the polyphenol content of cinnamon blows most foods out of the water.
This spice, derived from the inner bark of a small tree, provides an astonishing 9,700 mg polyphenols per 100g weight. Although it’s only normally consumed in small quantities, one teaspoon ground cinnamon provides a respectable 250mg polyphenols.
Its warm, spicy flavour goes particularly well with the pecan nuts, cacao nibs and goji berries.
Pecan Punch Trail Mix
200g (2 cups) shelled pecan halves
100g (1 cup) cacao nibs
100g (1 cup) dried goji berries
100g (1 cup) hulled pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon fresh ground cinnamon
Chop the pecans into smaller chunks if you wish – this is twice as quick using a double-bladed mezzaluna knife – but I like to use the halves whole (so to speak).
Simply combine all ingredients in a bowl, mix, and taste. Divine!
Switch it up
Try adding chopped strips of dark-chocolate-coated orange peel to sky-rocket your polyphenols even further. The orange goes really well with the other ingredients, but only eat this at home – you don’t want melting chocolate on your fingers when hiking along a trail!
Let me know what you think.
And if you love healthy snacks, here’s a recipe for Pistachio Trail Mix – plus details of the nuts.com competition – via Brittany from Eating Bird Food.
Image credits: richard_marchant