In recent years, supermarket offerings have expanded, and even mainstream stores are now carrying what many people would consider weird foods. Some are being promoted for their health benefits. Which ones actually can help and which ones are just the latest attempt to get you to open up your wallet? Our nutrition experts take a close look at six of the most popular.  

Birch Water

You’ve probably seen bottles of coconut water, the mildly sweet liquid inside coconuts. But what about birch, cactus, or cucumber water?

Birch water is the sap of a birch tree. Some products mix in flavorings like nettle or rosehip (shown above) with the sap; others add water and fruit juices. Cactus and cucumber varieties are just flavored water.

These products, sometimes promoted as natural hydrators that are rich in antioxidants, electrolytes, and nutrients, may also carry promises to reduce inflammation and detoxify.

How weird is it? A little. Plant and tree waters are fairly new to the U.S. market. Cucumber water is just water with flavors added, and there’s nothing new about that.

How healthy is it? Plant waters are usually lower in calories than typical sports drinks, having 25 to 30 calories in 8 ounces compared with 56 for Gatorade. Many have no sweeteners or only the sugars naturally present in the plant, but some have small amounts of added sugars. Still, Consumer Reports nutritionists advise sticking with the most authentic beverage of all: water.

“Few people exercise so vigorously that they need to replenish electrolytes,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a CR dietitian. “And these specialty waters can be pricey.” We paid almost $3 for 10 ounces of birch water and $2.50 for 12 ounces of cucumber-lime water. Cactus water sells for slightly more than $3 for 16.9 ounces on Amazon.

As for the claimed nutrition benefits of other plant waters, if you want to add more nutrients and antioxidants to your diet, CR recommends eating vegetables or fruit instead of sipping juice. You’ll get the additional benefit of fiber, which aids digestion.

How does it taste? When testing plant waters in the past, we have found that the flavor of the plant came through, but just slightly. Many plant waters are flavored with other ingredients like fruit or herbs, which can change the taste.

Jackfruit

Love the health benefits of a plant-based diet but still crave old favorites like succulent pulled-pork sandwiches? Your new favorite meat substitute may come in a surprising package: young, green jackfruit. Before it’s ripe, this Southeast Asian fruit has a texture that’s similar to shredded meat. It’s been marketed as everything from the next great vegan meat alternative to a sustainable support for farming economies.

How weird is it? Pretty weird. The bumpy green fruit, which can grow up to 100 pounds, is an everyday food in subtropical regions such as India and Indonesia, where it’s eaten unripe in savory dishes like curries or ripe as a fresh fruit. But in North America, it’s still pretty unusual.

You’ll find jackfruit in some Asian and natural-food markets. The whole large fresh fruit and often smaller, plastic-wrapped sections will be near other tropical fruits in the produce section. Packaged jackfruit may be in the meat-substitute area (near the tofu) or in the canned fruit and vegetable sections.

How healthy is it? Unlike other meat substitutes such as seitan or tofu, jackfruit isn’t high in protein, supplying just 2 grams per half-cup. “Most people get more than enough protein in their diets, but if you don’t eat any animal products, jackfruit won’t help you meet your protein needs,” says Maxine Siegel, R.D., who heads CR’s food-testing lab.

Packaged products of jackfruit that have added flavorings often include sugars and sodium. Still, swapping jackfruit for the pulled pork in your favorite dish will save you at least 100 calories and 4.5 grams of fat (of which about half is saturated fat) per 3-ounce serving.

How does it taste? Plain young green jackfruit has a starchy texture and a fairly mild flavor. The spices in one of the flavored frozen dishes we tested tended to overwhelm the fruit itself. “Texture is a big factor here,” says Claudia Gallo, a chef and food tester at CR. “The pieces and chunks broke apart into shreds reminiscent of very soft pulled meat. The vegans on our panel were satisfied, but meat eaters didn’t think it could hold a candle to real meat.”

Purple Asparagus

Purple asparagus—and other purple veggies and grains—have gotten a lot of press and shelf space in recent years. But these varieties aren’t new. Until the 17th century, when the Dutch introduced orange pigment to carrots in celebration of the Dutch royal family, many carrots were purple. And contemporary records show that purple potatoes were hot sellers in 18th-century Parisian markets.

Now produce purveyors and marketers are encouraging American shoppers to discover again the power of purple, and the campaign seems to be working. Whole Foods listed purple produce as one of their top food trends for 2017.

How weird is it? Not that much. These varieties of asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, grains, potatoes, and more have been brightening up market shelves for several years.

How healthy is it? “Purple vegetables get their color from anthocyanins, a naturally occurring antioxidant that has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and some cancers,” Siegel says. But check labels on packaged foods carefully. “Cereal, chips, or other packaged products may have just as many calories, sugars, and sodium as the less colorful options,” she says.

How does it taste? Purple asparagus tastes like, well, asparagus. “There isn’t a discernible difference between the taste of purple produce and the standard-colored varieties,” Keating says.

Cricket Flour

In the U.S., finding bug body parts in your meal is usually cause for spitting out your food in disgust, and maybe even filing a lawsuit. But there may be good reasons to actually want bug bits in your food.

Cricket flour, which is being used to make snack bars, brownie mixes, chips, and other foods, is seen as an environmentally efficient way of getting more protein in your diet.

But the cricket products showing up on store shelves in the U.S. don’t contain insects that were rounded up in the wild. These critters were raised on domestic cricket farms, then dried or roasted and milled into a fine flour.

How weird is it? That depends on your perspective. “Crickets and other insects are an excellent and common source of protein in parts of the world, from South America to Africa to New Zealand,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. One reason is that regions with warm climates year-round have insects always readily available.

How healthy is it? “The cricket-flour protein bars we tested do have a high protein content, but they can also be high in calories,” Siegel says. “Some had as many as 300 calories, which is really like two snacks.”

“A big health benefit to cricket-flour products may be to the planet, in that they’re a sustainable protein source,” she adds. “Insects don’t require much land or water, certainly much less than cattle, for example.”

If you want the extra protein without the added calories, look for plain cricket flour. You can use it as a substitute for some of the regular flour in baked goods.

How does it taste? “You can’t taste the cricket flour in the bars we tried,” Siegel says. As for the bars themselves, they were chewy and mostly tasted like dried fruits and nuts, and some had other spices and flavors added. Overall, our tasters said that these protein snacks were just okay.

Veggie Burgers

If it looks, cooks, and even “bleeds” like red meat, is it still a veggie burger? Some newcomers to the veggie-burger scene hope to make consumers do a dinnertime double take. These new products combine plant-based proteins with other ingredients to create a rich mouth feel and meatlike taste and color.

How weird is it? Pretty weird. This new breed of veggie burger comes “raw,” like real meat. One product is actually sold in patties in the meat department, right next to the ground beef.

How healthy is it? CR’s nutrition team tested two new “meaty” veggie burgers. The Beyond Burger, available at select Whole Foods stores around the U.S., is similar calorie-wise to a same-size burger made from 80 percent lean ground beef, but it has less protein and a third less saturated fat. The Impossible Burger, on the menu at a few restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area, has about the same number of calories and amount of protein as a similar-size 80 percent lean beef burger but is higher in saturated fats. “The sodium content for both is on the high side,” Keating says.

How does it taste? Our testers tried both burgers at company-hosted events introducing the new products. Both came closer to real beef in flavor and texture than any other veggie burger we’ve tasted at Consumer Reports, though neither one quite measured up to ground beef in flavor. Still, “on a bun with toppings like lettuce, tomato, cheese, a Thousand Island-style sauce, and pickles—which is the way I was served the Impossible Burger—you might be hard-pressed to say these weren’t beef burgers,” Gallo says.

Kefir

Like yogurt, kefir (most often pronounced “kuh-FEER” or “KEE-fur”) is a fermented milk product with a tangy, somewhat sharp flavor. Both are riding the bandwagon of the fermented-food trend that’s been going strong for the past several years. That’s probably because of emerging research about the role the microbiome—the ecosystem of good bacteria that resides in your gut—plays in your overall health.

How weird is it? Only a little. Kefir has been enjoyed by Europeans for centuries, but yogurt is far more familiar to mainstream U.S. shoppers, and more popular. You’ll find kefir near the yogurt in the dairy section of many grocery stores. The traditional drinkable version is sold in bottles; newer, thickened versions come in yogurt-style cups. You can drink or eat plain or flavored kefir on its own, add it to fruit or cereal, or mix it into homemade smoothies for a protein and probiotic boost.

How healthy is it? Kefir and other fermented foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh (a fermented soy product), kimchi (a traditional Korean dish of salted and fermented vegetables, often cabbage), and kombucha (an effervescent fermented tea) are rich sources of probiotics. They’re associated with a healthy microbiome and a number of other health benefits, such as weight loss and improved digestion and immunity. Kefir has about twice as many probiotics as yogurt, according to one manufacturer. But some kefir products are high in fat, and flavored versions may have added sugar, so be sure to check the label before you buy. Like yogurt, kefir is only as healthy as the ingredients it contains.

How does it taste? Plain kefir tastes similar to plain yogurt, with a slightly tarter flavor and a thinner consistency. Flavored versions are widely available, and the sweetness of the fruit or other flavoring tends to balance kefir’s natural sourness.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.