‘Superfoods’ are all the rage — but you need to be able to discern nutrition facts from fiction
What makes a food ‘super’?
Is there a hotter nutrition term than “superfood”? The term typically refers to foods with particular health benefits, but is this merely a marketing term, or is there actually science behind these superfoods?
“There is no legal definition of ‘superfood,’ but the broadest definition is it’s a food that has extraordinary nutritional benefits,” says Chicago nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of “The Superfood Swap.” She defines superfoods as foods that deliver phytochemicals — compounds in plants that benefit the plant while it’s growing, but have benefits for us when we eat them: vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and other components that help our bodies thrive. “I love the term ‘superfood’ because it implies some foods are better for you than others, which is true. I say, all foods fit, but some fit better than others.”
Looking at the health claims
One purported health benefit attached to many superfoods is that they offer protection against metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels, that increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, these claims are frequently not strongly supported by scientific evidence, especially not by controlled human intervention trials.
A 2018 review looked at the research on 17 foods frequently labeled as superfoods: acai berries, blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, strawberries, chili peppers, garlic, ginger, chia seed, flaxseed, hemp seed, quinoa, bee pollen, cocoa, maca, spirulina and wheatgrass. The researchers found only limited evidence in support of a strong role in reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome. For many of the foods, the research is contradictory or weak, while for other foods, there’s not enough research to produce definitive results.
Making smart ‘super’ choices
“Superfood” has become a frequently used marketing term, but Blatner says the term is overused, and points out that it may be found on the packages of highly processed foods that just happen to contain a superfood ingredient. “Since there is no legal definition, it’s definitely a buyer-beware situation.” She said it’s important to read the list of ingredients on the label and not just use marketing jargon on the front of packages to make food decisions, and offers this tip: “Most superfoods don’t come in a package or have a label.”
Some “superfoods,” such as acai and goji berries, have exotic origins, and may not be affordable for everyone. Are people really missing out if they go for more domestic foods?
“The biggest misunderstanding about superfoods is that people think they need to be exotic or expensive,” Blatner says. “The opposite is true. The best superfoods are those ordinary foods you eat regularly that have lots of nutrition such as apples, bananas, oranges, berries, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, garlic, onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, salmon, tuna, almonds, walnuts, olive oil, avocados, etc.”
Another tip from Blatner: Most plants have superfood qualities. “For optimal health it is important to have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and not just focus on the produce with the most popularity or media buzz at the moment,” she says.
So instead of looking to the rainforests of South America or the mountains of Tibet for the next superfood, why not look to your backyard — or your local farmers market and grocery store. The superfoods you’ll find there aren’t new or the beneficiaries of a major marketing campaign, but they’re no less healthful.
Here are a few examples:
BERRIES. Blueberries are one of the few fruits native to North America, and they are the second most popular berry (after strawberries) in the United States. Blueberries contain more antioxidant nutrients than most fruits and vegetables and are particularly rich in a family of phytonutrients called flavonoids. One group of flavonoids, anthocyanins, provides much of the beneficial health effects, along with blueberries’ beautiful color. Strawberries also have high levels of flavonoids.
CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLES. The cruciferous vegetable family — including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and bok choy — is an excellent source of essential vitamins, like folate, and is also rich in an array of phytochemicals. Many of these phytochemicals have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and may also help reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Kale is the trendiest member of this family, but while kale can be considered a superfood, there’s currently no evidence suggesting that it provides more health benefits than other cruciferous vegetables.
GARLIC. The entire allium family of vegetables — including onions, leeks, shallots and scallions — are rich in phytonutrients that have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. A true superfood that is far more than a seasoning!
It seems to be part of the human condition to look for magic bullets, especially when it comes to health, but while “superfoods” aren’t miracles, including a variety of these nutritional powerhouses in your meals is a delicious way of investing in your health.
Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy and other cruciferous vegetables are an excellent source of essential vitamins and are considered “super foods.”
Blueberries contain more antioxidant nutrients than most fruits and vegetables.