‘Su­per­foods’ are all the rage — but you need to be able to dis­cern nu­tri­tion facts from fic­tion

What makes a food ‘su­per’?

Chicago Sun-Times - - NEWS - BY CAR­RIE DENNETT, M.P.H., R.D.N. En­vi­ron­men­tal Nu­tri­tion News­let­ter

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.

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