The truth about superfoods
What makes a food “super”? Some say it’s the high volume of vitamins, minerals, fiber and health-protecting antioxidants a particular fruit, veggie, grain or fish contains. Others say the phrase is meaningless, nothing more than marketing hype largely unsupported by credible research.
The European Union, which takes a stronger stand on many health-related issues than the U.S. government does, banned the use of the term in 2007 unless the claim could be backed by specific scientific research.
Does that mean the usual superfood suspects, such as kale and other leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous veggies, blueberries, pomegranates, dark chocolate, walnuts, wild salmon and other fatty fish, are worthless? Not at all. These foods are indeed rich in nutrients and worth eating as part of a healthy diet. But they are not magic bullets, guaranteed to cure what ails you.
Kale is a good example. Home cooks who hadn’t heard of it 20 years ago are now folding it into everything from smoothies to pesto to cake. Bon Appetit magazine hailed 2012 as the year of kale, and Oct. 2, 2013, marked the first celebration of National Kale Day. Last year kale appeared on restaurant menus 400 times more frequently than it did in 2008.
WebMD confirms that kale is indeed rich in nutrients. One cup, the site says, contains nearly 3 grams of protein; 2.5 grams of fiber; vitamins A, C and K; folate, an omega-3 fatty acid; lutein; and zeaxanthin, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and zinc. The most popular member of the cabbage family is certainly worth eating, but claims that it will boost your immune system, stave off aging and fight cancer are likely more than a bit overblown.
Still, the search continues for a magic formula to zap illness and slow aging, with more and more foods popping up on the superfood lists. Chia seeds (last seen growing “hair” on pottery pets) are having their day, as are goji and açaí berries and quinoa. Coconut water is still popular despite a 2011 class-action lawsuit that forced VitaCoco, the drink’s largest distributor, to rewrite its health claims. Proving that everything old is new again, bone broths and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi are among the traditional foods re-emerging on the superfood stage.
In a sense, all unprocessed foods, especially fruits and veggies, could be considered superfoods, and eating more of them, but not too much of any one, supports health, if only because they keep you from filling up on french fries, doughnuts, potato chips, diet or regular soda and processed meats.
Research has shown that the ideal diet is one that is largely plant based with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthful animal products. Superfoods can be a good entry into healthy eating, and understanding their nutritional value is enlightening, but the sound research to back up the marketing is just not there.