Superfoods, Are They Really Super?
What image comes to mind when you think of superfoods?
Do you think superfood as a food with invisible magic properties? A food with a flowing cape that has come to save humans from all our health problems?
There is no doubt that superfoods are a very popular health and nutrition topic. Thousands of researchers are out to find them, farmers are out to produce them, companies are out to sell them, and health-conscious consumers are out the eat them.
What is it about a superfood that distinguishes it as simply "healthy"?
The truth is, discussions about “superfoods” aren’t necessarily filled with fact. Lists of superfoods can be random and misleading, at times, as there is a lack of clarity about what superfoods actually are (and whether they are even a real thing).
This article will help answer all your questions about superfoods. We’ll start by explaining what the experts say about the superfood controversy (and why many think they don’t even exist). Then, we will go back to basics and identify the origin of the term and concept of “superfoods”, define the term and describe what makes superfoods “super”.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that what we eat is intrinsically related to our health. If we eat fast food three times a day, it will only take a few days before you start feeling it take a toll on your body. Cutting out food groups puts us at risk of nutrient deficiencies and excesses if we aren’t careful.
We see the term “superfood” so often nowadays that many of us hardly question it. However, health professionals and researchers aren’t as complacent that this term is so widely used. Here are some of the reasons not everyone is convinced of the term “superfood”.
1. The Concept Of "Superfoods" Is Too Reductive
The foods on superfood lists are often limited to around a dozen foods. These lists are often based on the density of antioxidants, fibre, nutrients, or adaptogens they may have, among others.
In general, the idea is that these foods are somehow superior to other plant foods. But, if we take a step back, nearly all food in the produce section is packed with vitamins, minerals, and other components that are essential for our health and wellbeing.
Many health professionals believe that all plant foods should be considered "superfoods", but there is simply not enough in-depth research about each food. Many foods off the list, like strawberries or collard greens, are much cheaper and have very similar health benefits.
In fact, plenty of studies have demonstrated how plant-based diets are very important for promoting long-term health, promoting longevity, and preventing disease.
In fact, a study published in 2013 in the Permanente Journal concludes, “Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity”.
For these reasons many critics of the “superfood category” simply believe the lists are too reductive.
2. Foods vs. Dietary Patterns
To see the benefits of what we eat on all levels, from the health of our cells to the way we feel, we cannot reduce what we eat to specific foods.
Health is the result of a dietary pattern, a series of food choices we make daily over several weeks, months and years. For example, eating broccoli every now and then will not ensure that we won’t get ill with cancer sometime in our life.
Even if we ate all of the 14 foods on Pratt’s superfood list dispersed throughout the week, but we eat fast food for lunch every day, we can’t say we are healthy.
Health results from consistent balanced food choices we make day after day and healthy lifestyle choices, not from eating individual “superfoods” every now and then.
3. It's A Marketing Gimmick
Food industry expert Phil Lempert had an interview with Healthline.com, and advised consumers to read labels carefully when foods claim to be superfoods or claim to have components we relate to superfoods, like antioxidants or probiotics.
Yogurt for example, may claim to be chock full of probiotics, but there is no guarantee that the healthy bacteria in their formulation will reach the gut alive.
Many companies just want to ride the superfood train all the way to the bank, without any scientific backing to do so.
In 2016, an article was published in the DailyMail, that reports some of the market impact of labelling and tagging foods as “superfoods”. They carried out a survey among Britons about their food purchases, and what they found was fascinating.
The article quotes Duane Mellor, a nutrition scientist who believes “superfoods are marketing gimmicks”. Many of the foods that companies claim have miraculous health benefits are exaggerated and misleading, and can point to limited evidence that backs up the claims.
The claims are repeated, however, in the interest of selling more wheatgrass, goji berries, beetroot juice, or chia seeds at higher prices.
What Is A Superfood?
The term “superfood” is used when referring to foods with exceptional health benefits. They tend to be nutrient dense, and have components that are known to help reduce your risk of certain illnesses, especially chronic diseases like cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and others.
Medicinenet.com defines superfoods as follows:
A non-medical term popularized in the media to refer to foods that can have health-promoting properties such as reducing one's risk of disease or improving any aspect of physical or emotional health. So-called superfoods may have an unusually high content of antioxidants, vitamins, or other nutrients […] It is important to note that there is no accepted medical definition of a superfood.
While there are diverse lists and definitions of superfoods, there is a general consensus that superfoods are whole, natural foods that seem simple, but provide complete health benefits.
You would never see “soups”, “salads”, and “pies” on lists of superfoods, as these are all foods made of multiple and diverse ingredients, but you may see “squash”, “spinach” and “blueberries” on the list.
That being said, as mentioned above, there is no official definition of a superfood, and the term doesn’t appear in the list of terms used by regulatory food authorities like the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture.
The term is also not commonly used by health professionals, like nutritionists, dieticians, and physicians because it isn’t an official food category.
Since there is no scientific definition of a superfood, it tells us that it is really more of a marketing term than an official food category. In fact, many health professionals even question the claims made about the health benefits of certain foods, which we will discuss later in this article.
Even so, other individuals and health specialists find the term useful to group together foods that we should all be eating more of due to their health properties.
The Origin Of "Superfoods"
What is the origin of this widely-used term?
The word itself brings up images of miracle foods that are better than medicine, and can prevent and instantly treat all sorts of illnesses. They have something seemingly magical that allow them to graduate from being just regular foods to being SUPERfoods.
As mentioned previously, there is no official definition of a superfood, so there must have been someone who coined the term. The Wild Blueberries of North America Organization tracked the first use of the word in Dr. Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthew’s 2006 book SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life.
The premise of the book is that there are certain foods that are especially nutrient rich and that play an important role in achieving the best health possible.
In his book, Pratt described the components and benefits of fourteen foods that play a significant role in achieving optimal health. By eating these foods regularly and often, Pratt claimed, you could prevent disease and live longer, based on budding evidence in the field of nutrigenomics, which is the study of how food can control genes in a favourable way.
The book quickly became a bestseller, and as more research was compiled about the role of food in promoting health, more health specialists, authors, and bloggers started making the case for foods to be added to the list, and came out with new books and lists.
12 years later, we have over 160 million websites talking about superfoods.
What Make Superfoods 'Super'?
At the same time, we know that diets rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein will not only help us feel good, they will also help keep our bodies in optimum health and stave off disease. But, are there components that have even more powerful properties than others?
There are several components that tend to bring attention to foods considered superfoods. X of these components are described below.
What are they?
Antioxidants are components that help to neutralize potentially damaging free radicals. It is important to know that all normal bodily processes, like metabolism, growth, and repair, produce free radicals, and these are normally offset by antioxidants produced by the body and antioxidants that come from a regular diet.
The problem is, the number of free radicals in the body can also increase when we eat lots of processed foods, live in polluted environments, smoke or drink alcohol, or experience intense stress over a long period of time.
If the population of free radicals in our body goes out of control, they can damage our cells through a process called oxidative stress. Cell damage can result in heart and brain disease, aging, and cancer.
There are dozens of different types of antioxidants. Antioxidant is the broad term used to describe components in foods that have the ability to neutralize these free radicals and protect cell health.
Some are in the form of vitamins, like Vitamins E and C; others are in the form of minerals, like selenium, copper, and zinc; and then there are other chemicals naturally found in some foods like flavonoids, polyphenols and carotenoids.
What are the benefits of antioxidants?
Antioxidants are plant nutrients (phytonutrients) that help to neutralize free radicals that can damage our cells and cause disease.
According to a study by Pham-Huy of Stanford University published in the International Journal of Biomedical Science, “This process plays a major part in the development of chronic and degenerative illness such as stroke, cancer, autoimmune disorders, aging, cataract, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.”
Antioxidants found in the foods we eat can help to offset many of these processes, which is why we try to find foods that have higher amounts of antioxidants than others.
Where can you find them?
Some of the foods highest in antioxidants (based on current research) include plant foods (in general), herbs and traditional plant medicine, berries, chocolate, nuts and seeds, and spices.
2. Healthy Fats
What are they?
In general, fats can be divided into three categories: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats.
Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, and are usually found in animal-based foods, like meats and dairy.
Unsaturated fats are oils, and are usually found in plant-based foods like nuts, grains, and seeds.
Trans fats are made in the lab (except for a few instances), and are plant oils made solid by a process called hydrogenation. This process, we know now, have detrimental effects on our heart health.
However, we now know that there are some types of fats that are very good for our health. In general, these fall under the category of “unsaturated fats”.
There are different types of unsaturated fats, mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (like Omega-3s). This is where the “superfood” interest lies; some types of these fats are shown to promote health and counteract the negative effects of a poor diet.
What are the benefits of healthy fats?
Where can you find them?
There are several dozen types of healthy fats, and superstar foods in each category. One of the most famous type of healthy fats, however, is Omega-3 fatty acid, and most superfood categorizations focus on this nutrient.
Foods highest in Omega-3 fatty acids include: flaxseeds, salmon, sardines, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, and wheatgerm.
What does this mean?
According to the National Cancer Institute, nutrient-dense foods are “Food that is high in nutrients but relatively low in calories. Nutrient-dense foods contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.”.
Foods that are known as “nutrient-dense” will have tons of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial components, in smaller portions. Other foods, like those known as “junk foods” are generally nutrient-poor. They have tons of calories, and not many vitamins and minerals.
What are the benefits of nutrient-dense foods?
Nutrient-dense foods will give you more bang for your buck in terms of vitamins and minerals. In many parts of the world, we tend to eat foods that are too high in calories, and we aren’t getting enough of other important nutrients.
Nutrient-dense foods help us to maintain a healthy weight while providing vitamins and minerals we need to keep our body healthy.
Where foods are considered nutrient-dense?
The USDA’s Choose My Plate program says, “The most nutritious or nutrient-dense foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry – all with little or no saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.”
4. Antimicrobials, Antifungals & Antivirals
What are they?
Some foods contain natural properties that help to fight bacterial, fungal, and even viral infections. They can achieve this in a variety of different ways; it can be due to the viscosity of a food, its pH level, “good” bacteria, natural sugar content, or another active compound.
What are the benefits of antimicrobial and antifungal foods?
Antimicrobial foods can help to heal wounds, when applied topically, or fight certain types of infections when consumed. When used properly, they are natural forms of helping to keep illness and infection away, and in some cases, can work better than antibiotics.
Naturally-occurring antimicrobials can be so effective that researchers are looking into their application in the food industry as preservatives.
What are examples of antimicrobial and antifungal foods?
One of the most famous and widely-used antimicrobial and antifungal food is honey. It’s viscosity, pH, and high-sugar content all help to fight damaging bacteria. Others include spices like oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage and vanilla, and foods like onions and garlic, cabbage, and fermented foods.
What are they?
Adaptogens are special components found in some foods that help our body adapt to stress much more effectively. On a biological level, stress can cause cellular or system damage, and adaptogens help to modulate this stress.
What are the benefits of adaptogens?
Adaptogens can help to prevent cell and system damage. Foods with adaptogens have been known for their ability to improve mental performance, attention, cognitive function, and even fatigue. They help us deal with stress in a much more effective way.
Where can you find them?
Adaptogens are mostly found in herbs, many of which are used in traditional Ayurvedic, Chinese and Japanese medicine. These include ginseng, ashwagandha, holy basil, rhodiola, chamomile lemon balm, linden, St. John’s Wort, Ginkgo, lavender, rosemary, Yuan Zhi, and white peony.
The "Original" Superfoods
The original list of superfoods highlighted in Pratt’s book contained fourteen foods, which tend to repeat themselves in other list iterations.
According to the original Superfoods website, the foods and their benefits are as follows:
Apples are low in calories and high in antioxidants, vitamin C, dietary fibre and potassium. The claimed health benefits are: “improves heat health, improved lung function, lowers risk of type II diabetes, prevents lung cancer.
In this original list avocadoes are claimed to be one of the “most nutrient-dense foods on the planet”. They are high in fibre, vitamin E, folate, and antioxidants. The benefits of avocado are described as follows: “can facilitate weight loss, lowers chance of prostate cancer, may help lower cholesterol”. We now also know that avocadoes are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help prevent heart disease.
Beans are high in B vitamins, fibre, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium, and protein among others. The benefits highlighted in the superfoods list include: “anti-cancer, helps maintain a healthy weight, lowers cholesterol, regulated blood sugar levels.”.
Blueberries are one of the most popular superfoods, because it was discovered that they are very high in antioxidants, which is famously important for helping to prevent cancer and slow aging.
In addition to also being high in antioxidant nutrients, broccoli is also a good source of plant-based calcium, dietary fibre, folate, and components called indoles and sulforaphane. It is claimed to have anti-cancer properties, due to the antioxidants, keeps metabolism balances, lowers cholesterol, protects the eyes, and “detoxifies” the body. We now know that food cannot directly detoxify the body; only our organs can do that.
Cinnamon, while used in small quantities, is high in minerals like calcium and manganese. The original superfoods list describes it as “anti-inflammatory […], improves cognition, lowers cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease, and regulates glucose levels.”.
7. Dark Chocolate
When this came out into the public, it caught on fire. The idea of chocolate, traditionally considered a candy or a junk food, as being beneficial was great news. Dark, minimally processed chocolate is high in minerals like copper, iron, magnesium, selenium and potassium, all of which have beneficial effects on a cellular level. The original superfoods website describes chocolate as having the power to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, and even protect your skin from the sun.
8. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
With the appearance of an oil on the superfoods list at the same time as more research started coming out about the benefits of monounsaturated fats, the health and nutrition world finally stopped being so afraid of fat. The benefits of these fats and the other components found in olive oil were touted as helping to prevent diabetes and lower blood pressure, reducing the change of breast and colon cancer, and potentially reducing the risk of heart disease.
Garlic was identified as a superfood by Pratt mostly due to its many organosulphur compounds which have a beneficial effect on blood pressure. It is also claimed to help detoxify the body, but as mentioned for broccoli, we now know that this is not true.
Honey is highlighted because of its natural antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It is also claimed to help regulate blood sugar levels, but new science knows that not to be true.
This tropical fruit was touted for having more vitamin C than citrus fruit, and it is also high in certain types of antioxidants, micronutrients like potassium, and healthy vitamins like vitamin E. Pratt claims that it has the following properties: Anti-cataract and macular degeneration, may prevent colon cancer, antioxidant, reduced the severity of osteoarthritis, and supports brain health.
This classic breakfast food was identified as having tons of beneficial minerals, and a component called beta glucan, which helps to lower blood sugar. It is also high in fibre, which is also beneficial for diabetes patients. Other claimed benefits included lowering the chance of breast cancer and strengthening the immune system.
While not everyone is a fan of onions, Pratt proposed we eat much more of them. They are high in different types of antioxidants, diallyl sulphide, and several minerals. Pratt describes it as decreasing inflammation, lowering cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, and boosting the immune system.
In addition to being packed with Vitamin C, oranges are also high in fibre, folate and antioxidants, among others. It is commonly known as helping to strengthen the immune system, but Pratt also outs that it helps to lower the risk of stroke and regulates glucose levels.
Since the development of this list, many other health specialists have added foods to the list, some of which include kale, quinoa, soy, Brussels sprouts, blackberries, cherries, and many others.
You can compare these to the foods with “superfood” components, and it is easy to see how the list continues to grow far and wide as more as we have access to more and more information about components in plant foods.
We’ve reviewed the evidence and we can see that superfoods might not be what we think they are. The internet and fad diets make us believe that superfoods are a group of foods that graduate from being good for you to being miracle cure-alls.
Every day, new foods seem to join the exclusive club of superfoods as we are told new properties and components are discovered.
In the meantime, a holistically healthy diet takes second place in series of actions we to take need to fight off disease and promote longevity. Other foods excluded from the list happen to have many of the properties touted in the original superfood list.
Of course, this isn’t to say that foods declared superfoods don’t have beneficial properties. No one is disputing that the fruits, vegetables and grains identified as superfoods have plenty of nutrients and phytocomponents that contribute to your health.
However, they aren’t necessarily better than other, cheaper choices, and certainly not more important than leading a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet full of plant-based foods, exercise, effective stress management, and plenty of sleep and hydration, among others.
New evidence shows that much of the hype around superfoods is not only exaggerated, misleading, and not based on evidence. The concept continues to be propagated for marketing purposes more than for the benefit of the consumer.
In short, experts believe that the concept of superfoods has been blown way out of proportion. Foods can be super good for you, without having supernatural properties.
If you are looking for ways to improve your health, prevent disease such as stroke, or live a longer, healthier life, don’t be fooled by misleading marketing.
Talk to your registered dietician or doctor about what you can do to improve your health, and look for evidence-based recommendations, that help you make consistently healthy choices throughout your life.