You’ve likely seen advertising hype for “superfoods” that claim to set you on the path toward total health and to do things like prevent cancer, decrease blood pressure, regulate diabetes, promote skin and hair health, weight loss, immune support, or heart health. In fact, “superfood” labeling has become pervasive: According to Mintel research, in 2015, the food industry saw a 36% global increase on new products described as “superfood, superfruit, or supergrain”—with the United States ranking first as the most prolific.1
In addition, the trend of calling foods “super” has resulted in a wave of restaurants, shops, and coffee chains boasting about superfood and drink menu items (many we were already familiar with) that could promote health. The result: Consumers’ willingness to pay more for these foods has increased. So, are superfoods worth it? And are they always super?
What is a Superfood?
Merriam-Webster defines superfood as “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.”2
“Superfood” is not a medical or scientific term; rather it’s a name created by the food industry to classify and market items that are rich in nutrients that have potential health benefits. And this name certainly has worked to drum up interest in a number of foods.
Researchers analyzed ten years of Google data and found searches related to superfoods have skyrocketed since 2009.3
Let’s take a look at some of the qualities of foods that have been given super status.
Examples and Potential Benefits of Superfoods
Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
Examples: Kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, turnip and beet greens, spinach.
Potential Benefits: They are rich in folate, zinc, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C and K, and fiber. Eating dark green leafy vegetables many decrease your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes4 and reduce constipation.5
Fun fact: One cup of kale provides 680% of your recommended daily dose of vitamin K.6
Fun fact: “Kale Yeah” is a kale eating competition and has been referred to as “The World’s Healthiest Eating Contest.”7
Berries and Fruit
Examples: Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, goji berries, acai berries, cherries, avocado, grapefruit.
Potential Benefits: They are rich in vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and flavonoids. The antioxidant benefits are potentially associated with reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and inflammation.8 Vitamin C, found in berries, keeps your skin looking smooth and is required for your body to make collagen.9
Fun fact: Eating 1 cup of strawberries provides you with the total daily requirement of vitamin C.10
Fun fact: Avocados are considered fruits and are a great source of folate, vitamin K, and contain more potassium than a banana; avocados are full of fat, but the “good” fat and may raise your good cholesterol (LDL) and lower your “bad” cholesterol (HDL).11
Fun fact: Some research has linked the flavonoid that gives blueberries their color to improved memory and comprehension, reduction of risks associated with cancer, and decreases in inflammation. ONE blueberry has as many flavonoids as a whole red apple.12
Fun fact: Grapefruits are packed with flavonoids, which potentially lowers the likelihood of certain strokes. Oranges are beneficial in this aspect as well; however, they contain more sugar.13 (Be mindful of your medications because grapefruit can potentially cause drug interactions. Talk with your healthcare provider prior to adding grapefruit to your diet if you take medications.)
Examples: A plant related to ginger and commonly used as a spice and a major ingredient in curry; can be in the form of capsules, tablets, teas, powder, and paste.
Potential Benefits: The active ingredient in turmeric is curcuminoids. According to the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, preliminary studies found that curcuminoids may: reduce the number of heart attacks in patients following bypass surgery; provide the same relief as ibuprofen in controlling knee pain associated with osteoarthritis, and decrease skin irritation following breast cancer radiation treatments. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has studied the relationship and potential benefits of curcuminoids and Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and certain types of cancers.14
Fun fact: Turmeric is the coloring agent in yellow mustard.
Seeds and Nuts
Examples: Almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seeds, quinoa.
Potential Benefits: Seeds and nuts contain high levels of minerals and healthy fats. They can be a source of energy for your body. They may protect against heart disease, and some nuts may aid in weight loss.15 Even so, seeds and nuts should be consumed in moderation as they are high in calories. Consider one handful for a midday snack.
Fun fact: Hemp seeds are derived from the cannabis plant, but they do NOT contain THC; instead, they contain vitamin E, protein, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.16
Fun fact: Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) contains all nine essential amino acids, meaning that it is a complete protein.17 (Protein can be either complete or incomplete. Complete proteins contain all nine amino acids. Incomplete proteins do not contain all nine amino acids but can be added to other protein sources during your meal to provide all nine amino acids.)
Examples: Salmon, sardines, lake trout, tuna.18
Potential Benefits: Some fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which has been shown to reduce cholesterol, slow growth of plaque buildup in arteries, decrease blood pressure, increase metabolism, and decrease risk of arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat).19
Fun Fact: Studies link fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids to decreased rates of fatal heart events, but did you know research has found brain and mental health benefits, too? In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association found an association between moderate seafood intake and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. Individuals who ate fish regularly had more grey brain matter in the brain (the more grey brain matter you have the less brain deterioration). The Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience linked fish oil and improvement with depression symptoms when combined with an antidepressant.20
Examples: Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), soybeans, black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans.
Potential Benefits: Beans are thought to decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and lower blood sugar (all of which can lead to heart disease).
Fun fact: Beans are a great source of protein; soybeans are the only bean considered a “complete” protein.
Fun fact: Beans contain folate, generally more so than other foods. Folate (or folic acid) is necessary to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in a fetus during pregnancy. It is recommended to cook beans that have been dried, as opposed to using canned beans, to get more folate; dried beans contain nearly twice the amount of folate as compared to canned beans.
Are Superfoods Always Super?
The National Institute for Health and the U.S. government support eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of vegetables and fruits—this includes foods considered super. Superfoods contain wonderful properties that should be a part of your routine meals; however, understanding what constitutes a balanced and healthy diet is of utmost importance. Research has linked increased consumption of fruits and vegetables to lower risks of several diseases; however, the jury is still out whether this risk reduction is solely because of healthful properties (vitamins, for example), or if certain food intake combined with lifestyle choices (such as regular exercise, avoiding smoking, portion control, etc.) reduce the risk of certain diseases.
Also, keep in mind that trendy foods are exciting but can be expensive and associated with potentially misleading advertisements. Just because a product contains a “superfood” does not mean it is altogether super for you. No single food (even if it is labeled “super”) can prevent disease or reduce your risk of developing certain medical conditions, including cancer, high cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure. A combination of lifestyle factors can set you on the path towards total-body health and wellness. Concentrate on your long nutrition game—balancing intentional physical activity with portion control, eating real food, incorporating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (and the superfoods!), and eliminating unhealthy habits and choices.
8 “16 Superfoods That Are Worthy of the Title.”
11 “Super Foods for Women.”
12 “20 Amazing Facts About Superfoods.”
13 “Super Foods for Women.”
15 “16 Superfoods That Are Worthy of the Title.”
16 “20 Amazing Facts About Superfoods.”
19 Jennifer Hussein, “20 Reasons You Should Be Eating More Fish,” Eat This, Not That!, July 26, 2018.