Will “superfoods” give you super health benefits? This term gives the impression that eating a “superfood” will boost your health to some next level. But is that really the case?
Definition of Superfoods
There’s no scientifically based definition of superfoods. However, it’s research that typically catapults a regular grocery store item into superfood status. When scientists discover that a food is particularly high in health benefits, that food is often described as a “superfood” by media who report their findings. Which foods make the cut? Criteria may include:
- Contains high levels of desirable nutrients.
- Is linked to disease prevention
- Offers several simultaneous health benefits beyond the food’s nutritional value1
The use of “superfood” as a term has become mainstream. In fact, you’ll now find “superfood” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which defines it 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
And when a food is deemed a superfood, sales typically skyrocket. For example, matcha, almonds, chia seeds and kale. Which of these were in the news – or grocery carts – thirty years ago? With each discovery comes a marketing opportunity.
While it’s always wise to see a sales pitch for what it is, there are still many real health benefits linked to certain foods deemed “superfoods”. There have been from the start.
The Problem with Superfoods
The main issue with labeling anything a superfood is the perception of health, without a health guarantee. It’s still an unscientific and unregulated term. Superfood can be printed on any label, and anywhere on the internet, without supporting evidence. Concerned about misleading the public, the European Union even banned using the term superfood in 2007.3
While many superfoods may have some real nutritional value, again, as a shopper it is good to beware of such claims and do your own homework.
Superfoods Put to the Test
When foods are marketed as superfoods it doesn’t mean they have superpowers. They’re simply popular choices for people who want to boost their health. Are they really that good for you? Let’s find out.
Why it’s called a superfood: Berries contain a high level of antioxidant capacity, four times greater than non-berry fruits. Antioxidants are associated with fighting cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, among other health benefits.4
Yes, berries have high antioxidant value. However, scientists are careful to caution that more research is needed to justify all the marketing claims made about antioxidants, from fighting cancer and infection to improving eyesight.4 Eating berries along with a variety of other fruits and vegetables may actually provide the greatest health benefits.5
Why it’s called a superfood: Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage, a type of probiotic food. Sauerkraut contains the lactic acid bacteria known for its ability to support healthier digestion.6
Since sauerkraut is a prepared food and not an ingredient found in nature, the amount of lactic acid bacteria in each sauerkraut recipe (or canned product) can vary. Also, the same digestive benefits can be found in other fermented foods like miso or yogurt with active cultures.
Why it’s called a superfood: Quinoa is technically a seed with many nutritious benefits, such as being a good source of fiber, naturally gluten-free and unusually high in protein for a plant.
Having high quality protein makes quinoa unique. Plants rarely contain all essential amino acids needed to make a “complete protein” the way quinoa does.7 Our bodies don’t create amino acids on their own, so we rely on outside sources. And usually only animal products have them. Not so with quinoa.
Why it’s called a superfood: Carrots are an excellent source of vitamin A, fiber and many antioxidants, namely beta-carotene. Carrots may also provide heart health benefits, support eye health, and may even reduce the risk of some cancers.8
In addition to proven health benefits, carrots are widely available making them an easy healthy, affordable addition to anyone’s diet. As with all the superfoods listed above, carrots offer some unique nutritional value but there’s never a case for eating only carrots – or too many. In addition to missing out on other essential nutrients by focusing on only carrots, your skin may turn orange. That’s because too much beta-carotene causes carotenemia.9
Eat Superfoods, Plus the Rainbow
Many of these superfoods absolutely contain nutrition benefits. However, when you focus on one particular food, even if it’s a superfood, you’ll miss out on much-needed nutrients available from other healthy foods. A well-balanced diet includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, protein sources, whole grains, and healthy fats, the key to long term health.10