SUPERFOODS are foods — mostly plant-based but also some fish
and dairy — that are thought to be nutritionally dense and thus good for one’s
health. Blueberries, salmon, kale, and acai are just a few examples of foods
that have garnered the “superfood” label. However, there are no set criteria
for determining what is and what is not a superfood, according to the American
Heart Association. “Superfoods don’t have their own food group,” said Despina
Hyde, a registered dietician with the weight management program at New York
University’s Langone Medical Center. “As a dietician, I think ‘superfood’ is
more of a marketing term for foods that have health benefits.”
Superfoods contain a variety of nutrients, such as
antioxidants, which are thought to ward off cancer. They also have healthy
fats, thought to prevent heart disease; fiber thought to prevent diabetes and
digestive problems; and phytochemicals — the chemicals in plants responsible
for deep colors and smells, which can have numerous health benefits. Consuming
foods that are packed with nutrients (as many so-called superfoods are) is
certainly a good idea, Hyde told Live Science. But the key to a healthy diet is
to consume a variety of nutritious foods in the right quantities, she added. Organic
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Blueberries often top many lists of superfoods because they
are rich in vitamins, soluble fiber, and phytochemicals. But the same nutrients
found in blueberries are also found in many other kinds of berries, including
strawberries and cranberries. A study published in 2013 in the journal
Circulation found that a high intake of phytochemicals known as flavonoids —
which are found in blueberries as well as other kinds of berries — may reduce
the risk of certain heart conditions in young women. But the small, vibrant
berry may take the top spot purely because it has been more frequently studied,
experimental psychologist Barbara Shukitt-Hale told The Atlantic.
Kale lives up to the hype it has attracted as a superfood,
but so do most dark, leafy greens: Swiss chard, collards, mustards (including
radish greens), spinach (and others in the amaranth family) and cabbages.
Include broccoli on that list as well. It’s in the cabbage-mustard family; the
modern version is grown for its flower instead of its leaves. These dark
vegetables are loaded with vitamins A, C, and K, as well as fiber, calcium and
Sweet potato and squash also usually make the superfood
list, for reasons similar to those listed for leafy greens. Both kinds of food
are generally excellent sources of fiber, vitamin A and much more. They are
also naturally sweet and don’t require the butter, cream or salt typically
added to potatoes.
Beans and whole grains are also included on superfood lists.
Beans are a source of low-fat protein. These nuggets of nutrition contain
insoluble fiber, which lowers cholesterol; soluble fiber, which provides a
longer feeling of fullness; and loads of vitamins and trace minerals largely
absent in the typical American diet, such as manganese. Whole grains — named as
such because, unlike refined grains, they are not stripped of their
nutrient-containing bran and germinating part during processing — have benefits
similar to those found in beans, though they don’t contain as much protein.
Quinoa is not a grain, but it cooks up like one and is also a remarkable source
of protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.
Nuts and seeds contain high levels of minerals and healthy
fats. Although these are common additions on superfood lists, the downside is
that they are high in calories. A quick handful of nuts could contain more than
100 calories, according to Hyde. Shelled nuts and seeds, in this regard, are
ideal because they take time to crack open, which slows you down.
Salmon, sardines, mackerel and certain other fatty fish are
rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to lower the risk of heart
disease and stroke. The benefits of eating fish may far outweigh the risk of
harming your health from the mercury these fish contain, according to the
Havard T.H Chan School of Public Health. If you worry about the contaminants
your fish dinner may contain, avoid eating fish that are high up on the food
chain. Certain fish, such as sharks, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish,
contain higher levels of mercury than smaller fish, like sardines, smelt, and
Any superfood list is sure to contain an “exotic fruit of
the year.” This might be acai berry, noni fruit, dragon fruit, rambutan or
pomegranate. These fruits might be healthful, but scientific studies don’t show
that they are more healthful than other, less exotic (and therefore less
expensive) fruits, such as blueberries. Some of these fruits may be
particularly dense in certain kinds of nutrients. Pomegranate, for example,
contains ellagitannins (ellagic acid), which may have anti-cancer properties.
But red raspberries, which are arguably just as delicious as pomegranate seeds,
also contain ellagic acid.
Criticism of the nomenclature
Scientists claim that use of the term “superfood” is largely
a marketing tool, with no root in academic research. Still, manufacturers rely
heavily on marketing ploys and lobbyists to shape the public’s perception of
In an attempt to sway public opinion about the health
benefits of macadamia nuts, for example, Royal Hawaiian Macadamia Nut — the
world’s largest purveyor of Hawaii’s coveted crop — lobbied the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration to make a claim linking the consumption of macadamia nuts
to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The FDA responded by releasing a
carefully worded statement noting that consuming 1.5 ounces of macadamia nuts
per day as part of a low-fat and low-cholesterol diet could potentially “reduce
the risk of coronary heart disease.” It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but
the macadamia nut industry took that to the press and consumers went, well,
Another general criticism of the use of the term “superfood”
is that, while the food itself might be healthful, the processing might not be.
For example, when green tea is freshly brewed, it has several antioxidants.
Commercially manufactured bottled green teas, however, are often cut with
inferior teas and brewed with copious amounts of sugar. Many kinds of
“super-juices” squeezed from acai berry, noni fruit and pomegranate can also
include large amounts of added sugar.
Because the term “superfood” is not scientific, it can
mislead consumers, prompting them to eat one kind of food over another.
Instead, Hyde said she encourages her clients, many of whom are trying to lose
weight, to eat everything in moderation. “When we label these foods as ‘super’
and ‘healthy,’ people think they can eat them in unlimited quantities,” she said.
“But you do have to be cautious of the amount you eat because you can gain
weight from eating too much healthy food.” Healthy juice bars Atlanta GA
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 might be a good entry into healthy
eating, and understanding the nutritional value of the food you eat can be
enlightening, but there are lots of healthy foods out there to explore, even if
no one is calling them “super.”