Are superfoods a thing?
I spent a sunny Sunday morning going down the rabbit hole of food-nutrition research. Why? Because someone on the internet said something … with which I disagreed.
A friend posted a short piece about the value of goji berries — a small Asian fruit in the tomato family that’s rich in antioxidants, protein and other important nutrients. Goji (Lycium chinense and L. barbarum) is a powerhouse, for sure.
What got me going, though, was a comment under the post. One woman reported that goji was “one of the first superfoods” she’d ever purchased.
And I thought, really? You’ve never bought cranberries or blueberries or walnuts? Because those are superfoods and they grow right around us.
My journey to herbalism and naturopathic medicine grew out of my concerns for environmental preservation and sustainability. So I always question the value of importing things from far, far away.
If a food or herbal medicine is awesome and we can grow it here without messing up local ecosystems, that’s great! If we can’t, we have to consider the effects on the social and environmental systems of the country of origin (see quinoa) and the environmental cost for shipping (carbon footprint, transport of invasive species).
Are some plants so unique and useful that they justify these costs? Maybe, sometimes.
Or can we find locally abundant, sustainable analogs? Mostly, and often.
With these questions about superfoods in mind, I started down the rabbit hole. I wanted to double check my biases and make sure my assertions were based on fact. Here’s what I found.
What is a “super food?”
“Super food” (or “super fruit,” “supergrain,” etc.) is a marketing label that has no medical or scientific meaning.
It’s a made-up term designed specifically to sell things.
And it works: 2015 alone saw a 36-percent increase worldwide in products marketed as superfoods.
The term is generally understood to mean that a food has exceptional health benefits. (Why aren’t dandelion leaves more often mentioned?) But with no specific definition any food can be marketed as a superfood.
Here’s how Harvard’s School of Public Health defines it:
“There’s no scientifically based or regulated definition for superfood, but generally, a food is promoted to superfood status when it offers high levels of desirable nutrients, is linked to the prevention of a disease, or is believed to offer several simultaneous health benefits beyond its nutritional value.”
Most whole foods meet this definition.
Nearly every vegetable helps fight scurvy, reduces inflammation, promotes bowel health, feeds healthy gut flora, improves mood and has some cancer-fighting potential.
In other words, nearly all vegetables are “linked to the prevention of a disease” or potentially offers “several simultaneous health benefits beyond its nutrition value.”
Take the case of oranges. People have used these for centuries as an effective dietary source of Vitamin C. Oranges “work.”
And yet, when a fruit or vegetable is touted as being high in vitamin C, it is almost invariably compared favorably to oranges. This amazing fruit has twice the Vitamin C of oranges! This one has 10 times the Vitamin C of oranges!
The hype makes us think that oranges are a mediocre source of Vitamin C — and yet they are absolutely sufficient.
What makes a food “super?”
“Superfood” claims are often based on measuring antioxidants in the food.
Antioxidants are part of the plants’ defense system. They’re often colorful compounds the plant creates to protect itself from stressors including pests and disease.
Humans need these, too. Antioxidants protect our cells from damaging free radicals, to which we’re constantly exposed, naturally and otherwise.
Free radicals come from tobacco, alcohol and pollution; chemicals in processed foods; exposure to ultraviolet radiation and even the processes by which your body creates energy from food.
We always need antioxidants because we’re always exposed to free radicals. It’s the circle of life. And it’s one of the reasons you’ve always been told to eat your veggies and fruits.
One common measure of “super”
Some foods are considered “super” because they’re powerhouses of vitamins or minerals. But most often they get the title based on their antioxidant levels.
By this measure, some of the most super of foods include cranberries, blueberries, blackberries (especially marionberries and blackcap raspberries), walnuts and asparagus.
Many common kitchen herbs and spices are also off the charts for antioxidants. Although we only use small amounts, these can contribute significantly to our health.
How super do we need to get?
If some antioxidants are good, more would be better, right? Maybe even “super?”
Herbalist Todd Caldecott takes exception. Saying, for instance, that raw chocolate is loaded with antioxidants
“…ignores the fact that many of these ‘antioxidants’ are actually toxic when consumed in large amounts, interfering with protein digestion and mineral absorption, and in many people, inducing hypersensitivity reactions.”
Remember, the plants made these chemicals to protect themselves from predators. Some of those compounds make the plants’ nutrients less digestible — to both insects and us.
Eat the rainbow
Applying the term “super” to foods deflects attention from simple, healthy eating and turns dietary choices into a competition.
Don’t we already have enough stress in our lives without having to measure one more thing about each item in our grocery cart? (If it’s fun for you to dive deeper, check out the resources below.)
I tell my patients to keep it simple: Eat the rainbow.
Yes, some people need more personalized food plans. But for the most part it’s as simple as eating diverse, colorful whole foods.
Goji, the tomato-family berry that got me started down this rabbit hole, is delicious and nutritious. The best part? It grows easily in many areas, so we don’t have to worry about cultural disruption and environmental footprint.
By all means, grow goji berries if you love them. Or consider growing purple grapes with their seeds — you’ll get a larger crop, edible leaves and shade for your garden.
Eating on the Wild Side, by Jo Robinson.*
Writer Jo Robinson does an excellent job of this in her book “Eating on the Wild Side.” She not only evaluates the nutrient profiles for many foods, she also recommends specific preparation techniques to maximize what you get out of them. She offers specific advice about varieties of different fruits and vegetables that will get you the most bang for your buck. (Honeycrisp apples, for instance, have are substantially more nutritious than my previous favorite, Pink Lady.)
Spice Apothecary: Blending and Using Common Spices for Everyday Health, by Bevin Clare.*
This gorgeous book by herbalist Bevin Clare takes food and flavor to the next level. It’s a great introduction to the world of spices, even for folks who don’t love to cook, but has enough detail to intrigue profound foodies and plant geeks. Here’s my video review.
Food As Medicine Everyday: Reclaim Your Health with Whole Foods, by Julie Briley and Courtney Jackson.*
Got questions about the basics of healthy eating? This book by two of my naturopathic-doctor colleagues is foundational. It’s filled with useful information, research citations, easy recipes and concepts even doctors missed in our education.
The nutrition data website gives you great information about many types of macro and micronutrients in foods, and you can adjust it based on the quantities you actually consume.
The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide, by Carlsen, M.H., Halvorsen, B.L., Holte, K. et al. PMID 20096093
This article from the peer-reviewed Nutrition Journal is a great place to get geeky about antioxidant levels in vegetables, spices, drinks and prepared foods.
*Note that these are affiliate links, meaning I might get a few cents if you purchase after clicking.