How ‘Super’ Are Superfoods?


Some foods, such as asparagus and blueberries, are called superfoods. But what — if anything — does it mean to be a superfood? (Photo credit: Marilyn Barbone/Shutterstock)

If you search the term superfoods, the results will include a seemingly endless list of articles expounding upon the health benefits of various fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Most likely, the articles also will have headlines such as “The 10 Best Superfoods for Weight Loss” or “8 Superfoods that Prevent Cancer.” But what exactly makes a certain food item super? And, will eating these superfoods really benefit your health?

There is no legal or scientific definition for the term superfood. The term is really nothing more than a marketing ploy to catch the eye of consumers. In general, a superfood is any food item (most often plant-based) that appears to possess nutritional qualities that make it particularly healthful.

Generally speaking, superfoods are food items high in phytonutrients. These phytonutrients are chemicals found in plants (hence the prefix phyto-) that are recognized for their biological significance. Carotenoids, flavonoids, and phenols are all examples of phytonutrients. Plants use these substances to protect against bacterial, viral, and fungal diseases. When incorporated into the human diet, it is thought that these substances can help decrease the occurrence of certain disorders and diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Phytonutrients act as antioxidants in the human body. Antioxidants are substances that counteract the effects of oxidation. Many metabolic processes produce chemicals called free radicals as byproducts. Free radicals are highly reactive and thus can cause damage to your cells and DNA if allowed to run rampant and react with them. Antioxidants (either produced by your body or ingested through your diet) help prevent oxidation from occurring. Brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries and carrots, as well as leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, are phytonutrient-rich and therefore are a particularly good source of antioxidants.

But just because a certain food item is rich in phytonutrients, does that mean adding it to your diet will really affect your health? According to Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, a professor in Tuft University’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy as well as Director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory, the answer is complicated.

“We certainly know there is such a thing as a healthful food choice,” Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg said in an interview aired on Tuft University’s Nutrition Talk podcast. “Foods that are richer in essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals, in good fats versus bad fats, higher in fiber all of the positive attributes that we know are associated with a healthful dietary pattern. But its very hard to extract out of that a single food or two or three that somehow have almost magical properties to promote health and prevent disease.”

Though research on so-called superfoods has shown that certain components may have an effect on cholesterol levels, most researchers agree that it would be a leap to say that, without a doubt, that certain food item reduces the risk of heart disease. Instead, there are many factors at work, such as a persons overall diet and lifestyle. For example, if you are a smoker, it would take a lot more than solely eating phytonutrient-rich broccoli to reduce your risk of lung cancer.

So, if foods claiming to be super aren’t truly the game-changers that they purport themselves to be, what should consumers look to add to their diet to stay healthy?

Nutritionists and dieticians recommend that a healthy diet is one that is varied and doesn’t focus on one food item or nutrient over another. It is also important to remember that your lifestyle including how active you are significantly affects your health. Combining a well-balanced diet with at least a moderate amount of activity is your best bet for a long and healthy life.

More to Explore
What Are Superfoods?
Why Superfoods May Not Be So Super After All
The Myth of Superfoods
Are Quinoa, Chia Seeds, and Other Superfoods a Scam?
Phytonutrient FAQs
Antioxidants & Phytonutrients

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