On Nutrition

Superfoods are hot, whether you’re eating them in their whole, unprocessed form or reaching for packaged foods that contain superfood ingredients. The term “superfood” refers to foods with particular health benefits — but is this merely a marketing gimmick, or is there actually science behind the term … and the foods?

While there’s no legal definition of superfood, the term is generally applied to foods considered to have nutritional benefits above and beyond providing vitamins and minerals. For example, many superfoods contain phytochemicals — compounds in plants that benefit the plant while it’s growing then benefit us when we eat them — in addition to vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and healthy fats.

Unfortunately, superfood is an overused marketing term, and many highly processed foods splash the term on their packaging even if the product inside only contains a small amount of a supposed superfood. Just as there’s no legal definition of what counts as a superfood, there are no rules about what percentage of a multi-ingredient product needs to come from a superfood to earn that label. That’s why it’s important to assess packaged foods based on the ingredient list, not on the front-of-package sales pitch.

Some superfoods, such as acai and goji berries, that hail from some distant rainforest or mountaintop may not be affordable for everyone. The good news is that many everyday foods have superfood qualities. For example, almonds, apples, avocados, berries, broccoli, cabbage, garlic, kale and other dark leafy greens, olive oil, onions, oranges, salmon, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, tuna and walnuts. They may look like Clark Kent, but they’re underneath, they’re Superman.

Here’s some more food for thought: When you want to support your health with nutrition, it’s far more important to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables (which most Americans don’t do) than to focus on the produce with the most media buzz at the moment. So instead of chasing news of the next superfood “discovery,” just look to your local farmers market, grocery store, or maybe even your backyard. The superfoods you’ll find there aren’t new or trendy, but they’re no less healthful. Here are a few examples:

  • Berries. Blueberries contain more antioxidant nutrients than most fruits and vegetables, and are particularly rich in a family of phytochemicals called flavonoids. One group of flavonoids, anthocyanins, provides much of the beneficial health effects, along with blueberries’ beautiful color. Strawberries also have high levels of flavonoids.
  • Cruciferous vegetables. The cruciferous vegetable family — including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and bok choy — is an excellent source of essential vitamins and is rich in an array of phytochemicals. Many of these phytochemicals have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, and may also help reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Kale remains the trendiest member of this family, but while kale can be considered a superfood, there’s currently no evidence suggesting that it kale provides more health benefits than other cruciferous vegetables.
  • Garlic. The entire allium family of vegetables — including onions, leeks, shallots and scallions — are rich in phytonutrients that have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. A true superfood that is far more than a seasoning.

It seems to be in our nature as humans to look for magic bullets, especially when it comes to health, but superfoods aren’t magic, and the health claims that often accompany them aren’t supported by science. Broadening your definition of what makes a food super, then including a variety of these foods in your meals, is a better — and probably more delicious — way of investing in your health.