Superfoods are foods — mostly plant-based but also some fish and dairy —
thought to be nutritionally dense and thus good for one's health. The
term has no set scientific meaning, however, and any list of "top"
superfoods is purely subjective.
Superfoods are healthful, for the most part, aside from possible contamination, added sugars or over-consumption of them.
Lists of superfoods are extensive on the Internet. Some websites list
as many as 50 or 100. At this point, the term "superfood" becomes
largely meaningless or, at best, synonymous with just about any fruit or
vegetable. Another problem with the term is that some so-called
superfoods fall in and out of favor with dieticians, such as coffee or
A generic list of superfoods
At a very basic level, superfoods are said to be rich in particular
nutrients. This could be an antioxidant, thought to ward off cancer; a
healthy fat, thought to prevent heart disease; fiber, thought to prevent
diabetes and digestive problems; or phytochemicals, the chemicals in
plants responsible for deep colors and smells, which can have numerous
Blueberries often top many lists of superfoods. This
is because blueberries are rich in vitamins, phytochemicals and soluble
fiber. While blueberries are indeed healthful, so are about any kind of
(non-poisonous) berry. Blueberries aren't necessarily better than
cranberries or raspberries, but they are usually more readily available
and are quite palatable as is.
Kiwifruit also tops many a list. Its benefits are
similar, for the most part, to berries, melons, citrus fruit, apples and
pears. Kiwifruit is labeled a superfood perhaps because it contains a
wider range of nutrients compared to some other fruits.
Beans and whole grains are standard
additions to the superfood lists. Beans are a source of low-fat protein.
Beans have 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 have similar benefits, although they are inferior in regards to protein. Quinoa
is not a grain, but it cooks up like one, and this too is 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. Portion
control is key. Shelled nuts and seeds, in this regard, are ideal
because they take time to crack open and slow you down. A quick handful
of shelled nuts or seeds could contain more than 100 calories. [Related: Reality Check: 5 Risks of Raw Vegan Diet]
Kale lives up to the hype of 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. Add broccoli
to that. It's in the cabbage-mustard family; the modern version is
merely grown for its floret instead of leaves. These dark vegetables are
loaded with vitamins A, C and K, as well as fiber, calcium and other minerals.
Sweet potato and squash also usually
make the superfood list, for similar reasons. 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.
Salmon, sardines, mackerel and certain other fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids,
thought to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. Most doctors say
the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the risk of harming your
health from the mercury these fish contain. If you worry, eat lower down
on the food chain, such as sardines, smelt, and anchovy.
The "exotic fruit of the year will surely be on any superfood list, too. This might be acai berry, noni fruit, dragon fruit, rambutan or pomegranate.
These might be healthful but there is no reason to believe they are any
more super than blueberries. They might be rich in one particular
nutrient; pomegranate has ellagitannins, which have anti-cancer
properties. But so do red raspberries.
One could just as easily include green tea, coffee, dark chocolate,
yogurt, and olives to the superfood list for a variety of reasons
Criticism of the nomenclature
As healthful as superfoods might be, the use of the term is largely a
marketing tool. Scientists do not use the term. For example, a search
for "superfood" on PubMed, the repository of most peer-reviewed
biomedical journal articles, yields fewer than a dozen results. And
several of these studies actually warn of dangers of superfoods, such as
arsenic and pesticide residue in imported foods.
The first 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, green tea
has several antioxidants. But green tea sold in the United States is
generally cut with inferior teas and brewed with copious amounts of
sugar. The Japanese and Chinese generally do not drink green tea with
sugar. Many kinds of super-juices — acai berry, noni fruit, pomegranate —
can be high in added sugar.
Similarly, many whole grains are processed in a way to be more
palatable and less healthful. According to research by David Ludwig at
Harvard University, instant whole-grain oats is as unhealthy as overly
processed white bread in that it quickly spikes the sugar levels in the
bloodstream once consumed and promotes insulin-resistance, obesity and
A second criticism is that, because the term "superfood" is not
scientific, it can mean very little and prompt some consumers to eat one
kind of food over another. Is broccoli really that superior to
Research has shown that the ideal diet is one that is largely
plant-based with a wide, wide, wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole
grains and healthful animal products. Superfoods might be a good entry
into healthy eating, and understanding their nutritional value is
enlightening, but other whole foods can be just as healthy.