The Truth About Superfoods

What’s hyped isn’t necessarily healthy, and the fuss about “super” nutrients is much ado about...not much
Kathy Kitchens Downie, RD

It’s easy to see why the superfood idea sells so well: Some foods do boast an abundance of certain nutrients that are deemed healthy. Don’t they deserve special consideration? If lab studies of cells, ORAC values of raw foods, or out-of-context rain forest wisdom suggests that a food has a special power, doesn’t that food, and the nutrient it contains, richly deserve supermarketing and superpromotion?

The superfood idea has launched a thousand supplements, drinks, diet plans, and cookbooks in the past decades, promoting everything from green teas to soybeans to a previously obscure South American palm berry called the açai (listed recently on Oprah.com as “Dr. Perricone’s #1 Superfood”). Why eat an ordinary food when you can eat a food that is so much more, well, super?

Here’s why: Almost everything in modern nutrition research suggests that your whole diet—which should be a varied one, containing lots of plants, with moderate amounts of total fat and salt—is the thing to focus on. Dark chocolate, edamame, and green tea do not a whole diet make. There’s nothing wrong with many superfoods (we will not come between you and your chocolate); what’s wrong is the claim of superpower status. The superfood concept worries me because it suggests a magic way to get the nutrients you need—when the task of eating a richly varied and balanced diet is not, in our rush-hour world, all that easy anyway.

Not surprisingly, the superfood moniker actually means nothing, scientifically. “There’s no official definition of what makes a superfood,” says Marisa Moore, RD, LD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Superfoods are just foods that are purported to have significant health benefits over other foods. That means they could be high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients. But giving so much ­attention to one food overlooks other foods that might be similarly ‘super.’”

Exactly: The humble canned bean has loads of antioxidants—which are often the focus of superfood virtues—plus lots of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  But I don’t see Great Northern beans edging out goji berries anytime soon.

ANTIOXIDANT OBSESSION

Antioxidants are the focus of a lot of superfood hype. Substances that inhibit cell damage caused by oxidation are thought to play a role in the prevention of many diseases. But science has a hard time saying which of these substances help the body, and in which quantities, let alone isolating a single one for any superpower.

Amazonian açai berries, for example, promise a boost of anthocyanin flavonoid—the astringent substance that gives some berries and fruits their vivid color. “The problem is, there’s scant research to prove the antioxidant content, how much you’re actually getting, or if it’s enough to even realize a health ­benefit,” Moore says.

Meanwhile, less-hyped (but more fully researched) antioxidants, like vitamins A, C, and E, don’t receive as much love. Grapes, cherries, blueberries, and wine offer the same antioxidants as açai for a lot less dough.

Looking at the fine print reveals another problem: Sugar, corn syrups, and other empty-calorie additions often top the ingredient list on candy, fruit snacks, or sugary drinks disguised as superfoods. That, in my view, is superlame.

The FDA is paying attention, mind you: Although the term “superfood” is unregulated, claims of medicine-like powers for food fall under the FDA’s purview. Earlier this year, the agency sent a warning letter to POM Wonderful for making disease-prevention claims—not on labels of pomegranate juice, but on the POM Web site.

BALANCING ACT

It’s a relief to know that we can just look for fresh, in-season raspberries, strawberries, or cherries to get our antioxidants. But remember, it’s not only antioxidants that we should be concerned about. Everyone needs to eat a rainbow of colorful produce to obtain a mix of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Include a variety of fish to meet your omega-3 fat needs—not only for your palate’s sake, but also to keep the oceans healthy and to minimize exposure to environmental contaminants. For good sources of calcium, consume milk, cheese, or yogurt. No single food holds the key to good health.

A mountain of evidence supports eating a varied diet that leans heavily on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, with some fish, quality protein, and dairy products. That’s the ticket to the ultimate nutrition goal: a superdiet.