Are superfoods super healthy, or is it just super hype?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published November 8, 2018

Key Takeaways

Diversity is key to a healthy diet.  Nevertheless, not all foods are created equal. Some foods are so shockingly healthy that they’re promoted as superfoods, which has become a buzzword to refer to foods that contain high levels of nutrients and are associated with disease prevention. Superfoods are rich in antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids.

The 2015-2020 US Dietary Guidelines recommends “consum[ing] a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.” In other words, no matter how healthy, one food cannot replace another.

Marketing origins of superfoods

Where did the term “superfood” originate? Superfood is not some example of jargon from nutrition scientists or dietitians. Instead, its conceptual origins can be traced back to a marketing campaign by the United Fruit Company around World War I.

The fruit company was promoting bananas and disseminated flyers touting their “food value.”  Bananas were described as practical, cheap, nutritious, easily digested, ubiquitous, good when cooked and raw, and sealed in a protective skin.

Soon, physicians began treating conditions like celiac disease and diabetes with bananas. Children with celiac disease, for instance, gained weight and grew taller while on a banana diet, and these findings were highlighted in medical journals. Erroneously, scientists attributed these results to the special properties of bananas and not the removal of gluten from the diet.

The popularity of bananas took off, and the banana diet entered the cultural zeitgeist. Mothers also started feeding their infants and toddlers what became the first superfood.

Today, the superfood business is a billion-dollar industry. Producers have tapped into the public’s willingness to pay a premium for healthy foods that boast health claims.

Examples of superfoods

During the past several decades, various produce has been touted as superfoods.

Berries. In 1991, scientists at the National Institute on Aging and the United States Department of Agriculture created the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) to measure the antioxidant status of foods, with cocoa, berries, spices, and legumes coming out on top. These data were used to promote blueberries and other foods, even though the science was shaky—not all antioxidants combat free radicals. Nevertheless, blueberries are very nutritious and considered a superfood.

Fish. Rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, as part of a balanced diet, fish can help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Greens. Dark, leafy greens are an important source of fiber in the diet. They also contain vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are plant chemicals that furnish the plant with color, flavor, and odor. Research findings suggest that phytochemicals could help boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, prevent DNA damage, and slow cancer growth.

Cruciferous vegetables. Members of the cabbage family are referred to as cruciferous vegetables and include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, radishes, and turnips. They are rich in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals.

Legumes. Examples of legumes include kidney, black, red, and garbanzo beans; soybeans; and peas. Legumes are a top source of fiber, folate, and plant-based protein, and mitigate the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Tomatoes. These fruits are high in vitamin C and lycopene, which has been shown to decrease prostate cancer risk.

Whole grains. Rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, whole grains also consist of plenty of B vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, and have been shown to lower cholesterol and prevent cardiac disease and diabetes.

Yogurt. This creamy delight contains calcium, proteins, and probiotics.

Olive oil. Olive oil is rich in vitamin E, polyphenols, and monounsaturated fatty acids, which are all cardioprotective.

Nuts. Be they hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, or pecans, nuts are a great source of plant protein and monounsaturated fats, which could decrease the risk of heart disease.

When focusing on superfoods, it’s important to avoid bias toward any one food source. Variety, in fact, has been touted to be “the spice of life,” and variety in the diet is key not only for exposure to a gamut of essential vitamins and minerals but also to moderate consumption.

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