Superfoods! What are they? Which ones should I eat? And just how ‘super’ are they anyway?
Keeping up with the superfood trend is tricky. Just when you’ve mastered the art of eating blueberries, flax seeds, and kale, you learn that acai, chia seeds, and moringa are the way to go. With new nutrition information flooding in daily, it’s hard to keep up and differentiate fact from fiction.
What are superfoods?
‘Superfood’ is loosely defined as a food that is rich in compounds considered beneficial to a person's health and wellbeing. Marketing experts argue that the word superfood was created as an advertising strategy. Since the popularisation of the phrase more than 10 years ago, sales of foods specifically marketed as superfoods have skyrocketed. The problem with no formal definition is that the use of the word ‘super’ in the food industry is not regulated. This means that anyone can use the word to advertise their product – whether it is in fact ‘super’ or not.
While ‘superfood’ may be an ambiguous term, the concept of certain foods having additional benefits beyond standard nutrition is not new. Nutrition experts have long studied the exceptional benefits of functional foods. Functional foods are defined as:
“Foods that can beneficially affect one or more functions in the body, beyond adequate nutritional effects, in a way that is relevant to either an improved state of health and well-being, or reduction of risk of disease”
Sounds very similar to superfoods, doesn’t it?
Where the terms differ is that the labelling of functional foods and their relevant health claims is strictly regulated. Most countries have regulating bodies to protect and support consumers in making healthier food choices. Unlike the term ‘super’, all health claims of functional foods need to be scientifically substantiated and not misleading.
Are superfoods truly superior?
Research touting the benefits of various superfoods is not scarce. Blueberries may improve cognition and reduce colon cancer risk. Pomegranate can possibly improve blood pressure and protect your heart against the damaging effects of oxidative stress. For high cholesterol, try açai and for prevention of dementia, green tea. The list goes on: almonds, broccoli, chia seeds, kale…
Research can be found for the health claims of most superfoods. At a glance this may confirm the foods are in fact ‘super’, and the nutrients they contain most certainly do have health-properties. However, a closer look at the above research reveals two major limitations.
1. Unrealistic doses
Studies usually use very high levels of nutrients found within the foods - intakes of which would be impossible to reach on a daily basis from a food in its natural state. The proclaimed benefits may not therefore be seen in real world situations.
2. Animal / in vitro studies
Studies tend to use animal models (such as rats) and in vitro experiments (testing on extracted human cells). These types of studies give an idea of the possible health properties of foods, but there is no certainty that the effects will be the same when consumed by a human as part of a normal diet. Overall diets, genes, and lifestyles vary from person to person, making it difficult to study the impact of nutrients on health and make specific claims.
Should I eat superfoods?
The discussion about the science surrounding superfoods is certainly not to discourage you from eating them. They can form part of a healthy diet, but will not necessarily be a magic cure.
We suggest the following guide before jumping on the newest superfood trend, adapted from this article:
1. Do you enjoy the food? Is there a substitute?
So you’ve heard kale is the superfood of the century, but cannot stomach it? Don’t despair - a simple google search reveals several health properties of kale, all of which can be met through other foods:
Eye-supporting compounds: lutein, xanthine, and beta carotene
Per cooked cup, spinach has even more lutein and xanthine than kale. Carrots have more than four times more beta-carotene than kale.
Cholesterol lowering properties
A closer look at this study reveals this may be true for cruciferous vegetables - not kale in isolation. Broccoli and cabbage might be just as effective as kale.
Cruciferous vegetables have indeed been shown to have anti-cancer properties, but this is not kale alone. Give Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower a try.
High in vitamin K, an important bone and blood nutrient
Give swiss chard or spinach a try - the vitamin K content is very similar.
The above process can be applied to most Superfoods. They may be particularly high in certain nutrients, but that doesn’t mean they are the only food source high in those nutrients.
2. Has it been researched?
Be careful of any too-good to be true claims. Superfoods marketed with exaggerated claims such as ‘life-saving’ or ‘cancer-curing’ likely don’t have the science to back up such claims. If in doubt, always ask a nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian.
3. What is the environmental impact? Where was it grown?
Before including a new superfood into your daily diet, consider the food’s energy cost and environmental impact. It may not be worth the small nutrition boost if it requires energy to ship it from where it was grown, lots of processing to extracts or powders, or requires packaging. Rather choose a similar product that is grown locally. It’ll taste fresher, require less packaging, and have less of an impact on our precious earth.
4. Are you on medication or living with a medical condition?
If you are on medication, you should always check food-drug interactions before including a new food in your diet. If you are on Warfarin, for example, suddenly eating more kale or broccoli can interfere with the effectiveness and safety of the medication. Always speak to your doctor, pharmacist, or registered dietitian before including large quantities of a ‘Superfood’ if you are on chronic medication.
5. What do your genes say?
We aren’t all built the same, so why should we all eat the same? Our genetic differences reveal that some people require more of certain foods and certain nutrients. Create your own pantry of superfoods and stock up to best fit your DNAfit results. You could eat salmon for a raised omega 3 need, edamame beans for a raised folate requirement, and almonds for a raised vitamin E requirement. The same could be achieved with sardines, chickpeas and sunflower seeds.
If your genes reveal an increased need for a certain nutrient or food type, and it is a food you enjoy and can source locally, go ahead and use it to boost your health. Just remember that a single “Superfood’ cannot counteract the effects of a generally poor diet. It will probably be more helpful to focus on a balanced and varied diet that meets all your nutrient requirements than jumping on the nearest superfood trend.
Take the DNAfit test to find out if you have any raised requirements for certain nutrients, or any sensitivities or intolerances that you need to be aware of for better health.