Are Superfoods Real?

Kale, goji berries, salmon, quinoa, dandelion greens, broccoli sprouts… these are just a few of the many foods that have been called “superfoods,” but are superfoods real? What should you know about the term? Let’s unpack it together here!

smoothie bowl with raspberries, coconut, flowers and granola
Photo by jwlez on Unsplash

Where Did the Term “Superfood” Come From?

The term “superfood” likely first appeared as part of a food marketing strategy, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Around the time of World War I, there was a major import of bananas, and the United Fruit Company wanted to encourage people to eat the fruit. This marketing led to a buzz around the term “superfood.”

The superfood buzz was further perpetuated after physicians used the term in medical journals, when discussing how a banana diet can be used to treat conditions such as celiac disease (note that this was before a gluten-free diet was found to be the best way to treat celiac disease). Soon, tons of moms were preparing banana-based foods for their kids, even if they did not have celiac, due to all of the hype, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (As an aside – I really can’t imagine only eating bananas! Those poor kids!).

Just so we’re clear here, the term “superfood” was not coined by a professional who regularly studies food, such as a registered dietitian or a food scientist. It was popularized by smart marketing strategy.

What Are Superfoods?

Everyone classifies superfoods slightly differently, but most definitions I’ve seen are mostly in-line with this one from Dictionary.com:

Superfood: “A food considered exceptionally good for one’s health and for boosting the immune system owing to its naturally high content of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, or omega-3 fatty acids.”

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/superfood?s=t

“Superfoods” are usually toted as foods that are superior to others, in the sense that their nutritional makeups that are “better” than those of other foods, for whatever reason. I have also come across the term “superfood” used in a way that suggests that a particular food or beverage has healing properties or powers, despite there being little scientific evidence to back up most of those claims.

Seeds and goji berries spilling onto floor from glass jars
Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

Is There Truth to the Term “Superfood?”

It is true that many foods that are commonly classified as “superfoods” contain plenty of good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Perhaps it is even true that some “superfoods” contain more nutrients than other foods do.

However, the term “superfood” suggests that the “superfood” alone is all that you need to be healthy, when this is certainly not the case. There is no single food or beverage that can provide you with all of the nutrition that you need, even though it would be so convenient for there to be! (I really wish there was a quick fix like this guys, trust me!).

For this reason, I am not a fan of the term “superfood,” as I find it incredibly deceiving. The “superfood” craze fails to consider the balance that is essential to healthy eating – and what a pity that is!

The beautiful thing about nutrition is that your dietary choices don’t exist in a vacuum. Your nutrition status is a result of all of the dietary decisions that you make, not of one decision to eat or not eat a so-called “superfood.”

Superfood Labeling

It’s also important to note that the term “superfood” is not regulated by the FDA. This means that companies can freely label their products “superfoods” as a marketing technique to increase costs. Be weary of this when shopping!

Superfoods in a Balanced Diet

So, can commonly dubbed “superfoods,” such as salmon, have a place in a balanced diet? Absolutely! But you better be sure to balance out your plate!

Going along with the salmon example, you should be sure to also have some carbohydrates and veggies with your salmon if you want your body to function optimally. It’s true that the salmon will give you plenty of protein, iron and omega-3 fatty acids – which are all great and necessary – but you also need other micronutrients from the carbohydrate and vegetable foods groups that you won’t get from the salmon, even though it still is “super” for you.

No matter how much salmon – or any “superfood” – you eat, you won’t get all of the nutrition that you need from it, which is why balanced eating is critical. For this reason, I always recommend that you focus on your diet as a whole instead of on individual foods.

Similarly, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that I am not keen on using the “good”/”bad” terminology when it comes to talking about food, and this is why: Food does not have inherent moral value. Just because one food is more nutritionally dense than another doesn’t mean that the other is a “bad” food; it just means that it won’t contribute as much nutrition to your body.

The term “superfood” draws on this same “good”/”bad” language, which is another reason why I dislike it. Focusing on “superfoods” is like zeroing in on the details while failing to understand the larger picture. When it comes to nutrition, the macroscopic view is often more important than the microscopic view. It isn’t about the one cookie you ate or the carrot that you didn’t eat, but rather about how your individual food choices fit into the rest of your day, week, month and year.

green vegetables in a bowl
Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

Making Sense of it All

To summarize, I am not a proponent of the term “superfood,” as I find that it’s misleading and fails to address several key components of nutrition, such as balance. Often times, “superfoods” are extremely nutrient dense as well as delicious, however, “…it’s clear that the term is more useful for driving sales than it is for providing optimal nutrition recommendations,” as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health wrote.

Are superfoods real?

Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s acknowledge what our food is and isn’t capable of. Berries are berries. Do they have antioxidants, which may help protect against certain cancers? Yes, but don’t overlook the qualifiers here. Will the “superfood powers” of berries protect you against all maladies? Absolutely not, no matter how many berries you eat!

Genetics and other factors play a large role in determining the manifestation of diseases and conditions. If something is written in your genes, in many cases no amount of goji berries, dandelion roots, turmeric, ginger or other “superfood” can prevent it from happening – and that’s not your fault!

This isn’t me saying that what we eat doesn’t matter – of course it does! – but I’m also keeping it real. Diet is just one part of the lengthy equation that determines health.

I’ll end with this –

Know that eating a “superfood” doesn’t make you a super person, just like not eating a “superfood” doesn’t make you a non-super person. Let’s not conflate morality with food choices. What you eat has no impact on your super status, I promise you!

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