It’s the buzzword of our fast food times. From legitimate power foods to marketing gimmicks, labelling foods as ‘super’ is super-attractive to consumers who desire their daily nutrients packaged up for easy consumption.
It all started with the flashy blueberry and seemed to spread like wildfire. Before you knew it so-called ‘superfoods’ were popping up everywhere and, with no superfood regulation to indicate whether a food was actually super or not, or indeed what was even meant by the term superfood, the label was soon slapped on a wide variety of non-related foods.
But we embraced the term and it stuck. Perhaps we all simply wanted to believe in superfoods that would come to rescue us from our criminally unhealthy diets. It did after all sound impressive and convincing. Not to mention enhancing and boosting.
But is there any real truth to the many super claims? Or is it simply a misleading label that has the potential to do more harm than good? Unnervingly, the answer to both these questions is yes.
Fact and fiction
“The term ‘superfood’ refers to a food that is an especially rich source of a particular nutrient, such as a vitamin, mineral or other health-giving chemical like phytochemicals or antioxidants,” says Clare Evangelista of the Dietitians Association of Australia.
“However, the lay person and the media often misinterpret this term and assume that a superfood contains large amounts of all nutrients, not just one particular nutrient. This is not helped by many food companies who promote their ‘superfood’ products as being cure-alls.”
In reality, most fruits and vegetables are high in nutrients and could all be considered superfoods in one way or another, although there are no foods that contain large amounts of all the vitamins and minerals.
Helpful or harmful?
It’s certainly worthwhile being aware of the foods that sit on top of the nutritional heap with a more legitimate claim to being superfoods and including them in your diet, but not at the expense of a balanced diet.
“The term superfood can be misleading as people feel that they should only be eating these known superfoods,” Evangelista says. “This can lead to people ignoring other foods or food groups and they may become deficient in other important nutrients. In this way they can solve one problem while causing another.
“For example, a person with prostate cancer may focus on eating lots of red fruit and vegetables, particularly tomato, to help fight this cancer, but then may become deficient in other nutrients.”
When it comes to superfood claims it pays to be a little sceptical and look past the sales pitch to what some of these foods actually contain.
“There are a number of superfoods without strong scientific backing, such as goji berries, noni juice and aloe vera juice,” Evangelista says. “Most of these false superfoods are not dangerous, but their nutrient content and health benefits are over exaggerated. Don’t trust food company claims as they are simply trying to sell a product. Do your own research.”
To get you started, here’s our guide to super and not-so-super foods.
For all the hype surrounding wheatgrass it’s really not that super at all.
“Wheatgrass has been promoted by various health food stores and juice bars as a superfood because it contains a large range of vitamins and minerals,” Evangelista says.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain particularly high levels of any particular nutrient so does not stand up to the superfood test and is not considered superior to any other green vegetable.”
The highly regarded but seldom favoured Brazil nut is super high in one mineral that is rarely found in other foods – selenium. In fact, just four Brazil nuts provide you with your recommended daily intake of selenium.
But this is one superfood you don’t want to overeat as a high intake of selenium can lead to dangerous side effects.
Avocados are a truly unique food source.
“Avocados are brimming with heart-healthy nutrients such as vitamin E, folate, potassium and monounsaturated fats,” says dietitian author of the Super Nutrients Handbook Lyndel Costain. “But while nutritious, they are also high in calories, so moderate your intake.”
Goji berries may be a healthy nutritional food source but it’s virtually impossible to be everything that is claimed on their behalf, including the often used phrase ‘the most nutritionally dense food on Earth’.
Considering the exorbitant price tag, it may be worth waiting until at least some of the claims have been scientifically proven, which to date, they haven’t.
Nevertheless, goji berries are high in B vitamins and antioxidants and, depending on who you believe, somewhere between 15 and 19 different amino acids.
Soy can be considered a superfood, but not without a certain amount of controversy.
“Soy and soy products are superfoods due to their high content of phytochemicals, particularly isoflavones (phytoestrogens),” Evangelista says. “Isoflavones are thought to be protective against certain cancers.”
But there has been some debate recently about whether isoflavones are dangerous for people with breast cancer. According to the Cancer Council of Australia, soy foods may help prevent breast cancer and other cancers; however, for those diagnosed with breast cancer the Cancer Council recommends only moderate intake of soy.
Keeping a much lower profile than the the goji berry but nutritionally possessing a very good profile indeed, the pomegranate is high in vitamin C, B5 and, most important of all, polyphenols called ellagitannins, which several studies suggest may help to reduce cholesterol levels and other heart disease risk factors.
Salmon is often promoted as a superfood due to its omega-3 content. Omega-3 fats have been found to have a range of health-giving properties including the ability to lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol as well as reduce inflammation in people with arthritis.
But while salmon is certainly high in omega-3 fats, it doesn’t match the elevated levels found in sardines, which rarely get a look-in in the superfood stakes.