In a modern world of junk food, fast food and comfort food, some unexpected heroes have risen to new heights of fame and notoriety. They are the ‘superfoods’. Even if you’re not actively involved in nutrition, you’ve likely heard of them in the media. But when did these humble seeds, fruits, vegetables, and protein-sources gain recognition as so-called superfoods? What exactly is a superfood? You have every right to be sceptical of some food promotion tactics. After all, no one wants to be super-scammed. In this article, we’ve discovered that some superfoods have earned their super-healthy titles, while others are overrated.
Let’s Start With An Appetiser
Before we put superfoods to the test, let’s try to place them within a broader context of modern speech patterns, language and trends involving the word ‘super’. Advertisers have used this term to promote HD cameras and video games, along with the most highly paid models and pop stars in the entertainment industry. But where does the word come from?
What Does ‘Super’ Mean?
The word ‘super’ has Latin roots and carries a meaning associated with transcending: going far above and beyond. If an apple were described as ‘super nutritional’ in the 19th century, the writer would have meant that it went ‘beyond the limits of nutrition’. In a humorously titled opinion-piece called “A Certain Word is Getting on My Nerves”, writer Teddy Wayne discusses how the usage of the word ‘super’ has changed over the past 20 years.
While it first began as an adjective to describe a wonderful person, place or thing, the word ‘super’ is now increasingly used as a substitute for the adverb ‘very’. In modern conversational English, speakers often replace statements such as “this apple tastes very good” with “this apple is super tasty”.
Did you know that ‘super’ can move seamlessly between English, German, Spanish, French, and many other languages without the need for translation? This observation potentially means that when marketers describe products as ‘super’, international audiences can easily understand what this means. As part of a broader marketing strategy, it might help advertise content on a more global scale.
Buzzwords such as ‘super’ may also enable people to communicate their ideas more quickly – in line with the popular group values and goals. Some scientifically-grounded nutrition buzzwords can be complicated for newcomers to understand (‘probiotics’ and ‘prebiotics’). While the title ‘superfood’ is undoubtedly accessible, it sounds more like a compliment than an official category. What do the facts say?
What Are Superfoods?
According to many leading food regulatory groups in Europe and North America, ‘superfood’ is a marketing term that lacks a credible, nutrition-based definition. As a result, it is a speculative category that some people use to suggest that one food source may be superior to others. This perceived superiority may relate to the food’s alleged nutritional value and potential wellbeing benefits. Modern dictionaries define superfoods as edible resources rumoured to promote health and boost the immune system. Typically, foods regarded as ‘super’ are plant-based (for example, berries and whole grains) or protein-based (such as natural yoghurt, eggs and salmon).
The Superfood Origin Story
For thousands of years, people have intentionally used natural food sources to enrich their diets and create folk remedies for common ailments. The ancient belief that the foods we eat play a critical role in our overall health is still widely accepted in modern nutrition and medicine. When did we feel the need to identify some foods as ‘superfoods’?
Archival researchers have suggested that the superfood trend first emerged in the late 1940s, as part of a Canadian newspaper feature on baked goods. In the decades that followed, people used the term quite sparingly. However, by the 1990s, ‘superfoods’ skyrocketed to fame after becoming the subject of a popular diet book. Co-writer Michael Van Stratten recently voiced his disapproval of how some marketers are advertising expensive food products as healing and almost “magical”. Over the years, numerous companies have reaped significant financial rewards from promoting products such as noni juice, red berries and smoothies as superfoods.
Today, we still reference superfoods in diet culture, but food advertisers must tread carefully to avoid penalties.
Are Superfoods Legal?
This may seem like a silly question, but the answer may surprise you. Is it against the law to consume foods that people casually describe as superfoods (i.e. salmon, blueberries and spinach)? Definitely not! However, some of the questionable practices used to promote foods falsely are, in fact, illegal.
In 2007, the European Union passed a motion which banned manufacturers from using the word ‘superfood’ unless they could supply nutritional evidence. In Britain, the Food Safety Act is very particular when it comes to the correct labelling of food. It is against the law to misleadingly promote food products of any kind – from standard grocery items to food supplements like CBD oil. Similar laws are maintained in the USA and have led to false-advertising lawsuits involving some major Fortune-500 companies.
The Modern Food Industry
So far, we’ve learned that superfoods connect with more comprehensive discussions about the branding strategies that companies employ to promote so-called healthy foods in the contemporary marketplace. At this point, it’s helpful for us to explore some of the core principles at work within the modern food industry.
What is the Food Industry?
The modern food industry is a dynamic and vast international system of companies that generate profits by supplying a large proportion of the foods that we consume globally. Since human beings cannot survive without food, it stands to reason that the food industry is one of the world’s most influential trade entities. Historians suggest that the 18th-century Industrial Revolution triggered an initial shift away from home-farming; favouring mass-scale agriculture. With consumer culture on the rise, public appetites for a broader range of food ‘products’ also grew. Today, some aspects of the modern food industry are heavily criticised.
Is the Food System ‘Corrupt’?
Environmental commentators often discuss the food industry and its potential to operate detrimentally. Popular documentaries, such as “Rotten”, have boldly suggested that the current food system normalises environmental damage, wasted resources and dishonest practices. Is it reasonable to call an entire commercial industry ‘corrupt’? Perhaps not. However, there may be some possible causes for concern.
According to the United Nations, the food industry produces enough supplies to provide adequate nutrition for everyone on Earth (approximately six billion people). And yet, the world hunger crisis continues to persist. While many complicated factors contribute to this situation, many first-world ideologies value food as a commodity rather than a human necessity. As a result, some manufacturers go to great lengths to produce as much food as possible, to maximise their profits. Due to excessive production scales, it is not uncommon for food products to be sent to landfill while still in edible condition.
Potential Problems With The Mainstream Food System
Some recent observations released by the Food Foundation suggest that the following issues may be particularly problematic in developed countries like the United Kingdom:
- Junk food may be up to three times cheaper than so-called superfoods
- Some of the foods we presume to be healthy are high in sugar
- Potentially hazardous processed foods are widely available
- Over half of adults may be overweight in a way that could jeopardise their health
Changing Attitudes Towards “Good Food”
In the past, emerging companies manufacturing ‘healthy’ foods found it nearly impossible to compete with larger corporations. From a business perspective, this is relatively straightforward. Groups with access to more generous funds are often at liberty to designate a bigger marketing budget – potentially hiring celebrities to give their products visibility and a competitive edge. By comparison, groups with smaller marketing budgets are likely to be disadvantaged.
Government-Backed Food Choices
As a matter of public safety, many governments worldwide are actively promoting health foods as part of a balanced diet. Recently, the British Government launched the “Better Health” campaign to support healthy food choices and optimal wellbeing. Furthermore, supermarkets are under scrutiny for their potential role in helping shoppers to navigate healthy food options and avoid the temptations of buying unhealthy foods on impulse.
Superstars Promoting Superfoods
Recent studies indicate that one of the most successful methods to encourage modern audiences to invest in healthy foods is self-association. This strategy means that instead of sharing relevant facts and figures with people, marketers promote their products as part of a broader lifestyle that their audiences may personally aspire to, connect with or otherwise value. Superfoods such as pomegranate seeds and noni juice have appeared in recent social media posts from celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Miranda Kerr – sending sales soaring.
While these examples illustrate marketing super-powers at work, they still leave many unanswered questions about whether superfoods are nutritionally credible.
Potential ‘Superfood’ Benefits
So far, we’ve established that the widespread practice of identifying certain foods as ‘superfoods’ is a relatively recent phenomenon. By definition, ‘superfood’ is a controversial marketing term connected with consumer trends and, in some cases, commercial opportunities and lawsuits. Often, people use it to denote potential health and wellness benefits.
As we know, there is no such thing as a single “cure-all” food. However, within a balanced diet, some foods may be beneficial. For the remainder of this article, we will review some of the most accessible foods that commonly appear in thousands of online ‘superfood’ lists. We’ll be focussing on factors such as:
- Antioxidant properties
- Essential vitamins and minerals
- Essential fats
- High-quality proteins
What is Nutrition?
For this article’s purposes, we’re defining nutrition as the process of selecting and consuming foods to satisfy our dietary needs and promote wellbeing. However, there is a whole branch of science devoted to this complex and vital subject – so it’s well worth connecting with a registered nutrition platform to learn more.
Since many so-called superfoods are renowned for their antioxidant properties, it makes sense for us to investigate this concept further. What are antioxidants? While the term sounds highly technical, we can break its meaning down into something more accessible. Anti, as we know, means ‘against’. ‘Oxidant’ means ‘an oxidising agent’, or a molecule that allows oxidation to occur. Let’s expand on this further.
What is Oxidation?
Oxidation is a process that continually takes place inside our bodies, as the oxygen we breathe triggers numerous chain reactions – particularly those involving ‘free radicals’. Put simply; free radicals are volatile and unstable molecules with incomplete sets of electrons. To achieve balance, they often ‘steal’ electrons from other molecules around them – creating a microscopic ‘path of destruction’. If this pattern gets out of control, it can lead to oxidative stress; a form of mass cell damage that may lead to chronic inflammation issues and other ailments.
How Do Antioxidants Work?
Antioxidants are unique molecules that our bodies can generate naturally in limited quantities. Antioxidants ‘donate’ electrons to free radicals at a chemical level while maintaining their own stability. Research indicates that antioxidants can help offset free radicals and possibly prevent them from causing excessive damage to surrounding cells and atoms. We may potentially be at less risk of developing oxidative stress if we have sufficient antioxidant levels in our system. Factors such as pollution and poor nutrition can increase free radicals in our bodies and trigger an imbalance.
Many people consciously choose to eat superfoods in light of this – mainly since essential antioxidants such as Vitamins C and E must be represented in our diets. Recent studies on this theme make the following suggestions:
- ‘Superfoods’ such as acai and goji berries are incredibly high in antioxidants
- Plant-rich diets may represent the most diverse range of antioxidants
- Antioxidants are also present in certain meats and fish products
Vitamins, Minerals and Superfoods
According to the National Health Service (NHS), vitamins and minerals are micronutrients: dietary sources that our bodies need only in small quantities. In general, they assist with cell maintenance and help to keep our bodies functioning correctly. Some vitamins and minerals play such a critical role in our health that we cannot thrive without them. However, all of them are helpful to some degree and failing to consume adequate amounts may result in some uncomfortable side-effects related to deficiency. While you can take food supplements to increase your intake of micronutrients, a balanced diet featuring lots of fruits and vegetables should provide you with sufficient vitamins and minerals.
Why Do We Need Fruits and Vegetables?
According to Harvard Medical School, some of the most widely-cited ‘superfoods’ are plant-based resources. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles in the modern world. Nutritionally speaking, fruits and vegetables are rich dietary resources which represent an enormous variety of vitamins and minerals. They are typically low in fat and calories, while their fibre content can support your digestive system.
In the past, people used to say: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Nowadays, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has inspired campaigns such as the Five-a-Day movement – encouraging us to incorporate five different portions of fruits and vegetables per day. Interestingly, this scheme does not show any favouritism between plant products. However, recent statistics suggest that many of us may struggle to implement this in our daily lives. When we eat products described as ‘superfoods’, it can feel like an impressive accomplishment. But is there any nutritional evidence to suggest that ‘super’ fruits and vegetables are better than others?
Assessing ‘Super’ Fruits and Vegetables
Let’s take a closer look at some of the popular fruits and vegetables that frequently appear on high-ranking ‘superfood’ lists. Are there any stand-out features that suggest they may be particularly praise-worthy?
Fruits ranging from humble blueberries to exotic goji berries have earned a positive reputation. In addition to their potent antioxidant properties, berries may potentially offer a wide variety of possible health benefits when consumed over time. Some studies suggest that incorporating berries into your diet might:
Leafy Green Vegetables
When you were a child, your parents might have pressured you to eat your greens at the dinner table. Chances are, they weren’t just doing it for sport. In light of nutritional evidence, leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach are rich in iron, folate and numerous other valuable nutrients. Research also indicates that these foods may potentially:
Some commentators struggle to understand the hype around kale food products since most leafy green vegetables have similar nutritional profiles.
The legume family mostly consists of high-protein pulses such as lentils and chickpeas – though you may be surprised to hear that peanuts are also legumes. Generally, these foods are rich in fibre and have a ‘filling’ effect when consumed. Is there any substance to the ‘superfood’ claims? Legumes are a staple source of nutrition in many countries around the world. In terms of their potential well being benefits, some studies suggest that this food group may possibly:
In 2020, US avocado sales rose to an annual sum of $169 million (that’s roughly £124 million)! These fruits have become so trendy within popular culture that fashion companies have designed clothes and cosmetics in their honour. In a nutshell, avocadoes are high in demand. They may also be high in nutritional content and a promising source of Vitamin E, potassium and other minerals. Researchers suggest that consuming avocadoes may potentially be associated with:
Superfoods’ As Sources of Essential Fats
Contrary to popular diet culture myths, ‘healthy’ (unsaturated) fat is an irreplaceable component of a balanced diet. Fat needs to be adequately represented in our nutrition for our bodies to absorb specific fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D and E. Popular foods such as cheese and cakes are high in fat. However, people do not consider them as ‘superfoods’. Interestingly, other high-fat foods such as nuts and plant oils are often praised for their potential health benefits. As we will go on to learn, not all fats are equal.
Saturated Fats vs Unsaturated Fats
According to the British Heart Foundation, it is best to prioritise unsaturated fats and keep your intake of saturated fats to a minimum. At a chemical level, saturated fats consist of tightly packed molecules that are solid at room temperature and may potentially be challenging to digest. Saturated fats are most commonly associated with animal products, while unsaturated (‘healthy’) fats generally come from plant-based sources. As a rule of thumb, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Here are some significant, research-driven suggestions regarding dietary fats:
- Many of us may be overconsuming saturated fats
- ‘Healthy fats’ may potentially be more beneficial for our hearts and arteries
- Many scholars argue that we should cut out saturated fats, while others disagree
Let’s examine some high-fat ‘superfoods’ sourced from plants. Please keep in mind that the avocados we reviewed earlier may also be relevant in this capacity.
If you ever see chocolate-coated peanuts promoted as ‘superfoods’, there may be a reason to be sceptical. However, nuts ranging from almonds and pecans to cashews and pistachios are widely cited as sources of healthy fats and nutrients – provided that you do not suffer from a nut allergy. So far, research suggests that nuts may potentially nourish your body by:
As part of the traditional Mediterranian diet, olive oil has received considerable attention in recent years due to its potential health benefits. Often, manufacturers promote extra virgin oil as the most potent variety, since it is cold-pressed from fresh olives. Aside from its broad culinary uses, it also appears in cosmetics as a “skin-loving” ingredient. So, why is olive oil good for you?
Research suggests that olive oil may be an exceptional choice due to its:
To some, coconut oil is the holy grail of superfoods. Other wellbeing commentators have expressed concern about its commercial hype and impact on tropical ecosystems. Interestingly, coconut oil contains more saturated fat than butter – making it a controversial subject in the nutrition community. Current research suggests that coconut oil may potentially:
Hemp Seeds (and Hemp Seed Oil)
Small but mighty, hemp seeds come from the hemp plant – a non-intoxicating subspecies of cannabis Sativa. People have used hemp seeds as an accessible food source for centuries, but only in more recent years have we become aware of their impressive potential benefits. Those who classify hemp seeds as superfoods may be motivated by studies which suggest that they may possibly offer:
For the full profile, consider reading our ultimate guide to hemp seeds.
High Protein Foods
Besides carbohydrates and fats, proteins are also essential macronutrients – which means they should be one of our main diet priorities. Proteins are made of chemical building blocks called amino acids and enable a wide variety of critical processes to take place within our bodies: impacting our immune health, cell structures, internal signals and metabolism. I’m sure we can agree that these are essential functions. However, some high-protein foods (such as red meat) are also high in saturated fat, making them less eligible for the elite ‘superfood’ status.
Is Red Meat Unhealthy?
Most animal products are high in protein. However, some studies indicate that the excessive consumption of meat, dairy and eggs may potentially carry some significant health risks. Some researchers have chosen to focus on red meat in particular – suggesting that people may benefit from limiting their consumption of beef, lamb and other such products. Red meat remains a topic of debate, as contrasting reports indicate that it may possibly:
- Contribute to symptoms of major illnesses when consumed in excess
- Represent a valuable source of vitamin B-12 and iron
What are Lean Proteins?
As the name suggests, lean proteins are high-protein, low-fat foods, especially in their saturated fat content. Many people choose to incorporate these foods (such as turkey or tofu) into their diets to consume protein while avoiding potentially harmful fats. Research indicates that protein deficiency is quite rare in the Western world, but, as we have discovered, many of us may benefit from restricting our intake of saturated fats. In this context, lean proteins may be an attractive and low-calorie option.
Popular ‘Super’ Proteins
Several so-called superfoods fall into the lean protein category. Some are animal products, while others are plant-based alternatives. Let’s look at some of the leading contenders from a nutritional perspective.
Oily Fish (Salmon)
How can an oily fish like salmon be classified as “lean”? While salmon is high in essential fatty acids, it is low in saturated fat. This distinction may make it an ideal source of protein. Salmon is also rich in minerals and vitamins such as A, B and D. Researchers attribute its natural pink colour to various antioxidants. Studies suggest that salmon may be a nutrient-rich food source due to its:
Eggs are high in cholesterol, yet many still consider them ‘superfoods’. Whites are high protein, while egg yolks contain a small amount of fat – along with plenty of fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin D and B2. People on extremely low-diets may choose to eat only egg whites, but researchers suggest that eggs may offer some unique benefits as whole foods. Studies indicate that eggs could possibly provide us with:
- Vitamin E, carotenoids and other antioxidants
- Nutrients that may influence brain health
- Bioactive compounds of a potentially therapeutic nature
Fermented Dairy Products (Natural Yoghurt)
Nowadays, some of the products described as yoghurts are sugary enough to be desserts. This is not the case with natural, or ‘Greek’, yoghurt. As a widely-cited ‘superfood’, natural yoghurt is a fermented product that is high in protein and contains “friendly” bacteria which may potentially benefit our digestive systems. Plant-based yoghurts are also available, but they may not have the same ‘probiotic’ (“friendly” bacteria) potential. Studies suggest that natural yoghurt and other fermented dairy products may possibly:
Grains are typically a great source of complex carbohydrates, but some are also high in protein. Whole grains such as oats, barley, quinoa, and chia seeds are often referred to as ‘ancient’ grains because our ancestors consumed them thousands of years ago. There is a wealth of research material on individual grain species, but we will focus on the category as a whole for the sake of convenience. Some research suggests that ancient grains may offer the following potential benefits:
The Importance of Healthy Meals
It’s incredible how much research explores the foods we often take for granted, isn’t it? So far, we have reviewed a broad range of popular ‘superfoods’ in light of academic studies. At this point, it is safe to say that the emerging evidence is very impressive. However, before we present some concluding thoughts on superfoods, it is vital to place this discussion within the context of a balanced diet.
As we know, most things in life that are worth pursuing require a level of personal consistency and dedication. Your eating is no different. The original meaning of the word ‘diet’ is “manner of living” – the regular habits we maintain each day. Many nutritionists have proposed that a balanced diet consistently provides your body with the nutrition it needs to thrive. This meal planning includes carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, fibre and plenty of water! Consuming ‘superfoods’ from time to time cannot compensate for poor overall nutrition, but they may complement a broader ‘clean eating’ strategy that focuses on natural foods and wellness.
Are Superfoods Really Super Healthy?
Let’s revisit the question that we put forward at the beginning of this article. As we’ve learned, it is best to do some research before buying into trending ‘superfoods’. The concept is generally not approved by nutritionists, and there have been some instances of manufacturers using the word ‘superfood’ to mislead consumers and inflate prices.
However, many of the whole foods we casually identify as superfoods seem to conform to national healthy eating guidelines. Some may potentially help to meet our bodies’ dietary needs in a powerful way – provided that we eat them regularly and as part of a balanced lifestyle. Evidence suggests that numerous foods may possess superior antioxidant properties and a fuller profile of nutrients when compared with others. Thus, consuming evidence-backed ‘superfoods’ may potentially offer some wide-ranging health benefits connected with symptoms of inflammation, diseases, deficiencies and many more possibilities. If you’re hungry for more, why not browse our curated superfoods section?
Like all of our Alphagreen Academy content, this article intends to educate and empower your consumer choices. We cannot provide you with any medical advice regarding ‘superfoods’ and their potential benefits. Consequently, we highly recommend that you discuss any dietary concerns you have with a qualified health practitioner, such as your doctor.
Verified by a Healthcare Professional
Anastasiia Myronenko is a Medical Physicist actively practicing in one of the leading cancer centers in Kyiv, Ukraine. She received her master’s degree in Medical Physics at Karazin Kharkiv National University and completed Biological Physics internship at GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, Germany. Anastasiia Myronenko specializes in radiation therapy and is a fellow of Ukrainian Association of Medical Physicists.