It seems like every time I browse Facebook or Pinterest I’m introduced to yet another food that falls into the “super” category. From chia seeds to watermelon to wild salmon, these foods are no longer merely healthy, they’re super. It’s incredibly easy to fall into a superfood trap, when shopping for food becomes all about intentionally seeking out superfoods over what you perceive to be mere “regular” food.
But is the term superfoods just a marketing ploy? And how many of their supposed health claims have actually been proven?
A fixation on superfoods can be costly not only to your wallet but potentially to your health. Let’s take a look at the history and usage of the term superfood and explore some examples of foods that live up to their hype (and some that don’t).
Superfood: Unpacking a Loaded Word
The widespread use of the term “superfood” to describe a food with a multitude of nutritional benefits is relatively new. According to an article in The Guardian, the superfood trend began as a strategy to market blueberries and pomegranates.
In the article, researcher Jeremy Spencer, PhD, of the University of Reading, argued against the usage of the term superfood and said, “Not only is it completely misleading to break a food down into its component parts and study those one by one, but it is impossible to predict the reactions of individual metabolisms to specific foods. Apart from the fact that the effect of the whole food may be more [than—or quite different from—] the sum of its parts, it is impossible to say each person will have the same physiological result.”
The concept of seeing food as the sum of its parts rather than as a whole is central to the idea of a superfood; instead of eating for pleasure you’re basing your diet on individual nutritional characteristics, some of which are still scientifically unproven.
Benjamin Sit, a registered dietitian with a focus on sports nutrition, agrees with Spencer’s stance. He believes that superfoods are a “marketing ploy to describe foods with high amounts of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients when compared to other similar foods. The primary issue is that the body can only absorb what it needs, so in many cases not all the nutrients are even absorbed when eating superfoods. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t include them into their diet but that these superfoods are a healthy addition to a balanced diet.”
Sit also says that despite people’s best efforts to eat a healthy diet made up of superfoods, this kind of eating plan can lead to an unbalanced diet. He cites instances in which people have gone “overboard with superfoods like quinoa or matcha to be ‘healthier,’ but they tend to overdo it and it throws the entire diet off balance. Healthy eating is about finding your personal balance, it’s not about taking huge quantities of goji berries!”
The High Cost of Superfoods
Foods that have been deemed “super” often have a higher cost than similar foods that might actually have equal or even greater nutritional value. Superfoods that are considered exotic, such as matcha, agave nectar, açai berries, and royal jelly, can be incredibly expensive and have no real scientific studies to back their supposed health claims. Even more run-of-the-mill superfoods such as kale, coconut water, and kimchi have cheaper alternatives, as illustrated in an infographic on HuffPost. Remember, just because certain superfoods might have a higher price tag doesn’t mean they have more to offer in terms of nutritional benefits.
The Environmental Impact of Superfoods
Any time a specific food gets positive media attention, it tends to go up in popularity, but where does that leave the people who grow and produce the food—and what is the impact on their environment? Sales of avocados have doubled since 2005, according to a 2015 article in The Washington Post, and although we all may love avocado toast and guacamole, the spike in avocado’s popularity has had a profound impact on deforestation in central Mexico.
Almonds are another so-called superfood that have had a negative effect on the environment. About 80 percent of the world’s almond supply comes from California, a state that is now known for its perpetual problems with drought, and it takes one whole gallon of water to grow a single almond to maturation. When shopping for foods based on their nutritional merit, it’s still important to buy local and in-season whenever possible. This will decrease negative environmental impact while supporting local farmers.
Superfoods That Live up to Their Super Reputation
Despite the shaky nature of the term superfood, there are certain foods that not only taste delicious but also have evidence-based nutritional benefits.
1. Greek Yogurt
One of Sit’s favorite superfoods is Greek yogurt. “I can’t tell you how much I love Greek yogurt! Aside from the creamy, thick texture; it’s an easy-to-prepare, high-protein snack with pro- and prebiotics,” he says.
What makes these pre- and probiotics so beneficial? Not only do these healthy bacteria keep your gut healthy and help regulate digestion, they’ve also shown themselves to be helpful in other areas of the body. One study concluded that dairy that contains probiotics helped skin remain younger looking (along with many other foods typically found in the Mediterranean diet, such as olive oil, fruits, and vegetables). Yet another study showed that yogurt-specific probiotics significantly helped with brain function and stress in women, adding credence to the saying “you are what you eat.”
2. Chia Seeds
Justine Chard, a registered dietitian and founder of Ever After Health, is a big fan of chia seeds. She says that their “high fiber content helps you to feel full and manage your blood sugars, and it’s a versatile ingredient to add to your meals and snacks.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with these tiny seeds: Yes, they’re the namesake of those Chia Pets advertised on TV. When they’re not growing into the shape of Bob Ross’ hair, chia seeds can be soaked in water or any other liquid until they expand into tapioca-like balls. A single 1 ounce serving of chia seeds contains 11 grams of fiber (95 percent of which is insoluble, which means it helps with regularity, problems with constipation, and hemorrhoids in addition to staving off hunger pangs, which can lead to potential weight loss). Add chia seeds to smoothie bowls or make a super tasty chia pudding for an energizing midday snack.
3. Wild Pacific Salmon
Diana Steele, a registered dietitian and owner of Eating for Energy, counts wild Pacific salmon among her proven superfood favorites. Not only is wild salmon a tasty addition to any dinner in need of protein, it’s also “a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, essential fats that are beneficial for the heart, brain, mood disorders, reducing arthritic pain, prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.”
When shopping for wild sockeye salmon, look for fish that has been caught in Alaska, where finfish farming is outlawed. Enjoy sockeye salmon grilled, baked, or lightly poached either on its own or as a main protein in salads.
4. Kale and Swiss Chard
Your mother had it right when she told you to eat your greens! Steele is a huge fan of kale and Swiss chard in particular, and it’s easy to understand why they are favorites. With a single cup of uncooked greens coming in at only 36 and 7 calories respectively, it’s easy to load up on these healthy superfoods without worrying about overdoing it.
Steele makes a habit of including these greens in her diet because they’re “loaded with vitamin C, K, beta carotene, folate, potassium, calcium, and fiber. They also contain antioxidants and powerful anti-cancer phytonutrients called indoles.” Steele loves to eat her greens in chip form by making up a batch of kale chips; chopped Swiss chard can be sautéed or steamed and added to frittatas and pasta sauces.
Both Sit and Steele are huge proponents of the superfood benefits that come with eating fresh blueberries. Steele explains that much of the interest in blueberries comes from their bright blue–red color, which is indicative of high antioxidant levels: “Antioxidants protect our cells from free radical damage. Blueberries are associated with several health benefits, including reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease. They also contain tannins and, like cranberries, are known to help prevent urinary tract infections.”
Sit likes to enjoy blueberries by combining them with fellow superfood Greek yogurt; other ways to include blueberries in your diet include in smoothies, on top of oatmeal, and tossed in with green leaf or grain salads.
Foods That Don’t Live up to the Hype
1. Açai Berries
Perhaps one of the most overhyped so-called superfoods, açai berries are indigenous to South America and are constantly being touted for their high antioxidant levels and miracle nutritional properties. Are these berries really as incredible as marketers claim? It turns out, not really. Pomegranates and blueberries actually contain higher levels of antioxidants, and both are more readily available in the United States (and considerably less expensive than açai).
Wheatgrass shots seem to go hand-in-hand with eating for health, but are there actually any scientific studies to back up these claims? Praised for its generous amounts of vitamin A and C, iron, calcium, and magnesium, wheatgrass actually has a very similar nutritional profile to far less expensive and far more palatable greens such as broccoli and spinach when compared by weight.
Even worse, wheatgrass consumption causes many people to experience negative side effects, such as nausea, light-headedness, and headaches, which are often falsely said to be detoxifying effects from drinking wheatgrass juice.
3. Aloe Vera Water
Aloe vera water is marketed as a superfood in liquid form, and its advocates claim it boasts healing properties that cover everything from detoxifying your system to helping with digestive issues. However, a more in-depth look at aloe vera uncovers a long list of potentially damaging side effects that can accompany consumption of this beverage.
Negative side effects include diarrhea and stomach upset, lower blood sugar levels that could become problematic if you take medication for diabetes, and even kidney failure for those already on medication for kidney-related issues.
How to Eat a Super Diet Without Worrying About Superfoods
Eating a diet that’s rich in nutrients and health benefits doesn’t have to become a tedious search for the best of the superfood world. Sit thinks that the ideal approach to incorporating superfoods in your diet is moderation. He says:
A little bit goes a long way. Superfoods can be like fad diets; someone in the media promotes them and all of a sudden everyone is adding that superfood to their diets, sometimes unnecessarily. If you want to try out a superfood and want to watch your food budget, buy a little and incorporate into what you’re already cooking. A 10 lb bag of quinoa is out of your budget? Then try combining quinoa together with rice! Instead of making a goji berry smoothie, try sprinkling some goji berries in your oatmeal!
Chan agrees with Sit’s advice and adds that keeping it simple is often the best way to go in terms of healthy eating: “Eat your veggies! They are nutritional powerhouses that have been shown consistently in research to help prevent disease and make you feel good. When comparing the cost of veggies to other ‘superfoods,’ you are typically going to get more bang for your buck.”
Finally, Steele offers some practical advice for anyone looking to eat a healthier diet—with or without the inclusion of superfoods. “Always choose food first over supplements. Choose frozen when fresh is not in season. Eat tinned fish. Buy or grow your own in the summer and freeze it,” she says.
Perhaps the most important advice is to remember to find pleasure in the foods you’re eating. You’re much more likely to stick to a healthy eating plan if you think the food you’re eating is absolutely delicious, however you choose to enjoy it.