I’m one of those people highly respectful for all ‘local, seasonal and balanced’ when it comes to what I put on my plate. Being so, in the past couple of years I started feeling a bit awkward with my ordinary plate among all those super-power-names-i-barely-pronounce-almighty dishes and beverages of all kind, all around me. It has become so weirdly trendy people to buy and add something fancy greeny with a super- prefix in their salad or smoothie, that I almost started to believe they’re all going to fly any moment now, with bright red mantles and gel-styled hairs, and start saving the world. Joking aside, I admit, it was pretty tempting for me to follow the trend, especially since natural healthy lifestyle is what I was after. But I needed a real reason, to back my curiosity with science. And I dived into an ocean of conflicting information to try to scatter my skepticism to pieces and beat my “local, seasonal and balanced” prejudice. Did I succeed in that? And do the so-called superfoods give you superpowers?
What Is a Superfood In the First Place?
Superfood is generally food like any other. The only difference the superfoods bare with all other types of food is the density of certain nutrients they contain. Their rich nutritional composition includes high concentrations of vitamins, minerals, fibers, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients, or high levels of antioxidants. Superfoods is a collective term for a wide range of products, including fruits and nuts, vegetables, roots, herbs, grains, mushrooms, and algae.
They are believed to slow down the aging process, fight depression, boost our physical ability, and even help our brain perform better.
In fact, there is no legal definition of the term “superfood”. It cannot be used on the label of food products and supplements in the EU unless supported by credible scientific research. However, many producers or distributor companies get around this ban incorporating the term ‘superfoods’ into their brand name.
Demand is ever growing, even though scientific evidence for their purported health benefits is scarce. Because of this limited to no scientific proof, superfoods are subject to heated debates and even denounced as mere marketing invention.
There Are Foods With High Concentrations of Essential Nutrients
There’s no doubt nature has endorsed some foods with exceptional nutrient qualities.
Goji Berries, for example, contain 500 times more vitamin C per ounce than oranges and more than any other fruit. They contain abundant quantities of vitamins A, B1, B2, B6 and E and a full complement of protein with 18 amino acids and 21 trace minerals.
Raw cacao beans have an antioxidant (ORAC) score of 95,500 – 14 times more flavonoids than red wine and 21 times more than green tea.
Seaweeds contain up to 10 times more calcium than milk and eight times as much as beef. (1)
Broccoli is an excellent source of vitamin C and folate (naturally occurring folic acid). It also contains vitamins A, K, calcium, fiber, beta-carotene and other antioxidants (2).
Generally, recently proclaimed superfoods contain high levels of antioxidants (such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, C, E, flavonoids, and selenium) and omega-3 fatty acids. The health benefits superfoods are suggested to bring, however, seem to be backed with inconclusive evidence, not enough research or poorly conducted studies. (3, 4)
Superfoods Backed By Science
Even superfoods for which claims come with a considerable amount of studies to support them, require more research to be generally accepted as true.
Garlic, for example, is one of the well researched among “superfoods”. It contains vitamins C and B6, manganese, selenium and other antioxidants (notably allicin). Research suggests garlic may be effective against high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol and in colds prevention.
Spirulina – a blue-green alga with a 55–70% protein content that has been used by the indigenous peoples in Mexico and Africa for thousands of years. It doesn’t taste as good as we’d like to, but it is believed to improve lipid and glucose metabolism, while also reducing liver fat and protecting the heart. According to studies on animals, spirulina appears to be a promising antioxidant. (5) Spirulina has been investigated as a way to control glucose in people with diabetes(6), but the EFSA rejected those claims in 2013. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, scientific evidence is insufficient to recommend spirulina supplementation for any human condition. (7)
Blueberries are a delicious source of vitamin K. They contain vitamin C, fiber, manganese and high level of antioxidants (notably anthocyanins).(8) Anthocyanins are believed to be responsible for many of the beneficial health effects of blueberries (9). Studies suggest they can protect against heart disease, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (10, 11), diabetes (12, 13), as well as improve cognition and brain health (14). However, most of these studies rely on small sample groups or animals, which gives less “weight” to their results.
Miracle Food? Or Wishful Thinking?
It’s convenient to believe that certain foods can compensate for generally unhealthy diet and poor eating habits. Psychologically, most people tend to embrace the idea there is a magical substance that could right their diet sins with the touch of a magic wind.
Tha Magical Chlorophyll
It sounds appealing, for example, that superfoods containing chlorophyll, which is similar in molecular structure to hemoglobin, can help regenerate blood cells and boost general health, including but not limited to dealing with intestinal problems, fighting infection in open wounds, strengthening the immune system, replenishing red blood cells, cancers of various kinds, tissue inflammation, heavy metal poisoning, weight loss, substance addiction, anemia, skin disorders and more.
While there is evidence that chlorophyll helps in improving anemia conditions, there’s no evidence it is so almighty. Actually, even anemia can be permanently positively influenced only if a balanced diet is maintained. Essential nutrients for the maintenance of healthy blood include iron, copper, calcium, and vitamins C, B-12, K, A, folic acid, and pyridoxine, among others. Many of these blood-building components are found in chlorophyll-rich foods such as cereal grasses (wheat, oats, barley, etc.) and dark green vegetables. Young cereal plants absorb and synthesize vitamin K, vitamin C, folic acid, pyridoxine, iron, calcium and protein for their growth and development. These very same nutrients are essential to the generation and utilization of hemoglobin in humans.
Antioxidants – Another Hype We’ve Embraced
The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other related carotenoids, along with the minerals selenium and manganese. We can also add to the group glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and more. Scientific evidence proves antioxidants help in neutralizing free radicals that cause damage to body cells and inflict a number of diseases. Thus, superfoods rich in antioxidants are often believed to prevent heart disease, cancer, age-related eye disease, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
There are studies, however, claiming that excessive intake of antioxidants can even lower the level of antioxidants the body naturally produces (15). Some studies even warn us against the so-called antioxidative stress. Since antioxidants cannot distinguish between the radicals with a beneficial physiological role and those that cause damage to biomolecules, they sometimes target free radicals that send vital signals within our cells to stimulate the body’s own repair and regeneration mechanisms. So, if large amounts of antioxidant nutrients are taken, they may interfere with the immune system to fight bacteria and essential defensive mechanisms for removal of damaged cells.(16) More is not necessarily better.
While it’s true that the package of antioxidants, minerals, fiber, and other substances found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps prevent a variety of chronic diseases, it is unlikely that high doses of antioxidants can accomplish the same result.(17)
The European Food Information Council questions the validity of the term superfood and stresses that consumers are better off ensuring a balanced intake of nutrients by increasing the diversity of nutritious foods in their diet.
In the end of the day, I didn’t find what I was hoping for. Superfoods can’t give you superpowers, no matter what media or the food and supplement industry is trying to convince us. At least, there is no conclusive evidence for that. Though, superfoods are great to consume as part of a rich and balanced diet. Yes, it’s good to substitute a pack of cookies with a cup of blueberries. And it’s definitely beneficial for your overall health to enrich your menu with a variety of new fruits and seeds, including goji berries, acai, chia and quinoa or make a homemade chocolate with raw cacao beans. But not at the cost of falling for a one-sided diet in the hope that a number of certain foods can supply you with all your body needs or do wonders to your heart or brain. And not in the hope that a bunch of nutrient-rich foods (though exotic and alluring they may sound) or supplements taken for a short period of time can compensate for a lifetime of junk food abuse.