There seems to be a new superfood every season and these foods follow similar patterns and trends. It usually begins with a big health study, after which it’s picked up by a celebrity or health blog. Within weeks, it can be found in every supplement, health food store and fad diet. Before long, the trend-train comes to a screeching halt when someone pushes the obsession a little bit too far and everyone throws up their hands and says, “Okay, that’s enough now”.
It happened with turmeric. This truly is an extraordinary substance, but its reputation was tarnished somewhat when people began insisting (wrongly so) that it could be used for everything from teeth whitening to skin softening. Going back a little further, we saw the same thing happen with wheatgrass.
The problem is, there are so many foods and substances that fall into the category of “superfood”, yet there is no official definition. This causes all kinds of confusion on behalf of the consumers, and it also creates endless opportunities for unscrupulous marketing companies who want to push whatever abundant herb or spice they have lying around in their warehouse.
With that in mind, just what is a superfood, if such a thing exists, and is America’s obsession with these substances healthy?
Strictly speaking, a superfood is a food that’s rich in vitamins and minerals, known as micronutrients, but one that also contains an abundance of plant compounds such as antioxidants and nitrates.
A lot of berries fall into this category. Blueberries are one of the most commonly cited superfoods and they are praised for their fiber, vitamin, and antioxidant content, as well as the studies that link them to improved memory and focus. However, most berries contain similar compounds and provide similar benefits as a result.
You’ll rarely see grapes mentioned as a superfood because they’re cheap, abundantly available and as we already consume huge quantities of them, no one needs to convince us to eat them. However, grapes contain unique compounds that could have a transformative effect on your health, including resveratrol, lycopene, and flavonoids known as anthocyanins.
A study on American shoppers found that nearly 7 out of 10 will purchase fresh grapes during a shopping trip. Once you add wine and grape juice to the mix, this is a substance that can be found in the vast majority of American homes. The industry isn’t interested in shouting the benefits of grapes from the rooftops, because we’re already obsessed.
Ultimately, that’s the main purpose of a superfood. It’s a label used to create fads and to improve sales. Still, if you don’t know a great deal about which foods are better for you, it’s also a useful label that can help you make better choices.
Superfoods are typically rich in micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals your body requires to function as normal. Your body uses these nutrients to ensure proper muscle, blood, and organ function. It uses them to strengthen your bones and immune system; convert food to energy; heal wounds; and more.
Everyone requires a different ratio of vitamins and minerals to maintain optimal health and superfoods are one of the easiest ways to meet these targets. Contrary to what you might think, there are vitamins and minerals in most foods and even the “worst” foods can meet some of your targets.
As an example, let’s assume a worst-case diet scenario in which you’re on the road all day and eat nothing but McDonald’s. You consume 2,500 calories via the following:
You’ll consume dangerously high levels of fat and sodium, but you’ll also hit your targets for minerals like Calcium, Copper, Iron and Selenium, as well as vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B12.
Not great, but probably not as bad as you thought, right? But a simple superfood salad, one that is packed with arugula, seeds, avocado, spinach, and an egg or two, can hit almost as many targets in a fraction of the calories and without overdoing it with regards to fat and salt.
Your goal is to keep hitting those targets and doing so in a balanced way, and superfoods make that goal much easier.
Whole fruits and vegetables play an active role in the fight against cancer. It’s a well-established fact that a diet rich in whole foods greatly reduces a person’s chance of getting cancer. There are several factors at play here and we’ve already discussed one of them: Micronutrient content.
This is often mistakenly assumed to be the ultimate defining characteristic of a superfood, but if that were the case then we’d all be popping multi-vitamins, scoffing steak, and leaving the fresh produce in the vegetable aisle.
The main reason superfoods are special is the nitrate and antioxidant content.
Not to be confused with nitrites, which are used to preserve meat and are very bad for you, nitrates can be found in most plant-based foods and have some miraculous properties. They relax the blood vessels, allowing the blood to flow easily and reducing the risk of clots, strokes, and heart disease.
Studies suggest that nitrates can also boost performance, which is why they are often consumed by athletes in the form of beetroot juice.(1) The issue here is that they cannot be consumed in supplement form. Not only are they ineffective in this form, but they are actually harmful and carcinogenic. However, when consumed in their natural form they work wonders.
Antioxidants can be vitamins, such as vitamin C, but some of the best antioxidants are those in the polyphenol class. They have been linked with a huge range of health benefits and may help in the fight against cancer, heart disease, and more. They do this by reducing oxidative stress, which is a known cause for many chronic diseases.
The term “superfoods” may have been overused, but generally speaking it’s a food that can greatly boost your health in a balanced and all-encompassing way. It’s a label that can make your choices easier, but it’s worth nothing that no matter how healthy a particular superfood is, it can’t provide you with everything that you need.
You can’t subsist entirely on one food. You need to eat a balanced diet, one that incorporates many different foods. Kale may help you hit your vitamin K and vitamin C targets with a single serving, but it’s not going to do much for your B vitamins; Avocado may help you with vitamin E and vitamins B5 and B6, but they have very little in the way of minerals.
Stick to a varied, balanced diet and don’t obsess over one particular food. And if you need a little help getting your daily dose of healthy foods, try our Organic Daily Greens mix, which combines the healthiest foods and makes it easier to hit your targets.