Are superfoods real? Be cautious of labels that promise miracle health benefits

Every time I turn around, it seems like I stumble across another advertisement for a new “superfood” that claims to solve all of your health and wellness wants and needs.

The frequency that these superfoods — from magical fruits, to specialized herbs or superfood powders containing “all of your essential daily vitamins” — are popping up in my feeds is getting out of hand. Many individuals read these hyped-up claims and want to incorporate the latest superfood into their nutrition routine to reap the benefits promised. Most superfoods or superfood products can also be pretty pricey, and studies on consumer behavior show that people are willing to pay more money for foods they perceive as healthy. What’s the deal with superfoods? Are they worth the hype?

The term “superfood” is broad, ambiguous and lacks a scientific definition. It usually describes foods that have high levels of specific or multiple types of nutrients or vitamins and minerals that are said to add health benefits to the nutritional value of the food. There is no denying that many foods crowned as superfoods — such as beets, whole grains, blueberries and cruciferous vegetables — are incredibly nutritious and contain nutrients that serve as antioxidants or have anti-inflammatory properties.

Fiber-rich carbohydrates: Fruit, beans, lentils, legumes, quinoa, chickpeas, corn, whole grains, oats, peas, vegetables, edamame

Lean proteins: Fish/seafood, eggs, chicken, turkey, beans, lentils, legumes, chickpeas, edamame, low-fat dairy, nuts, quinoa, edamame

Protective fats: Oily fish/seafood, plant-based oils like olive/canola/avocado oil, nuts, seeds, peanut/almond butter, avocado

That being said, it’s important to be an informed consumer and be aware of superfood marketing. Nutrition experts like dietitians and nutrition scientists did not coin the term to describe foods that epitomize health; rather, the term ‘superfood’ originated as a marketing tactic. One of the earliest examples or recounts of a superfood may have taken place during World War I as part of food marketing strategies by the United Fruit Co. to entice consumers to buy more bananas. Fast forward to the present day, and similar marketing is being used, only on a much larger scale thanks to social media and the ease at which we can access information.

A study published in 2021 in the Journal of Business Research explored how and if the way that consumers’ perceptions or value of superfoods influenced their behaviors. The researchers found that consumers’ perceptions of eating superfoods relative to other “diets” played a crucial role in promoting their purchases and their positive word of mouth marketing/advertising for superfoods. They also noted that a report of Google Trends 2021 showed that the term “superfood” was searched more during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 than in previous years. These findings highlight consumer association of superfoods with improved health, as well as the vulnerabilities to marketing that come with the quest for better health.

Food is a crucial component in preventative medicine, and overall diet plays a pivotal role in treating and managing certain disease states. It’s important to recognize that one single food or nutrient in isolation cannot prevent or cure any disease or condition, nor can it offer every single nutrient or health benefit needed. Popular superfoods include exotic foods or herbs such as goji, spirulina, wheatgrass, maca, cacao, acai, seaweed, amaranth and more. Some superfoods, such as acai or green tea, contain bioactive plant compounds or a plethora of vitamins that serve to protect cells, promote better blood flow, or increase learning and memory, which can protect against disease and aging.

It’s great to add some of these into your diet for variety and to try new things, but we want to focus on your overall diet quality, rather than what one food can do for you. If someone drinks wheatgrass or a superfood powder each morning, yet snacks on processed foods high in added sugar or saturated fat for the rest of the day, the wheatgrass is probably not going to add very much to the quality of that person’s dietary intake.

Speaking of superfood powders — they are everywhere! Approach these with additional caution.

These supplements often contain claims that the powder will help you detox, add years of youth to your skin, or contain ALL the nutrients you could ever need to boost vitality. Legally, there are little to no regulations surrounding these claims and the use of the term “superfood.” Additionally, there is no guarantee that the ingredients listed on the label are what is inside the product, and in the amounts listed. Many superfood powders contain proprietary blends, in which the manufacturing company is not required to disclose the ingredients or quantity of ingredients in the blend. This lack of regulation creates the perfect storm for consumers to fall prey to. In fact, the European Food Safety Authority has actually banned the term “superfood” from being used, unless there is a detailed and specific description of the product’s nutritional content.

The intention behind eating superfoods or superfood supplements is typically undermined by marketing tactics. The goal for most is to obtain more nutrients, vitamins and minerals that can provide health benefits, which is a concept I think we can all get behind. Instead of focusing on one specific food, try to eat more nutrient-dense, plant-based foods, fruits and vegetables that offer vitamins and minerals that work together synergistically to improve health with a healthy overall eating pattern.

I am a big proponent of consistently choosing a variety of foods that are nutrient dense and offer many different compounds that make up a solid diet. Below are some examples of foods that are superbly nutritious, according to the food group they belong to. Notice how some of these foods belong to multiple food groups, reinforcing the concept of nutrient density.

Emma Willingham is a registered dietitian who practices in an outpatient hospital clinic and through her private practice, Fuel with Emma. You can find her on social media at @fuelwithemma.

By Percy