Ask Dana: What is a “superfood?”

QUESTION:

Dear Dana, 
What is a “superfood?” I see this term mentioned a lot in magazines and in health food stores.  But, what is a “superfood” and am I supposed to be eating them?   It would be nice to have a trusted answer on this!

– Reba White
Burbank, California

ANSWER:

Dear Reba,

This is a great question and so excited to give you a trusted answer on it.

To be clear, the term “superfoods” has no specific scientific definition.   Food labels are presented with the goal of you buying products for certain health goals.  Yet, there is no such health goal that “superfood” products are designed to improve. 

Superfoods is a term that is meant to imply a food rich in nutrients and a food that may provide certain health benefits.  However, the label of “superfoods” can be found everywhere from coffee creamer to dried fruit to certain supplements and not all of these foods are known to have health benefits.  It is important to note there is no guiding regulation to deem something as a “superfood.”  

As such, by labeling a food product as a “superfood,” food manufacturers have greatly profited. It is estimated that the global superfoods market was almost $137 billion in 2018 (Grand View Research, 2017).  Simply by placing a “superfood” label on a food product, consumers are led to believe that a product may be healthier than another or offer some health benefit.  Often this is just not the case.  Superfood products do tend to be more expensive than a non-superfood labeled food. This labeling can lead to overspending on the part of consumers at risk for these misleading labels.  Notably, consumers could receive more health benefits from lower-priced fruits and vegetables versus expensive, overproduced “superfood” powders, bars and supplements. 

superfood

Even more disturbing is that “superfood” products often contain a proprietary mixture of fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals without the need to disclose specific concentrations of these nutrients. This can be dangerous in some situations when individuals need to monitor their intake of certain vitamins and minerals based on health conditions or conflicting prescription drugs.  In stark contrast, the European Union has banned the use of the term superfood unless labels specifically detail the ingredients and nutritional content of the product. 

In spite of that, it is not all gloom and doom regarding superfoods labeling.  Most of the foods labeled as “super,” do indeed offer positive health benefits and are nutrient-dense. Some examples of these so-called “superfoods” are salmon, kale, flax seeds and hemp hearts. These foods are, indeed, nutrient-dense and healthy but they are not necessarily superior compared to similar foods offering similar health benefits.  For example, kale is full of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds.  But so are other leafy greens.  Kale is not the only leafy green available for these health benefits and the absence of kale does not mean that these health benefits are not attainable.  Salmon is full of healthy fats with a high percentage of omega-3 fatty acids that are linked to anti-inflammatory benefits as well.  Yet, there are other oily fish, maceral and sardines to name two, that are equally full of these powerful health benefits and may often be more affordable than salmon. 

As is true with most things regarding nutrition, there is not one “superfood” that will lead towards optimum health.  If a diet is high in processed sugar and low nutrition quality, a single “superfood” cannot fill the void of vitamins, minerals and other nutrient chemicals that lead to a healthy diet.   Conversely, if a diet is full of whole foods with whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetable (none of which are “superfoods”), one’s diet most likely will promote health benefits and offer some protection against disease. 

As for the honest answer about “superfoods,” the bottom line might be a bit more complicated than expected.  “Superfoods” are not necessarily the missing link towards a healthy diet, nor can they overcome missing nutrition in the rest of a diet.  However, “superfoods” are considered part of a healthy diet if they are also whole foods and not processed powders or bars.  Superfoods are likely to benefit one’s overall health but so is a well-balanced diet full of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  Overall, aim for the overall quality of your diet and not focus on one particular item in that diet. 

For more specific guidance on a healthy diet, seek out a registered dietitian for more information.  We have some great dietitians at IDS who would love to help guide you toward a well-balanced diet.  In the meantime, look for healthy foods that don’t necessarily have the expensive label of a “superfood” and feel good about your choices!