Hardly a month goes by without us reading in the media about a new “super food” or “magic ingredient” that can slow down the aging process, prevent cancer or boost immunity. Due to all the hype, the term is globally understood to mean ‘extra-healthy’ and as a result, sales of so-called Superfoods have increased worldwide over the past few years1. But are we buying them just because marketing tells us they are good for us? Many health experts remain sceptical about the misconceptions surrounding use of the term ‘Superfood’. The original concept of a ‘Superfood’ was intended to apply to wholefoods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, oily fish, herbs, spices, etc.). Nowadays, we are seeing more and more exotic foods and supplements being included in this term. So what is all the hype about Superfoods? Or better yet, let’s start off with what a ‘Superfood’ is regarded to be.
What are Superfoods?
Firstly, we know that all foods are not created equal. There are some foods that have higher nutritional quality than others. It may come to your surprise but there is no formal or single definition of what a Superfood is, nor is there a definitive list. According to Nutrition guru and author Catherine Saxelby, Superfoods can be defined as having far superior nutritional content compared to their relatives in their respective food groups as well as having a high nutrient to kilojoule ratio (i.e. considered to be nutrient dense, which means they offer multiple nutrients while providing minimal calories). An example of this is how berries trump the fruit group or yoghurt with friendly bacteria for intestinal health is superior in the dairy food group.
Saxelby2 says there should be eight (8) qualities to look for in deciding whether a food is ‘super’ or not. It should have one or more of the following:
- Be rich in vitamins, minerals, omega-3 essential fatty acids or fibre compared to its kilojoule/calorie count (have a high nutrient density).
- Have 25% or more of the recommended intake of two or more nutrients in a serve OR be outstanding rich in one nutrient, having 50% or more of its recommended intake for the day.
- In addition to the normal nutrients, contain significant quantities of what could be regarded as health-promoting and/or protective substances such as phytonutrients or other substances not usually found in foods in its class.
- Be minimally processed without being enriched.
- Provide essential nutrients without overloading the body with salt, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar or other compounds linked to poor health.
- Have research linking it to a potential reduced risk of illness or poor health.
- Be easily available and affordable.
- Have medicinal or healing qualities which have been acknowledged by traditional medicine – effects beyond nutrition.
What’s all the hype about?
When reading nutritional marketing claims regarding Superfoods, we should take them with a grain of salt as some of this information (written by marketing personnel with no background in health) may be biased or misleading. In addition, Superfoods can be expensive and while their nutritional effect may be proven to be true, claims can exaggerate their benefits3. Sometimes, what the claims don’t tell you is the huge quantities you need to consume to see a clinical effect in the first place. For example, there is extensive research on the health benefits of cranberry juice and how it can reduce your risk of getting a urinary tract infection, but it requires you to drink at least 300ml (a large glass) every day to see any health benefit. Or in order to see the benefits of the phyto-oestrogens in soy to reduce symptoms of hot flushes during menopause, one must consume around one litre of soy beverage per day.
Which foods are considered to be Superfoods?
If you are trying to incorporate more Superfoods into your diet, a good place to start is by replacing less nutritional foods with foods with a higher nutritional value as recommended by Dr Adam Drewnowski4 (Director of the Centre for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington) and other health authorities. For example, in the vegetable family, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts are nutritionally superior to beans or zucchini. Likewise, garlic is seen to be more beneficial than onions, leeks, shallots and chives.
According to Drewnowski and Saxelby, high nutritional value veggies include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, spinach, dark lettuces (mignonette, rocket, baby spinach leaves), avocadoes, chillies, garlic and orange sweet potato2,4. These vegetables give high quantities of vitamin C, folate, fibre, and minerals without overloading your system. Tomatoes and carrots contain high amounts of lycopene and beta-carotene, and ginger and garlic have medicinal properties2,4. Super fruits include oranges, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, blueberries and strawberries2,4.
Super grains may include:
Dairy super hero’s consist of:
- Yoghurts that contains probiotic bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, which helps with digestive balancevi.
Protein power players may include:
Other Superfoods not to be forgotten include:
Other controversial Superfoods include:
Disregarding the hype around Superfoods, it’s important to note that foods do have different nutritional values as mentioned earlier. Some are packed with higher quantities of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids than others. To put it plainly, and as any Dietitian would tell you, healthy eating is about making smart choices on the types of foods we eat and as Dr Drewnowski suggests, we should be aiming to “make every kilojoule count”4.
We all may be adding more salads and vegetables to our diets, but there still lies concern over the quality of foods grown on mineral depleted soils. Therefore, incorporating Superfoods into a diet is not only an intelligent choice but can be a way of improving the nutritious value of a meal.
Please call our Dietitian on 9948 2826 or visit our clinic at 9/470 Sydney Rd in Balgowlah servicing the surrounding suburbs of Allambie, Balgowlah Heights, Seaforth, Fairlight and Manly on the Northern Beaches.
- Reid, C., 2009,
Top 10 Superfoods. Cited from:
- Saxelby, C., 2007,
Super foods : Making each kilojoule count, reprinted in T. Chappell ‘Super foods: The top twenty’, ABC.
- Lunn, J., 2006, Superfoods, Nutrition Bulletin, Vol. 31 Issue 3, (British Nutrition Foundation)
- Drewnowski, A., 2010,
The Nutrient Rich Foods Index helps to identify healthy, affordable foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 91. No. 4, 10955-11015.