Most people are aware of certain grocery items that have been described as superfoods. The word superfood is found on ads or package labels in the grocery store and is a trendy topic online. It seems we know that superfoods are supposed to be “good for you” but don’t know the actual definition.
There is a good reason for that. The term, not typically used by dietitians or other health professionals, is a marketing buzzword used to help sell popular foods to consumers. It turns out there is no actual definition and there are no established criteria to determine what is and what is not considered a superfood.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t use the term in my own vocabulary, but I don’t mind its use either. After all, how could I be mad at a marketing scheme aimed at getting America to buy more naturally healthful foods?!?
In general, superfoods are sold under the premise that they provide health benefits due to their nutritional composition. Some common foods such as kale, avocados, pumpkin seeds, or pomegranates have been deemed “super” by some. There are also less familiar foods like gogji berries, mangosteens, agave, acai berries, or noni, (usually tropical plants or fruits high in antioxidants) classified as superfoods as well.
These types of foods may very well have beneficial effects – however, they do not have substantial research on long-term effects and they don’t have established guidelines for consumption. They’re even sometimes found as a promoted ingredient of a sugary beverage or highly processed granola bar (so much for those health claims…).
Though the term superfood is arbitrary and lacks definition, the guy who came up with it was on the right track. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) actually recognizes a similar class of foods called functional foods.
Here’s the definition:
Whole foods along with fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.
Mouthful, I know.
Let’s break it down. The first part references “whole foods along with fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods”, which encompasses a wide range of things. A huge variety of natural foods found in a typical balanced diet fall under this category. We’re hardly limited to some tropical berries here.
The second part says “consumed as part of a varied diet”. To me, this states the obvious. Including functional foods doesn’t mean you should abandon your regular balanced diet. Include blueberries and salmon for their health benefits, but don’t only eat blueberries and salmon. Believe it or not, some people need to hear this!
The last part references “significant standards of evidence”. When it comes to claiming health benefits, the AND emphasizes the need for comprehensive research. Makes sense to me.
Here are some functional foods that fit the definition, and are recognized by dietitians and the AND:
Omega-3-Rich Foods: flaxseed, olive oil, and cold water fish such as salmon and sardines, have omega-3 fatty acids that lower risk of heart disease, reduce joint pain, and enhance brain function.
Whole Grains: such as oatmeal and barley are high in fiber to help lower cholesterol and support bowel function.
Nuts: may be high in magnesium (cashews & almonds) to help control blood pressure, and have healthy fats (walnuts), which lower cholesterol.
Leafy Greens: kale, spinach, chard and bok choy provide vitamin K and other antioxidants which offer cancer-fighting properties and lower risk for heart disease.
Berries: all berries contain anthocyanins. These are the pigments that cause red and purple coloring and offer strong antioxidant effects.
Legumes: like lentils and chickpeas provide heart-healthy fiber and have been proven to reduce risk of prostate cancer.
Prebiotics and Probiotics: work symbiotically to boost immune function and gut health.
These common foods are scientifically verified to achieve health goals.
As new hip fruits are discovered and preliminary research comes out, use caution. While it can’t hurt to incorporate things like acai or goji berries here and there, (after all, the preliminary research is usually quite compelling) you can’t go wrong with the list above.
Nutrition Technique: Superfood. It’s an arbitrary marketing term – foods labeled as such may or may not actually provide real health benefits. Refrain from blindly selecting these items and try to focus instead on what the AND calls “functional foods”. They provide powerful nutritional benefits and are backed up by years of proven research. Naturally, they include things like produce, whole grains, and healthy fats. Eat a variety of functional foods each day and you will feel super yourself!
Amy Jones, MS, RDN, LD