What is a Superfood?
The word superfood has been thrown around casually by the media and the definition of superfood has not been clearly defined for the general public. The question is whether these foods are truly superior or if they’re merely another marketing strategy produced by the food industry.
Nutritionists generally do not like the use of the term superfood because it causes people to concentrate their diets on specific types of food. While each superfood does contain several nutritional benefits, overconsumption of any particular food is not healthy and can lead to detrimental health effects.
Some claims made by manufacturers of superfood products have not been proven scientifically, so it is necessary to be cautious when exposed to this type of advertising. The only way to determine the superiority of these foods is to examine the most common superfood trends and evaluate the benefits of each individual food item.
After you understand the different types of superfoods and their potential health benefits it’s time to try them out! Although no food group can be consumed in large quantities, a balanced diet that includes a combination of various superfoods will be more beneficial to your overall health when compared to the typical Western diet.
Top 7 Trending Superfoods and Their Benefits
1. Chia seeds
Chia seeds have been trending recently. They are dubbed an unprocessed seed that has several of the same benefits as flaxseed (omega-3), but they do not need to be ground into a powder before consumption. Chia seeds have a mild flavor and can be added to any food or beverage without changing the composition or aroma of the food item, so it is a good way to incorporate omega-3 oils into the diet without having to exert too much effort.
Chia seeds have been proven to be high in antioxidants. Antioxidants help in binding to free radicals in the body that increase the incidence of oxidative stress, which is responsible for aging.1 Chia seeds are also high in fiber. Fiber readily absorbs water and can lead you to feel satiation (fullness) faster, slow absorption of food, and aid in weight loss. However, some studies have shown that subjects that consumed chia seeds over a period of time did not see a change in appetite or weight loss.2
Kale has gained popularity as a superfood because it has several potential health benefits. Different types of kale items have been released into the market such as kale chips, kale salads, kale curry, etc. Because we see kale around so often and in different forms it is not difficult to believe that it is good for you in some way or another.
There have been over 45 different flavonoids detected in kale. Flavonoids have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. This is why consumption of kale has been linked with a lower incidence of chronic inflammation and overall oxidative stress as antioxidants bind to free radicals in the body. In addition, kale has been found to decrease the risk of a few types of cancer such as breast, colon, ovary, prostate, and bladder. This is because isothiocyanates that are made from the glucosinolates in kale inhibit the neoplastic effects of various carcinogens at a number of organ sites. Consequently, these agents are attracting attention as potential chemoprotectors against cancer.3
3. Acai Berry
Acai (pronounced ah-sah-ee) originates from the acai palm found in both Central and South America. Acai supplements and products have gained popularity mainly due to celebrity endorsements. The acai berry is known and highly advertised to be an excellent source of antioxidants and essential fatty acids like omega-3s. Studies do show that the pulp of the acai fruit contains more antioxidants than some of the berries found at the grocery store. Unfortunately, when acai juice was tested, it was shown to still have lower antioxidant levels than that of the Concord grape, blueberry, and black cherry juices.5
There are some weight loss products that advertise that their product contains acai berry; however, acai berry has not been scientifically accepted to promote weight loss. There have only been a few studies that have examined this benefit associated with the berry, but there is not enough evidence to provide an adequate conclusion.
Not only has acai berry been advertised and sold in supplement form, but its oils have also been processed, stored, and used in cosmetics or beauty products. When acai oils are stored, they retain their antioxidant levels. Once again, these oils extracted from the acai berry have not been scientifically proven to provide cosmetic benefits.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) has been a staple food in South America for thousands of years and has recently become popular in the United States. In fact, 2013 was recognized as the international year of quinoa. Quinoa comes in varying colors: red, white, and black. There are minimal nutritional differences between each color; however, they differ in texture when cooked with black being the crunchiest and white being the softest. Although quinoa is not a grain, it is still labeled as a whole grain food. It is naturally gluten free, non-GMO, and typically organic. Using quinoa instead of the usual gluten-free ingredients can increase antioxidant and nutrient value of an individual that consumes a gluten-free diet.6 It is easy to include quinoa in your diet by tossing it into a salad for some texture or using it as a rice substitute.
Generally, grains cannot be used as a complete source of protein because they do not contain enough of the amino acids lysine and isoleucine. These two amino acids are considered the limiting amino acids in grains. Quinoa is a grain that is rather unique because it contains greater quantities of both lysine and isoleucine. Because quinoa is not limited by those two amino acids, it can be defined as a complete source of protein.
5. Goji Berries
Goji berries are bright orange-red berries that originate in Asia. In China, goji berries are known to increase strength and longevity, but have been used to treat several different health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and eye-problems. Goji berries are commonly eaten dried like raisins and added to cereal or oatmeal or used in herbal teas and soup.
A few preliminary studies show that goji berry juice could potentially benefit mental well-being, quality of sleep, calmness, and athletic performance, but further testing needs to be conducted before any conclusive statements can be made.7 Most berries found on the market are good for your health because they naturally contain a large amount of antioxidants. This helps strengthen the immune system and increases anti-inflammatory compounds. Goji berries are unique because while they do have a high concentration of antioxidants they also contain all of the amino acids. Goji berries have the highest protein concentration in any fruit. In addition, they are high in fiber, contain 21 trace minerals, and have about 15 times more iron that spinach.8
In 2006, the FDA issued warnings to two goji juice distributors for their marketing claims that were in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act because they “establish the product as a drug intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease” when researchers have yet to find concrete scientific evidence that establishes the benefits of goji berries. Therefore, goji berries were not scientifically recognized as safe and effective for the referenced conditions provided by those distributors and must be treated as a type of new drug, which cannot be legally marketed without FDA approval.
Seaweed is a type of marine algae found naturally in the ocean. It comes in a variety of colors such as red, brown, and green. Although seaweed is nutritionally dense, the taste of seaweed might be a bit odd for the typical American. The taste has been commonly associated with the smell of tuna fish. Seaweed can be added into your regular diet by sprinkling onto to salads or soups. Seaweed is often seen in grocery stores in the form of seaweed chips after adding olive oil and baking until crisp.
Seaweed is a natural source of iodine, which is nutrient not commonly found in other foods. Consuming adequate amounts of iodine is important when trying to maintain thyroid heath. Lack of iodine in the body can lead to detrimental health conditions such as goiters or arrhythmia.
Research shows that seaweed can help regulate estrogen and estradiol levels. These two hormones are responsible for proper development and function of sex organs and can thus reduce the risk of breast cancer.9 Of course, what makes seaweed part of the new super food trend is the fact that it is high in a variety of nutrients and antioxidants, which helps prevent inflammation that contributes to various health ailments such as arthritis, asthma, obesity, etc.
Pomegranates are considered to have originated around Egypt and the Himalayas. Today they are commonly grown in the Western hemisphere—more specifically California and Arizona. The general public tends to have an aversion towards pomegranate fruit because they are difficult to eat; however, they have several culinary uses that can enhance the diet. Pomegranate juice can be added to vinaigrette salad dressings. The seeds can be directly sprinkled into a salad, or added into yogurt.
The main benefits of pomegranates are associated with heart health because they are high in polyphenols–a type of antioxidant. Polyphenols have been proven to have anti-cancer benefits in various research studies. In fact, pomegranates contain more polyphenol antioxidants than cranberries or green tea. These antioxidants have the ability to decrease the amount of harmful free radicals circulating in the body.
A previous study examined a group of 45 participants with coronary heart disease drank 8.4 oz of pomegranate juice over the course of three months. After testing and evaluation, it was found that drinking pomegranate juice improves blood flow and lowers the risk of a heart attack.10 In another study, patients diagnosed with carotid artery stenosis, a condition where arteries are narrowed, were told to drink a 1.7 oz glass of pomegranate juice daily for three years. Results concluded that participants ended up with lower blood pressure and oxidation of their LDL cholesterol was delayed. Through the results of this study, it seems that pomegranate juice may be able to prevent plaque buildup in healthy people.11
Although these results seem promising, the evidence is still inconclusive. Research studies suggest that there may be a benefit to drinking pomegranate juice, but it is important to note that the number of participants in each study was small and further investigation is needed. If you want to try drinking pomegranate juice, remember to read the nutrition label to avoid the juices with added sugar as it will most likely negate any potential benefits.
1. Martínez-Cruz, O., Paredes-López, O. Phytochemical profile and nutraceutical potential of chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L.) by ultra high performance liquid chromatography. Journal of Chromatography A. Volume 1346., 13 June 2014, P. 43-48.
2. Nieman, D., Cayea, E., Austin, M., Henson, D., McAnulty, S., & Jin, F. (n.d.). Chia Seed Does Not Promote Weight Loss Or Alter Disease Risk Factors In Overweight Adults. Nutrition Research, 414-418.
3. Shapiro, T. A., Fahey, J. W., Wade, K. L., Stephenson, K. K., and Talalay, Human metabolism and excretion of cancer chemoprotective glucosinolates and isothiocyanates of cruciferous vegetables. Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev., 7: 1091–1100, 1998.
4. Williams RJ, Spencer JP, Rice-Evans C (April 2004). “Flavonoids: antioxidants or signaling molecules?” Free Radical Biology & Medicine 36 (7): 838–49.
5. Udani, J., Singh, B., Singh, V., & Barrett, M. (n.d.). Effects of Açai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) berry preparation on metabolic parameters in a healthy overweight population: A pilot study. Nutrition Journal, 45-45.
6. Alvarez-Jubete, L., Wijngaard, H., Arendt, E., & Gallagher, E. (2010). Polyphenol composition and in vitro antioxidant activity of amaranth, quinoa buckwheat and wheat as affected by sprouting and baking. Food Chemistry, 770-778.
7. Amagase H, Nance DM. A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Clinical Study of the General Effects of a Standardized Lyciumbarbarum (Goji) Juice. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2008;14(4):403–12.
8. Bucheli, P., Vidal, K., Shen, L., Gu, Z., Zhang, C., Miller, L., & Wang, J. (n.d.). Goji Berry Effects on Macular Characteristics and Plasma Antioxidant Levels. Optometry and Vision Science, 257-262.
9. Teas, J., Hurley, T., Hebert, J., Franke, A., Sepkovic, D., & Kurzer, M. (n.d.). Dietary Seaweed Modifies Estrogen and Phytoestrogen Metabolism in Healthy Postmenopausal Women.Journal of Nutrition, 939-944.
10. Sumner, Michael D. et al.Effects of Pomegranate Juice Consumption on Myocardial Perfusion in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease. American Journal of Cardiology, 96 (6): 810-814, 2005.
11. Aviram, Michael et al.Pomegranate juice consumption for 3 years by patients with carotid artery stenosis reduces common carotid intima-media thickness, blood pressure and LDL oxidation. Clinical Nutrition, 23 (3): 423-433, 2004.