The Myth Of Superfoods

by | Sep 24, 2012
Blueberries

Blueberries

The term “superfood” gets thrown around a lot, usually by the media or somebody selling something. But more often than not it sends the wrong message about healthy eating, and only serves to fuel the fire of nutritionism.

Superfood refers to an edible plant (e.g. blueberries) or animal (e.g. salmon) that contains high levels of a particular nutrient (antioxidants! omega-3s!) that can supposedly help with a certain health issue. When something gets labeled as a superfood, most of us will automatically assume that it is extra super duper healthy and we should go out of our way to eat more of it. Not that we will, but maybe we’ll try to try and eat more.

To their credit, the superfoods I’ve seen are usually legit healthy foods. They tend to be berries, greens, fish and other natural ingredients. In other words, I haven’t seen any reports that Vitaminwater is a superfood and actually really good for you.

But is there really some list of magical foods that will save you from certain death? Probably not.

Obviously nutrients are important, but large doses of them from either food or supplements are almost never associated with added benefits. That is because the way our body deals with micronutrients is not linear (more does not mean better). Instead there is typically an ideal dose range for a given nutrient where too little is bad and too much is also bad, but any reasonable quantity is pretty darn good. Think of Goldilocks finding the perfect porridge temperature and bed softness. In normal ranges your nutrient levels will be just right, freeing you to continue snooping around strangers’ homes (or whatever).

Though it is hard to overdose on whole foods, it is possible. But more important, eating a lot of one kind of food almost certainly won’t give you any health advantage. If you’re eating something that means you aren’t eating something else, and in Western cultures what we’re really lacking is nutrient diversity.

The vast majority of our diets are made up of the same handful of foods that we eat over and over again. Even people who make legitimate efforts to eat healthy have rather limited diets if their fruit and vegetable purchases come from standard supermarkets. Throwing blueberries in there every now and then can only add so much.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of important nutrients (vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) in our diets, and the reality is we probably don’t know what all of them are, let alone what functions they serve in our bodies. The problem gets even more complex when you factor in the context of our genes, environment and other foods we consume.

Each natural food contributes its own unique blend of nutrients. If you want to get the most from your diet, you’re much better off focusing on dietary diversity rather than loading up on the top 10 foods some magazine says you should eat more of.

All that being said, it does make me happy when lowly, forgotten vegetables like beets and lima beans get featured in the New York Times. Vegetables need all the press they can get, and it’s true that most people don’t eat enough vegetables period. Any article that encourages you to try a new kind of food is a good thing.

Keep in mind that if you see a food labeled “super” you should take it with a grain of salt, because the reality is that all natural foods are superfoods. The ones that make the news just happen to be those that some reporter decided to shine her spotlight on for the time being. Who knows what vegetable will land in the spotlight tomorrow?

What are your favorite unsung superfoods?

Originally published August 11, 2010.

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31 Responses to “The Myth Of Superfoods”

  1. KALE! I love kale! I also swear that I feel better when I eat it once or twice a week. It’s also loaded with vitamins.

  2. Natalie says:

    @Tonyne I really need to start eating more kale! I love it when I do cook it, I just don’t cook it enough. I’ve noticed also that people who are on raw food diets eat tons of the stuff, so that must say something too!

    My favorite superfood is beets! I love the texture, flavor, and everything else about them. When I eat them, my body feels like it’s been starved for something and is finally getting it!

    • Darya Pino says:

      I like your description of beets :) Kale is amazing, I eat tons of it too. It’s delicious, easy to cook and super cheap. For some reason it always impresses people too. Just a little olive oil, salt and garlic and you’re good to go. Kale chips are great at parties!

  3. Michael Sierchio says:

    Let’s take blueberries. If pigment and flavor are what we’re after, then cultivated varieties – even organic – are grossly inferior to wild, probably by an order of magnitude! Just make sure you read that frozen package to be certain they aren’t from China. ;-)

  4. Stephen Wise says:

    Yeah, it’s great when people discover the value of pure dark chocolate for the first time. Then the next few weeks they’ve got an excuse that supports them eating exorbitant amounts of chocolate.

  5. Jen Bolduc says:

    It’s true!!! Vegetables DO need all the press they can get. Especially Kale because it’s sooo easy and good. Love beets too but refuse to prepare them, hate the mess :(

  6. Alex says:

    So we shouldn’t all be eating goji berries, mangosteen, acai, aloe vera, wheatgrass, etc.?

    • George G. says:

      No. You need to balance your toxins. Every single natural thing we can ingest has beneficial components and potentially harmful ones. Eating seasonally usually balances this. Plus the foods you listed don’t meet all of the body’s needs.

  7. Jane says:

    I thought I did eat a varied diet, but I suppose I eat the same ingredients, just prepared in different ways!

  8. Dave says:

    Good column! It is laughable how some fruit or berry (seems to always be a fruit, good luck getting big time hype from a non sweet vegetable) is deemed the latest superfood, and it has its story how it is eaten daily by these monks who live 100 years, or from deep in the Amazon. The next day you go to your store and you find a 100 different companies selling a pasteurized extract of said berry for only $19.99 for a 10 oz. bottle.

    There will always be a market people looking for the latest and greatest to live long and lose 100 pounds, but I am glad to see lots of folks just promoting quality and simplicity without a lot of guidelines.

    • George G. says:

      Look at the amount of money being made by companies throwing “organic” on their labels, even though the Gov has some loose terms for what “organic” really is. It’s insane!

  9. Peggy says:

    Loved this article! Definitely agree that the term “superfoods” is getting way too commercialized. We joined a CSA this year and I consider everything in it to be amazing, but I especially love the fresh peaches we get!

  10. Loved your online editions article on zucchini as a “superfood”. I have had a great zucchini crop this year so good to hear they have such nice nutritional benefits. It is easy to get in a rut of cooking the same exact meals week after week. Can’t wait for fall and soup season to start.

  11. Anna says:

    Great post — we have to remember the importance of a holistic approach to eating. We can’t get everything from a small handful of foods, we need to make sure we consume good things in moderation, eat with friends and honor the food we’re putting in our bodies!

  12. Gregg says:

    I eat spinach every morning with huevos rancheros as well as having spinach a couple times a week as a salad. There is nothing better than having fresh spinach with cannellini beans for energy that gets me through the day.
    I also believe in addition by subtraction. If you eat enough of the right foods you are losing the impact that the wrong foods have on our system.

  13. Darla says:

    Not something most Americans need to be concerned about. Besides, the only person that ever got obese from eating too many blueberries was Violet. Violet, you’re turning Violet, Violet!!

  14. Rachael B says:

    Love this article Darya! I wonder what your thoughts are on Vitamin C therapy in large dosages for cancer therapy. Proven to work, so in some cases I believe where we are super deficient these nutrients can become “super” indeed and healing!

    I bring greens with me wherever I go. Ever notice eating out it’s nearly impossible to get fresh greens on your plate? I’m close to carrying a spinach purse as an accessory.

    In response to messy beets problem, try steaming beets on very low heat until they get al dente or soft when poked w a fork. Let them cool in a plastic (or bio) bag and then rub the skin off through the bag. Take out the beets w gloves, slice thin, arrange on plate w olive oil, fresh herbs, maybe soft goat cheese, yum! Beets are worth the work, their vibrant color is therapeutic :)

  15. Tommy says:

    Interesting article but I have to admit that I don’t believe in super foods. I did grow up in the 60s on a farm in Sweden and we did eat all these “super foods” on a daily basis. We did grow and pick all kinds of berries and made jam and cordial so we would get vitamins in the winter.

    Now, I am living in Singapore and black currant, cranberries, blueberries and such are marketed as super foods who do magic to you. I still eat my lingonberry jam and cordial from Sweden and my black currant cordial. But the rest is hard to find.

    About 2 years ago I started what I consider a healthy juice diet. I drank a lot of orange juice and such to get the vitamins when I ate less. But the acid in the juice crashed my stomach and now I have to be very careful with what I eat. I guess my diet became too much one sided.

    In Sweden there are some foods that are called “functional food” and it is very much butter and sour milk that contains bacteria that are good for your stomach and digestion. But they have to be tested and approved before they get the right to call themselves that.
    Super foods seems to be more a marketing gimmick.

    • Darya Pino says:

      You clearly didn’t read the article before commenting. That’s annoying.

      • Tommy says:

        Of course I have read the article. I actually read it in 2010 in Huffington Post and then I saved a copy in a word file where I collect articles I want to read again. I read the copy and decided to go back to your website and read it again.

        I just tried to put in my five cents of experience and thoughts about super foods to support your article. But maybe that was wrong.

      • Darya Pino says:

        Sorry, your first sentence, “Interesting article but I have to admit that I don’t believe in superfoods,” sounds like you’re disagreeing with me, but the whole article is about how I don’t believe in superfoods so it sounded like you didn’t actually read it.

  16. Very true that variety is under emphasized in regards to “super foods.” I believe Dr. Heber (UCLA Center for Clinical Nutrition) has taken the best stance to date–eat according to color. Too much emphasis is placed on marketing terms such as “antioxidant” which are ABSOLUTELY MEANINGLESS. The fact is, biochemically speaking, ORAC score and health benefit have nothing to do with one another. Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s ANDI approach is definitely a good starting place. In combination with Heber’s philosophy, I believe anyone can achieve a truly healthy diet with little to no understanding of nutrition.

  17. Joe says:

    Yes, I agree that too much is made of the so-called “superfoods” cause fresh, locally grown organic food is super enough.

    That said, some food is more super than others… kale and spirulina are two that I eat daily come to mind.

    Oprah interviewed billionaire David Murdock about this topic, because he’s committed to finding the best food to eat. He has spent millions of dollars to research this, which has come up with a list of what he claims are 33 of the healthiest foods on earth.

    You can read about it in “86 Year-old Billionaire’s Recipe for Longevity” here: http://bit.ly/OA91cJ

  18. John Simms says:

    I love legumes a lot.

  19. Kari says:

    In my mom’s house we ate meat and starch. In my dad’s house we ate all the stuff from the garden my grandfather grew. (There was meat, just less of it.) When i was at home with my mom, I craved all the stuff my grandparents would serve. As a result, i don’t have to try to eat “superfoods”. Every time they announce one, it’s something I’ve loved forever.

    My favorite “superfood” is tomato. You can do so much with it and I never get tired of it. I also couldn’t get through the day without good tea.

    I love beets and am currently freezing a lot of borscht for the winter- it’s so cheery! But i would like to add radishes to the list of under-appreciated veggies. I don’t know how superfoody they are, but they’re crunchy and flavorful, and make a much better snack than many other things that are crunchy and flavorful.

  20. Chef ManCave says:

    I think we have missed an important factor here. Taste! The fact of the matter is that we can take multivitamins and get 100% of the required dosages. We can drink fiber & protein shakes. We can do everything perfectly for the nutritional requirements of our bodies BUT we lose the look and taste of a few sprouts of asparagus topped with a white cheddar cream sauce next to the lemon greek chicken with roasted garlic potatoes served with a fruity light white wine. If you ask me, all food can be called “superfood” if it is prepared and presented well. Perhaps Darya will challenge us with an article about creating a healthy meal using a Burger King whopper or something similar as the main entree.

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