Are superfoods really super?

With all the media hype going on with superfoods, I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Often touted as miracle foods that can ward off a plethora of daunting diseases, superfoods have created a real buzz in the health community. But what distinguishes a superfood from another food? Read on to find out.

So what exactly is a superfood1?

To be considered as, well, ‘super’, a food needs to satisfy the following characteristics:

  • Nutrient dense – Superfoods usually have an impressive résumé compared to other foods when it comes to vitamins, trace minerals, phytonutrients or fatty acids like omega-3s. They are considered to have a high ‘nutrient density’; that is a small portion of the food is loaded with nutrients but is low in calories.
  • High ORAC value – ‘ORAC’ stands for Oxygen radical absorbance capacity, which is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities of food samples in vitro.
  • Free from toxins – For a superfood to be able to offer some kind of protection against diseases, it has to be a chemical-free, pesticide-free, hormone-free, clean food.
  • It has to be a food – Before you go all ‘Who would’ve known?’ on me, what I meant is: a superfood is neither a pill nor a supplement powder. It has to be a whole food to maximize nutrient absorption.

There’s nothing scientific or technical with the term ‘superfood’

Researchers don’t use the term ‘superfood’; search PubMed if you want and you’ll notice that this repository of most peer-reviewed biomedical journal articles will yield only three studies. The term is merely a marketing strategy to get consumers to spend more – food is everywhere but there’s just so much we can eat, which means that, to boost sales, food industry marketers have to make their product stand out.

However, some foods do come with a host of health benefits:

  • Barley – Rich in phytochemicals, minerals and fiber, barley can help keep your blood glucose levels steady2 and reduce your risks of heart disease3 and cancer4.
  • Flaxseed – This versatile grain, which is a terrific source of minerals, omega-3s, antioxidants and fiber, has been shown to protect against heart diseases5 and some cancers6.
  • Strawberries – These delicious berries are packed with antioxidants, vitamin C, folate and potassium making them powerful ‘combatants’ in the war against inflammation, cancer and heart disease7.
  • Sweet potatoes – These starchy veggies can improve insulin resistance7, cognitive function7 and decrease risks of kidney cancer8.


Things you need to know before purchasing superfoods


  • Unless you’ve got extra cash to spend, there’s really no need to buy exotic superfoods at $19.99 per ounce! It’s true that acai berries are jam-packed with antioxidants but so are kiwis, blueberries and strawberries.


  • Has your superfood crossed the oceans or the country to reach your grocery store or health food shop? Yes? Then, be aware that the longer the trip, the more potential for damage and the greater the nutrient losses9. Instead go local – you’ll also be helping to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases!


  • So you’ve decided to purchase quinoa? Good for you: this pseudo-cereal contains all the essential amino acids and lots of minerals. But do you know how to prepare it? Or how to store it? If not, chances are this expensive superfood may go to waste.


  • Some superfoods like wheatgrass and goji berries sound more extraordinary than they really are but that’s only because they’re sold in a concentrated form – remove the water and you’re left with more nutrients per unit volume.


  • Not all superfoods come from pristine regions (although the packaging may incline you to think so). Heard of Navitas’ ‘Himalayan goji berries’? Well, they’re from China, 10 while there’s nothing wrong with that, it just wouldn’t sound so enticing if they were called Navitas’ ‘Chinese goji berries’, would it?


So, yes there are two categories of superfoods:

  1. 1.   Those with a mystical aurora (and weird names)

I’m talking about maca powder, goji berries, chia seeds, spirulina, acai berries, mangosteen and all the other superfoods that come packed with traditions of some ancient civilization.


Sure the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs revered chia seeds because of their incredible medical and strength-boosting properties. But they consumed the unprocessed seeds straight from the chia plants.


So, next time you see ‘The ancient wisdom of the Mayas ’ or ‘The energy choice of Aztec warriors’ sprawled over the front of a food package, keep in mind that the food industry is just trying to sell their stuff by inciting you to create an emotional rapport with that product. In a modern world that has increased loneliness and isolation, this marketing strategy can make many people feel like they’re connecting to some great ancient civilization.


Remember that, unless you live in the countries where these foods come from, you’ll only be consuming exorbitantly priced (and most probably highly processed) foods with a very low ORAC score.


  1. 2.   Common foods

You’ll find these superfoods in the produce section or bulk food aisles of your local grocery store and perhaps your garden. Not very glamorous, but they may contain more nutrients than the exotic ones from … China!


Don’t be fooled by these:

  • Superfood juices: Buying noni, coconut or pomegranate fruit juice? Check the ingredient list and nutrient label for added sugar. And be aware of products labeled as punches, blends, cocktails, ‘drinks’ or ‘beverages’ – they’re unlikely to be 100% pure. Also, try drinking the real thing first (for example make your own pomegranate juice or buy a coconut and drink its liquid), then you’ll have a fair idea that these juices aren’t the real deal by far.


  • Blueberry or cherry sodas: Although blueberries and cherries are rich in antioxidants, adding them to sugar (or artificial sweetener) laden drinks doesn’t make the sodas healthier. They’re just there to influence your purchase.


  • Processed foods with added superfruits: See this raspberry cookie? The minimal health benefits of the three tiny pieces of berries in the cookie are completely annulled by the trans fats and heaps of sugar and refined flour the cookie contains.


If you want to get the most bang for your buck, forget exotic superfoods and simply include more fresh, local fruits and veggies in your diet.



  1. Rubin, J. (2012). What does ‘superfood’ actually mean? ExtraordinaryHealth, Volume15, 26-27.


  1. Behall KM, Scholfield DJ, Hallfrisch JG, Liljeberg-Elmstahl HG. (2006) Consumption of both resistant starch and beta-glucan improves postprandial plasma glucose and insulin in women. Diabetes Care.;29(5):976-81.


  1. Keenan JM, Goulson M, Shamliyan T, et al. (2007) The effects of concentrated barley beta-glucan on blood lipids in a population of hypercholesterolaemic men and women. Br J Nutr.; 97(6):1162-8.


  1. Thompson LU. (1998) Experimental studies on lignans and cancer. Baillieres Clin Endocrinol Metab. ;12(4):691-705.


  1. Psota TL, Gebauer SK, Kris-Etherton P. (2006) Dietary omega-3 fatty acid intake and cardiovascular risk. Am J Cardiol. 21; 98(4A):3i-18i.


  1. Donaldson MS. (2004) Nutrition and cancer: a review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet. Nutr J. 20; 3:19.


  1. Grotto D. (2007) 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. New York, New York: Bantam; 313-6.


  1. Washio M, Mori M, Sakauchi F, et al. (2005) Risk Factors for kidney cancer in a Japanese population: findings from the JACC study. J Epidemiol.; 15 Suppl 2:S203-11.


  1. Watada AF, Ko WP, Minott DA. (1996) Factors affecting quality of fresh-cut horticultural products. Postharvest Bio Technol.; 9: 115–125.


  1. Retrieved from on 31/10/13
Are superfoods really super? was last modified: June 21st, 2020 by the team
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