What’s a superfood?

A superfood is any food that’s touted for its high nutritional quality and its extraordinary health benefits. They’re said to cure illnesses, increase brain function, heal injuries, and even improve eyesight. Superfoods are ultra-trendy and ever-changing. According to Cooking Light, the most popular superfoods in 2019 include ancient grains, avocados, and fermented products (looking at you, kombucha).

Can superfoods cure cancer?

Countless people claim that a rich, nutritional diet was the long-awaited solution to their illness. Despite their insistence, however, there’s no evidence that superfoods are enough to cure cancer.

“Superfoods, per se, do not have enough scientific evidence and research to support many of the claims that… [superfoods have] a role in reducing the risk or promoting survivorship for a particular kind of cancer,” says nutritionist Stacy Kennedy. “But if we peel that term away and we start to see these items as a new opportunity for international fruits and vegetables, then maybe we can start to build a case about how they can help us achieve that well-balanced diet that is recommended by the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, etc.”

So, are superfoods a cancer cure? Maybe not. Can they help with prevention? Maybe so. What superfoods can achieve is a balanced diet and, by consequence, a stronger, healthier you.

But what about other, less severe illnesses? Will superfoods cure those? Possibly, but you won’t hear that from a doctor. Superfoods aren’t officially recognized as “super” by the medical industry. The use of the term isn’t regulated, either. The FDA, in fact, bars superfood companies from making disease prevention claims. If you come across a product that seems too good to be true…it probably is.

All about antioxidants

You’ve heard the term, but what does it mean, exactly? Simply put, antioxidants protect your cells from harm. Antioxidants bind to free radicals, super-reactive compounds, to prevent cell damage and destruction. Foods rich in Vitamins A, C, and E have particularly strong antioxidative properties. This includes superfoods like grapes, pomegranates, acai berries, and kale.

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, antioxidants might not be as powerful as everyone seems to think. The Harvard School of Public Health notes that previous studies “offer little support that taking vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, or other single antioxidants provides substantial protection against heart disease, cancer, or other chronic conditions.” Superfoods won’t do you harm, but they may not do that much good, either.

superfood
Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood

Superfoods aren’t always healthier

Some superfoods aren’t that super at all. Actually, many of them are just as nutritious as run-of-the-mill fruits and veggies. Blueberries, for example, have a very similar nutritional profile to trendy choices like goji and açaí berries. Millet has a similar nutritional profile to quinoa. Chickpeas are just as nutritious as almonds. Next time you’re at the store, stick to the basics. Your wallet will thank you for it.

In some cases, superfoods may even be less nutritious than the everyday stuff. Take green juice, for instance. Those brightly-colored smoothies might look appetizing — with exotic flavors and mix-ins to boot — but they aren’t always that good for you.

Often times, juices and smoothies are filled with sugar. Some, in fact, contain up to 42 grams of the sweet stuff. Comparatively, a full can of Coca Cola has 39 grams. Talk about misleading packaging. “But it’s natural fruit sugar,” you may be saying, “it’s not the same thing at all.” While natural fruit sugars are a much healthier alternative to processed cane sugar, too much can also lead to weight gain and other health problems. Always read the label when considering these options.

Superfoods limit other intake

No matter how healthy a type of food, a diverse intake of nutrients is a non-negotiable aspect of a proper diet. Sure, Açaí bowls are delicious, but eating them day in and day out minimizes their positive qualities.

Our bodies rely on different vitamins and minerals for different functions. Each nutrient plays a key role — without it, your body can’t function at its highest possible level. Superfoods with high nutrient density are definitely good for you, but they can only get you so far. Don’t think of them as a holy grail cure — think of them as a powerful addition to your diet, not an end-all-be-all solution. Be sure to supplement superfood consumption with other sources of carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

Personal trainer and nutrition expert Lindsey Green says, “For me, I take a primal approach to my own diet and also when educating others on nutrition because it takes away a lot of the complexities associated with eating healthy.”

Green says, “I still (surprisingly) come across a lot of people who are afraid to eat fat. Somehow, people believe that eating less fat will aid them in losing body fat. The truth is, it’s doing the exact opposite. Fats help us balance the hormones in our body.”

Superfoods are designed to sell

“Superfood” has become an inescapable buzzword, and it isn’t hard to figure out why — it’s a word that sells. A trip to your local health food store will reveal hundreds of products that boast about miraculous qualities.

Superfood companies are businesses just like any other. They do everything they can to sell, sell, sell. They know that bragging about vitality will appeal to your inner health nut. They know that food claiming to “prevent diseases” will draw your eye. These companies are able to get into the minds of consumers and prey on their insecurities. That’s not to say superfood products don’t have nutritional value — they do — just not as much as you’re led to believe. A label is just another advertisement, no matter how “informative” it may seem.

The bottom line

When it comes down to it, superfoods aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. The term doesn’t have a medical basis and evidence of superfoods’ healing properties is shaky. Should you skip them altogether, though? No! Superfoods may not have superpowers, but they’re still a cut above many things at the grocery store. They’re extremely nutrient-dense and can be great sources of calcium, protein, vitamin C, fiber, iron, and so much more. The next time that yummy pomegranate juice catches your eye, go ahead and grab it — just be sure to manage your expectations and consume a balanced diet.

“The best and easiest way to make sure you’re eating healthy is asking if the food you’re eating is made in a factory or if it grew out of the ground or was raised in a good environment. From there, just look at your plate to make sure you’ve got all the components needed to optimize your health – quality protein, good fats, and fresh vegetables,” states Green.