In the past decade or so, “superfoods” have become quite trendy, leading to a meteoric rise in demand for previously obscure foods like quinoa, kale and acai berries. Kale production, for instance, increased by 60 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and it is still increasing in popularity, finding its way into everything from chips to pasta sauce to baby food.
And even more common foods like oatmeal, salmon and blueberries that also fall into the supposed category of superfood are on the rise. Per capita blueberry consumption increased by almost 50 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to the North American Blueberry Council. Some new-wave superfoods to watch out for in 2018 include watermelon seeds, tiger nuts and protein powder made from crickets. But is the whole superfoods trend just a vapid, gimmicky concept, or do some foods really deserve to be in Clark Kent’s lunchbox?
Kale, seaweed and acai berries get their “super” tag due to high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Quinoa and oatmeal are often touted for their combination of protein, energy-sustaining complex carbohydrates and fiber. And foods like salmon, walnuts and almonds are revered because of their protein content and healthy unsaturated fats like omega-3s.
But if the term “superfood” suggests any ability to override other dietary sins, this is far from the case. Most nutrition professionals choose not to use the word at all, and consider the concept overly reductive and misleading. For instance, kale gets a lot more superfood shine than spinach, but they have similar levels of iron, fiber, calories and protein. Blueberries also get more nutritional notoriety than other berries, but raspberries, for instance, contain more than twice as much fiber and vitamin C. Almonds and walnuts get plenty of superfood love as well, but all nuts are fairly similar nutritionally and are good sources of protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Yet another tricky part about superfoods is that the scientific evidence supporting many of their health benefits is often not as robust as one might think. Many studies of human nutrition rely on longitudinal data, where people self-report what they eat over time and then researchers analyze what trends and health outcomes they observe. Not only does data like this rely on self-reporting that is often inaccurate, but it also doesn’t lend itself to cause-and-effect conclusions, making it hard to isolate the impact of a single food.
One such study published in 2013 in the journal Circulation looked at dietary data from more than 93,000 middle-aged women, and found that participants who consumed three or more servings of blueberries and strawberries per week (both of which are rich in a type of antioxidant called anthocyanins) had a 32 percent lower risk of heart attack than those who consumed berries once a month or less. But this data does not prove that blueberries and strawberries lower the risk of heart attack, because the finding was only a correlation, and potentially many other dietary and lifestyle factors could have been involved.
Many of superfoods’ purported health benefits are also based off studies either done on animals or in vitro. For example, a study published in 2014 in Nature Nanotechnology found that an anticancer protein combined with EGCG (a major antioxidant compound in green tea which is often labeled a superfood) had significantly better cancer-fighting properties than the protein alone. But their experiments were conducted in test tubes and in mice, weakening the strength and scope of the data and requiring more follow-up research.
Overall, nutrition experts agree that a healthy diet should be comprised primarily of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes and lean proteins. Basically, all of these foods can be thought of as superfoods because they truly can benefit our health. Good nutrition is the ultimate preventative medicine, and most nutritionists put it simply: Eat a rainbow. If it’s a plant, it’s likely pretty super, and a diverse, plant-filled diet ensures a vast array of nutrients. A healthy diet is about everything one eats and drinks over time, taken in totality.