The word superfood gets thrown around a lot to describe everything from cauliflower to bee pollen. But most of us don't stop to think about what actually makes something a superfood and whether every food labeled as such deserves the hype.
In true Greatist fashion, we're cutting through the crap to get to the bottom of the nutritional buzzword—and calling out the foods that deserve their superfood status and those that are overrated.
What Is a Superfood?
While the term technically dates back to 1915 (when it was first used to describe wine), superfoods didn't become popular till the 90s, when nutraceuticals (food-based products that claim to improve your health, like supplements) hit the market and the idea of food as medicine went mainstream.
Today superfood generally implies a nutritionally dense food that contains antioxidants (think blueberries and spinach). But since there is no formal, agreed-upon definition, it's also become an overused marketing term. In fact, the EU banned the word from food labels unless manufacturers are able to prove their health claims.
“The bottom line is that we just want people to eat nutrient-dense foods,” says Lauren Pincus, R.D.N, owner of Nutrition Starring You. Calling something a superfood is problematic, Pincus says, because it either places too much emphasis on the claim or it tricks people into thinking they can eat unlimited quantities.
Foods That Are Worth the Hype
“You’re getting a whole grain, and that’s very nutritious,” Pincus says. “Plus oats have soluble fiber, and that helps to lower cholesterol.” A recent study even found that eating more whole grains may reduce the risk of premature death. And though oats might sound a little dull compared to more exotic offerings (we’ll get to one in a second), there are plenty of ways you can dress them up. Just check out these oatmeal and overnight oats recipes that make breakfast a breeze.
Sor-what? “Sorghum is in the grass family, and it’s an up-and-coming grain,” says Martha McKittrick, R.D.N. McKittrick suggests using sorghum the next time you would normally reach for quinoa, since it's high in minerals and protein. Sorghum flour also has a neutral taste, making it a perfect stand-in for wheat. Bonus? You can pop it like popcorn.
“People might think only vegans eat tofu, but it can be used in so many different ways,” Pincus says. The high-protein base takes on the flavors it's paired with, adding bulk without tons of calories. Pincus suggests using soft tofu in your morning smoothie, nondairy desserts, or salad dressings.
Because soy (from which tofu is made) contains estrogen-like compounds, some believed it could raise the risk for hormone-related cancers. However, now we know that's not true. There's lots of ongoing research about soy, but recent studies (see here, here, here, and here) indicate it may lower the risk of breast cancer in women. Adolescent and adult soy food intake and breast cancer risk: results from the Shanghai Women's Health Study. Lee SA, Shu XO, Li H. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2009, Apr.;89(6):1938-3207.
“Coffee gets a bad rap,” McKittrick says. Assuming you’re not loading it up with sugar and cream, studies show it might help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and liver damage, McKittrick says. Plus, it’s a rich source of antioxidants. (In fact, coffee is the No. 1 source of antioxidants in most Americans' diets.) So go ahead and enjoy your morning cup.
As if you needed another reason to eat the wonderleaf! Kale is packed with vitamins A, C, and K—plus a slew of other minerals and fiber. Other nutrients in kale support your immune system, heart, and eye health, while its antioxidants can help prevent cell damage and protect against cancer. Though throwing it into a salad is probably the easiest, kale also makes a hearty side dish and even a healthier chip alternative.
Foods That Are Overrated
“The coconut oil thing makes me crazy!” Pincus says. “It's the best PR campaign I’ve ever seen.” While there might be a crazy number of ways to use the famous oil, eating gobs of it daily shouldn’t be one of them.
Why? Coconut oil is high in calories (about 121 per tablespoon) and saturated fat. Some studies have shown that coconut oil may help lower lipid profiles (cholesterol and triglycerides) in post-menopausal women, but the jury is still out. McKittrick also notes that while the research around saturated fat is changing, it’s still best to avoid large quantities of it based on what we know right now. Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: the discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice. Hoenselaar R. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 2012, Jun.;28(2):1873-1244." data-widget="linkref When it comes to coconut oil, limit yourself to a teaspoon or less. “If you like the way it tastes, have a little,” McKittrick says, “But it might not help with a bunch of health conditions.”
Once a sweetener darling loved for its low-glycemic index rating, agave has fallen from grace. While it does contain some antioxidants, there aren’t enough to give you any health benefits.
“Maple syrup is a better choice,” McKittrick says, adding that the amount of phytochemicals in maple syrup could have potential health benefits. Just remember: It’s still an added sugar, so use it sparingly, McKittrick says.
Goji berries are the poster child for hip, exotic health foods. But since they're dried, the calories and sugar can add up quickly, McKittrick says. And despite claims that the little red berries can help with weight loss, diabetes, high blood pressure, and myriad other health problems, there is insufficient evidence to support any of these claims. But they are high in one type of antioxidant, vitamin A, and copper, so if you enjoy the flavor, go ahead and eat them (in moderation, of course). Identification and quantification of zeaxanthin esters in plants using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. Weller P, Breithaupt DE. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2004, Jan.;51(24):0021-8561. Just don’t expect any life-altering results.
So what should you do the next time a superfood hits your Instagram feed? “I would ask, 'Where did you hear about it?'” McKittrick says. “Be skeptical. No food is perfect, and everything you eat should fit into a balanced diet.” She suggests looking to reputable websites (ahem, ahem) when searching for nutrition information or checking the validity of health claims. Use sites that end in .edu or check the National Institutes of Health.
“I’d also look for any negative health aspects,” McKittrick says. For instance, kombucha (fermented tea) might be great for most, but if you have a compromised immune system or you’re pregnant, you might want to avoid it, because it could contain bacteria that’s harmful to you. The bottom line, Pincus adds, is that you need to eat a wide variety of foods daily—in all the colors fruits and veggies have to offer.
We’ve teamed up with our friends at KIND to help break down some complicated nutrition facts. KIND has even more great content about the ingredients that make for a flavorful life happening over on Medium. Follow Ingredients by clicking below and be sure to recommend the articles you love.
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