Are ‘superfoods’ really super?

by Naomi Tupper on August 30, 2013 · 0 comments

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We are often advised to eat more of certain foods for the benefit of our health, but is there any evidence behind claims that certain foods are ‘super’ or is it in fact an unsubstantiated way to market certain products?

Why are foods given ‘super’ status?

Many foods are referred to as ‘super’ by the media and even some health professionals.  However, the EU has banned the use of the term on packaging and there is no clear definition as to what exactly a superfood is.

The theory that certain foods offer more health benefits, such as reducing the risk of chronic disease, is exploited by food manufacturers to increase sales of the product, and whilst it may be backed my some evidence, this is often relatively weak.

Foods that are commonly referred to as ‘super’ include foods that have high contents of antioxidants such as broccoli and berries or those that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as mackerel.  There are also many new and more unusual products such as goji berries appearing on the market with huge health claims and a price tag to match.

Is there evidence to back super foods?

The evidence that gives rise to superfood status is often not representative of the way we consume the food.  For example garlic is thought to help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, however, this theory is based on laboratory evidence where doses are equivalent of up to 28 cloves per day, which is obviously unrealistic in everyday life.

Similarly, there are studies showing that certain antioxidants found in so called superfoods do protect from harmful free radicals and may therefore offer some protection against cancer and other diseases, however, there is also some evidence that in high levels antioxidants may cause harm.

Recent research into the validity of the claims made about superfoods has also suggested that we ought not to put our faith in single food products for health.  London researchers found that whilst foods such as blueberries and broccoli do contain high levels of the antioxidants they are claimed to, it is possible that these beneficial compounds never actually make it past the gut in the digestion process.

Under laboratory conditions, there is no doubt that these types of antioxidants are effective, however, when it comes to how they function in the human body, whilst there may be a local effect in the gut, the overall effect on the body may not be significant.

There is no evidence to suggest that a single food can be a miracle cure or preventative measure for cancer, heart disease or diabetes, as much as we would like it to be the case.  Advice about what is healthy and what is harmful for us is constantly changing with on-going research and it is quite possible that the superfoods of the past may not be considered to be quite so super later on.

Many studies into the effects of superfoods are small, animal based or with end-points that are not reflective of the human lifespan, and hence are not necessarily reliable.  There are often also a number of confounding factors that may skew results, which are not always taken into account in statistics.

When it comes to health, there are some many contributing factors that it is very difficult to control them completely and say for sure that there is one causative or preventative factor at play.

In addition to the fact that superfoods may not be supported by evidence, there is also the consideration that any unprocessed food that offers a nutritional benefit to the body could really be considered a superfood.

All fruit and vegetables are high in vitamins and antioxidants and are beneficial for the body, and whilst certain types may be higher in certain antioxidants, if you eat a wide range of these types of foods, there is no need to focus on a particular one to get the desired effects.

The importance of a balanced, healthy diet.

Instead of looking at individual foods as a way to avoid disease, it is beneficial to look at your overall diet as a way to live a long and healthy life.  Even if you eat truckloads of superfoods, if you do not eat a healthy diet the rest of the time, you will be doing your body damage that even superfoods do not have the power to reverse.

Instead, it is wise to choose a healthy balanced diet, rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, such as the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to increased life span and reduction in disease risk.

This type of diet does not focus on a couple of superfoods for its benefits, but instead relies on a balanced range of foods including lots of fruit and vegetables, olive oil, red wine, whole grains, oily fish and low levels of red meat and processed foods.

References used in this article

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Naomi Tupper
About the author

Naomi studied Nutrition and Dietetics and Biotechnology. She is a certified dietician with experience in Type 2 diabetes and menu planning for weight loss. Naomi is a contributor for our Diet and Nutrition sections. You can connect with her on Facebook and Google+

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