There are no standard criteria or legal definitions to classify a food as a superfood at this time. Most superfoods are plant-based.
Antioxidants decrease or reverse the effects of free radicals that are closely linked with heart disease, cancer, arthritis, stroke, respiratory diseases, immune deficiency, emphysema, Parkinson's disease and other inflammatory or ischemic conditions.
Superfoods are not magic cure-all foods. Dietitian Penny Kris-Etherton explains:
"A lot of people have unrealistic expectations about these foods, thinking they'll be protected from chronic diseases and health problems. They may eat one or two of these nutrient-dense foods on top of a poor diet."
Including superfoods in your daily intake is great but not if you are not consuming a healthy, balanced diet overall. It is better to eat a "super diet" than to concentrate on individual foods.
Foods that are high in antioxidants and flavonoids, as many foods touted as superfoods are, have been shown to prevent coronary heart disease and cancer as well as improve immunity and decrease inflammation.
A high consumption of fruits and vegetables has long been associated with a lower risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions and overall mortality. The nutrients they contain help promote a healthy complexion, nails, and hair, increase energy levels. They can also help maintain a healthy weight.
Acai berries are known to contain several different amino acids and antioxidants.
The higher levels of flavonoids in berries have been shown to lower the risk of a heart attack. A few commonly identified superfood berries include acai berries, blueberries, raspberries, tart cherries, cranberries, and goji berries.
Acai berries are small, dark purple berries grown in South America. They contain 19 amino acids and many antioxidants.
Goji berries are a small red berry native to Asia that are high in vitamin C and E, along with many different types of flavonoids. They are frequently used in Eastern medicine to help treat diabetes and high blood pressure and maintain eye, liver, and kidney health.
A few studies have shown that soy may prevent age-related memory loss. Soy isoflavones are also known to decrease bone loss and increase bone mineral density during menopause. They have been reported to reduce menopausal symptoms.
Many foods considered to be "superfoods" are rich in color, often indicating that they are rich in antioxidants.
Tea contains few calories, helps with hydration, and is a good source of antioxidants. Catechins, potent antioxidants found primarily in green tea, are known for having beneficial anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties.
A study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology looked at the effects of green tea, white tea, and water consumption on stress levels in 18 students.
The study suggested that both green and white tea had a lowering effect on stress levels and that white tea had an even greater effect. Larger studies need to be conducted to confirm this possible health benefit.
Green tea may also have an anti-arthritic effect by suppressing overall inflammation.
Leafy greens typically identified as superfoods are kale, spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and collard greens. These foods are rich in vitamins A, C, E, K and many B vitamins. These leafy greens also contain an abundance of carotenoids, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
One cup of kale provides 550 micrograms of vitamin K, equivalent to over 680 percent of our daily needs. Kale and other leafy greens are high in fiber and water content, both of which help to prevent constipation and promote regularity and a healthy digestive tract.
Research has found that dark chocolate is high in flavonoids. Flavonoids are shown to have antioxidant activity, prevent coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer and boost the immune system.
The component in chocolate specifically responsible for these benefits is cacao powder, derived from cacao beans. Keep in mind that chocolate may have added ingredients — such as excess sugar — that could negate these benefits.
Wine and grapes
Grapes, particularly red grapes, contain healthful components such as resveratrol and quercetin.
Resveratrol, the polyphenol found in wine that made it famously "heart healthy" is found in the skins of red grapes.
A few studies have shown promise that resveratrol can protect against diabetic neuropathy and retinopathy. These are conditions caused by poorly controlled diabetes where vision is severely affected.
One study in which diabetic rats were treated with resveratrol for two weeks found that it reduced the effects of neural changes and damage associated with diabetic neuropathy.
Researchers have also found resveratrol to be beneficial for treating Alzheimer's disease, relieving hot flashes and mood swings associated with menopause, and improving blood glucose control. However, large studies using human subjects are still needed to confirm these findings.
Another flavonoid found in grapes known as quercetin is a natural anti-inflammatory that appears to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and protect against the damage caused by LDL cholesterol in animal studies. Quercetin may have the added bonus of anti-cancer effects. However, more studies are needed using human subjects before these results can be confirmed.
Although wine does contain antioxidants, keep in mind that eating grapes would provide the same benefit, along with additional fiber. The American Heart Association recommends that alcoholic beverages should be limited to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Other superfoods gaining in notoriety include spirulina, blue-green algae, garlic, wheatgrass, beets, and beet juice, turmeric, Brazil nuts, barley and shiitake mushrooms.
How to incorporate more superfoods into your diet
These foods can be incorporated into a healthy diet when available, but do not go breaking the bank or searching the globe trying to find them.
The secret is that any leafy green vegetable or berry commonly found in your grocery store will provide many of the same benefits found in the premium priced superfoods.
Buy your produce in season and from local sources to ensure the highest nutrient content. Do not discount your ordinary apple or carrot either; all fruits and vegetables should be referred to as superfoods. Keep in mind that the more processed foods you can replace with whole foods such as fruits or vegetables, the healthier you will be.
These tips can help you get more superfoods into your diet:
- Eat the rainbow! Look at the colors on your plate. Is all of your food brown or beige? Then it is likely that antioxidant levels are low. Add in foods with rich color like kale, beets and berries
- Add shredded greens to soups and stir fries
- Try replacing your beef or poultry with salmon or tofu
- Add berries to oatmeal, cereal, salads or baked goods
- Make sure you have a fruit or a vegetable every time you eat, meals and snacks included
- Have a daily green or matcha tea
- Spice it up! Make turmeric, cumin, oregano, ginger, clove, and cinnamon your go-to spices to amp up the antioxidant content of your meals
- Snack on nuts, seeds (especially Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds) and dried fruit (with no sugar or salt added).
Try these healthy and delicious recipes developed by registered dietitians:
- Acai berry bowl
- Chocolate banana smoothie
- Spinach basil pesto
- Matcha vegetable curry
- Powered-up lasagna.
Potential health risks of consuming superfoods
Taking superfoods in supplement form is not the same as getting the nutrients from the real foods.
Many supplements contain ingredients that can cause a strong biological effect on the body. Supplements can also interact with other medications. Taking supplements could result in vitamin or mineral toxicity, affect recovery after surgery and other side effects.
Tips for using supplements
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that combining or taking too many supplements can be hazardous. It is also important to use supplements that are approved by the FDA.
Tips for safe use include the following:
- Use non-commercial sites for information, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and FDA.
- Beware of claims that a product "works better than a prescription drug" or "is totally safe."
- Remember that natural does not always mean safe.
- If using supplements, it is recommended to choose high-quality products that have been tested by a third party.
You can find out more about individual supplement testing here.
Always check first with a health provider before starting to use a supplement.