No standard criteria or legal definitions classify any food as a superfood at this time. However, most superfoods are plant-based.
In this article, we define what qualifies as a superfood, provide some common examples and their benefits, and provide tips on how to include them in the diet.
What are superfoods?
Acai berries are known to contain several different amino acids and antioxidants.
Superfoods are foods that have a very high nutritional density. This means that they provide a substantial amount of nutrients and very few calories.
Antioxidants are natural molecules that occur in certain foods. They help neutralize free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are natural byproducts of energy production that can wreak havoc on the body.
Antioxidant molecules decrease or reverse the effects of free radicals that have close links with the following health problems:
- heart disease
- respiratory diseases
- immune deficiency
- Parkinson's disease
Superfoods are not 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 as part of daily nutritional intake is great but only when consuming a healthy, balanced diet overall. Eat a "super diet" rather than to concentrate on individual foods.
Regularly eating fruits and vegetables also has strong associations 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 and increase energy levels.
They can also help maintain a healthy weight.
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.
They boast the following benefits:
- Acai berries: These are small, dark purple berries grown in South America. They contain 19 amino acids and many antioxidants.
- Blueberries: These are high in fiber, manganese, and vitamin K. Cranberries are high in a particular flavonoid that helps lower the risk of urinary tract infection.
- Goji berries: These 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.
Soybeans have a high concentration of isoflavones, a type of phytochemical. Phytochemicals are compounds that occur naturally in plants.
A few studies have shown that soy may prevent age-related memory loss. Soy isoflavones might also reduce bone loss and increase bone mineral density during menopause, as well as decreasing 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, have beneficial anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties.
A study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology examined 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 reduced stress levels and that white tea had an even greater effect. Larger studies are necessary to confirm this possible health benefit.
Green tea may also have an anti-arthritic effect by suppressing overall inflammation.
One cup of kale provides 550 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin K, equivalent to over 680 percent of a person's 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.
The component in chocolate specifically responsible for these benefits is cacao powder. Manufacturers derive this from cacao beans. Bear in mind that chocolate may have added ingredients, such as added sugar, that might 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 present 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 2013 study 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 that occurs in grapes, 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 also have effects that act against cancer.
However, more studies using human subjects are necessary before researchers can confirm the benefits beyond all doubt.
Although wine does contain antioxidants, keep in mind that eating grapes would provide the same benefit alongside additional fiber. The American Heart Association recommends that people limit alcoholic beverages to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Superfoods gaining popularity include:
- blue-green algae
- beets and beet juice
- Brazil nuts
A person can incorporate these foods into a varied healthy diet when available. However, do not overspend or search too widely trying to find them.
The secret is that any leafy green vegetable or berry in a grocery store will provide many of the same benefits an individual will find in the premium-priced superfoods.
Buy your produce in season and from local sources to ensure the highest nutrient content. Do not discount the humble apple or carrot either — all fruits and vegetables are essentially superfoods.
Replacing as many processed foods as possible with whole foods will drastically improve health.
These tips can help you get more superfoods into your diet:
- 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, including meals and snacks.
- Have a daily green or matcha tea.
- 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.
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 might also interact with other medications. Taking supplements could result in vitamin or mineral toxicity, affect recovery after surgery, and trigger 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. Only use supplements that the FDA has approved.
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, the FDA recommends choosing high-quality products that have been tested by a third party.
Find out more about individual supplement testing here.
Always check first with a health provider before starting to use a supplement.