What Makes Superfoods so Super?

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Superfoods get a lot of buzz, particularly in conversations around healthy eating. News outlets, particularly health and fitness publications, are frequently announcing new superfoods that offer a host of benefits such as antioxidants or helping you lose weight. The internet is filled with top 5, top 10, or even top 50 lists of superfoods you should include in your diet. However, while most of these foods are undoubtedly good for you, they aren’t necessarily better than other healthy foods, and limiting yourself to one or two superfoods to the exclusion of most others can actually be more harmful than helpful.


The term “superfood” doesn’t actually have a scientific or regulated definition. Words like “healthy” and “organic” are regulated by the US FDA, for example, and foods can only bear those labels if they fit the definition. But this is not the case with “superfood.” Similarly, scientists do not use the term in official publications, and the EU has actually banned use of the term on labels unless it is backed by credible scientific evidence.


This lack of definition doesn’t mean these foods are bad, but it does provide a way to market unfamiliar or previously unpopular foods in a way that increases demand and fetches a higher price. Foods like kale or chia seeds or quinoa do indeed have benefits such as high concentrations of vitamins and antioxidants. However, it is usually not difficult to get all the nutrients you need simply by maintaining a balanced healthy diet featuring lots of vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat.


Even some of the benefits promised by superfoods aren’t necessarily that beneficial. Antioxidants are widely held to have important health properties, but the science behind this is less solid than many people know. Over the past few years, studies have disputed these facts, and in 2011 the European Food and Safety Authority concluded that antioxidants did not actually affect “free radicals” in humans. It turns out that human bodies are generally able to deal with these threats on their own. Antioxidants do appear to have other helpful effects on the body, particularly the brain, but not to the extent they were believed to in the past.


One of the reasons nutritionists and other experts are concerned about the emphasis on “superfoods” is that focusing too extensively on them can have a negative effect on one’s diet and health. Some people believe that consuming one or two of these foods will mean that they can neglect the rest of their diet, and maintain unhealthy eating habits with a couple superfoods thrown on top. Others may consume many superfoods but ignore other foods that contain important nutrients. Each food, “super” or otherwise, contains different types and quantities of nutrients. While superfoods may be high in specific things such as iron or a specific vitamin, they can be low in others, leading people to have unbalanced diets despite eating healthy. Finally, there is in fact too much of a good thing. Nutrients are essential to our survival, but can also harm or even kill us if consumed in very high qualities. Filling one’s diet with a specific food could lead to having an unhealthy amount of one nutrient and too little of others.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with superfoods. They do indeed contain valuable nutrients and other properties, and can bring more attention to eating a balanced diet. However, it is absolutely possible to eat well and get everything you need from non-super foods, and it could be considerably less expensive as well. Another thing to consider is that some of these foods are not sustainably farmed, and their popularity sometimes also makes it harder for those who live in the countries where they are grown to access those foods, which are essential to their diets. It is therefore important to consider what you are eating and how it gets from the field to your plate.


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