Plastered across supplements, juice blends, and health websites, superfood appears to be the new standard of healthy living. Its growing prominence, and the near-superhuman capabilities it claims to ensure, make a superfood diet seem essential for anyone desiring to live a more healthful life. Even personally, I noticed an uncontrollable draw to products boasting of superfood capabilities, often choosing these products over ones that lacked flashy labeling.
Superfood emerged as a ubiquitous term I have seen applied to blueberries, salmon, and leafy greens alike. As a result, unfamiliar foods like moringa and reishi mushroom seem somehow inherently familiar. In these instances, I found myself, in some instinctual way, trusting of the positive benefits of foods that were otherwise a total mystery. With this paradox in mind, I began an inquiry into the history of superfoods, searching for a definition that would illuminate the elusive exclusivity of the term, and perhaps, provide some insight into the actual benefits behinds its super claims.
#1 Super Origins
The first recorded use of the term superfood was in association with, of all foods, bananas. According to an article published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, this first instance dated back to “the early 20th century around World War I…[when] The United Fruit Company initiated an enthusiastic advertising campaign to promote its major import of bananas.” The initial marketing strategy focused on the “practicality of bananas in the daily diet, being cheap [and] nutritious.” However, the popularity of the term superfood grew only “after being endorsed in medical journals.” Therefore, while research later backed claims of nutritional value, marketing, not medicine, is credited with creating the term “super.”
This marketing origin story foreshadows the fate of many superfoods today. The term has gained traction and trust among consumers, while the scientific studies backing the claims come almost as an afterthought. Instead of presenting the marketed foods with proven claims at the forefront, the term seems to be freely used in place of accredited research. In this respect, the definition of a superfood becomes paramount, inextricable from its assertion to be an essential aspect of healthy living.
#2 Defining Ambiguity
Defining a superfood may be easier said than done. An article published by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) states, “there is no official or legal definition of a superfood.” When asked to put forth a medical definition of superfoods, MD Melissa Stöppler writes, the term is, “non-medical…popularized in the media to refer to foods that have health-promoting properties…[or that] may have an unusually high content of antioxidants, vitamins, or other nutrients.” As Dr. Stöppler emphasizes, “it is important to note that there is no accepted medical definition of a superfood.” With no guidelines in place, then, the label can be freely applied to product packaging and used in marketing campaigns without the requirement to prove that the food is, indeed, super.
Seeking a concise definition from a dictionary has its range of variances as well. The Oxford English dictionary defines a superfood as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.” Whereas the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as a “super nutrient-dense food, loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or phytonutrients.” The amalgamation of these definitions, as suggested by the EUFIC article, is that superfoods are “foods–especially fruits and vegetables–whose nutrient content confers a health benefit above that of other foods.” This definition is broad, wide-ranging, and undoubtedly inclusive to foods that don’t boast of super capabilities. The term itself does not influence the nutritional aptitude of any food, whether or not it carries the label.
#3 A Worthy Cause
If a superfood is an unregulated marketing term used to play up the nutritional value of certain foods, its it worth seeking them out? The short answer is a resounding yes, with an important qualification. Best summarized by a CNET Health and Wellness article, “[superfoods] are not magic substances, but foods that are especially healthy for you, and there are dozens of them.” A statement from the EUFIC supports this sentiment, the distinction between the label and the science behind the food, “indeed, the science in this area [of superfoods] has demonstrated that certain components of foods and drinks may be particularly good for you.” The inference, therefore, is that while the term superfood may be a generic indicator of health benefits, and the foods promoted as such do often provide valuable nutrients, even if not as “magical” as marketers claim.
#4 Choose Your Super
When seeking out nutritionally beneficial foods, there may be certain components that provide a guideline for quality. The Mayo Clinic suggests a list of four criteria for healthy foods to meet, recommending the food meet at least three. The first two point to nutritional benefits, “good or excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients” and “high in phytonutrients and antioxidant compounds such as Vitamin A and E and beta-carotene.” Both of these criteria harken back to the definitions explored earlier and confirm the presumption that superfoods provide high-quality nutritional value to consumers.
The third criterion in the Mayo Clinic checklist presents a commonly problematic area for superfoods. It states the food should “help reduce the risk of heart disease and other health conditions.” To be most accurate, such claims require meticulous research over a period of time. Instead, superfood claims to reduce the risk of disease are often based on an isolated component of the superfood previously linked to potential risk reduction or a comparable health benefit.
For example, almonds, typically considered a superfood, contain monounsaturated fat, which, as the Mayo Clinic states, “[is] a healthier type of fat that may lower blood cholesterol levels.” Since these nutritional components are present in a range of foods, this should not be considered a true distinction between a superfood and another food with similar benefits; unless linked explicitly with the superfood in question. Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to decide whether to derive nutritional benefits from a certain superfood or another dietary source.
The final criterion in the list in short and straightforward: “readily available.” In the age of online shopping, this criterion becomes easily attainable for most, if not all, superfoods. The Mayo Clinic’s criteria for healthy foods provide a blueprint for assessing the beneficial quality of superfoods. And perhaps, in a more general sense, it encourages consumers to make their own distinctions between foods possessing superior health benefits, whether or not that food bears the illustrious superfood label.
#5 Beyond the Label
In the wake of superfood dominance in the current health market, it’s vital to consider other potentially undervalued foods. By doing so, we find that foods not labeled as ‘super’ also contain super nutrients. As noted by the EUFIC, “carrots, apples, and onions, for example, are packed with health-promoting nutrients such as beta-carotene, fiber, and the flavonoid quercetin.” Though notably less glamorous than superfoods such as açai or moringa, fruits and vegetables often considered humble kitchen staples provide their own blend of nutritional compounds that help promote a healthy mind and body.
These foods easily meet the Mayo Clinic’s fourth health food criterion, “readily available,” perhaps more so than lauded superfood heroes. Considering the other criteria put forth by the Mayo Clinic, all three pass the health food test. At the end of the day, as it turns out, a particular food does not have to be trending on social media in order to be a powerful contributor to our overall health, instead, we can simply add more natural, unprocessed foods to our diets.
Superfood is a non-medical, freely used label with origins in marketing. On the whole, superfoods are simply foods with superb nutritional value. Consider incorporating them into a whole food diet for potential health benefits. Consult with a doctor or nutritionist before making major diet changes for a personalized plan most effective for you.