So-called superfoods have skyrocketed to prominence in recent years. Juice shops boast of cold-pressed superfood smoothies. Grocery store aisles are dotted with boxes and bags advertising superfoods within. Coffee shops are even in on the superfood trend, promoting the benefits of antioxidant-rich beans, or milks and creamers made from coconuts, oats and almonds.
But the reason for superfoods' sudden pervasiveness across so many parts of our lives has little to do with any newfound life-sustaining nutritional prowess. Superfoods are, like so many other ultimately vacuous identifiers, largely marketing speak.
The "superfood" designation isn’t governed by any sort of certifying body or organization, the way labels like non-GMO or USDA Organic are. A cursory Googling of the word turns up hundreds of definitions. What most people professing superfood expertise can agree on is that these foods have exceptional nutritional value.
An assortment of "superfoods" — Photo courtesy of E+ / carlosgaw
Whether that's because a food possesses a multitude of beneficial components, or because it excels at just one thing is less clear. For instance, quinoa’s high levels of fiber, protein, iron and magnesium make it a superfood. But the singular presence of Omega-3 in salmon cements the fish’s superfood status.
Chocolate, rich in flavonoids, is a superfood. But then again, vanilla, bountiful in magnesium, potassium, calcium and manganese, is one as well. Not to be left out, the ability of strawberries to check cholesterol make it a superfood, too.
Grapefruit? A superfood thanks to its vitamin C content and high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC). Onions? Also a superfood, due to their ability to trigger glutathione production. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and potatoes? Superfood, superfood and superfood.
Swiss cheese is allegedly a superfood, thanks to its probiotics. Red wine is a superfood, because of its quercetin and resveratrol antioxidant compounds. There are claims that even beer – BEER – is a superfood, thanks to high vitamin, mineral and fiber content.
Google just about any food along with the word superfood, and you’re bound to come up with all manner of articles touting the incredible nutritional properties of the food in question.
If you squint your eyes just a bit and begin vetting the credentials of the publications making these claims though, you often see that they are the product of marketing, tourism, or other commercial interests with a vested interest in promoting their singular superfood.
When everything is a superfood, nothing can be one. Perhaps that's why a growing body of scientists argue that there is no such thing as a superfood at all.
A collection of nutritious foods — Photo courtesy of iStock / fcafotodigital
Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton told attendees of the 2016 BBC Future World-Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney, "The superfoods fad is yet another sign of the never-ending search for a magic bullet to solve problems. Such thinking, which ignores the multi-factorial nature of diet-related health problems, is probably the greatest myth."
Superfood, in essence, has become just another label smacked onto products to make them sell. And because nobody is in charge or making sure foods qualify as superfoods, any and every farmer and food manufacturer is free to use the term with gusto.
All of the evidence that springs up when you search for, say, "jalapeño superfood" isn’t proof of the pepper’s super status. It’s proof that the pepper is a food. Food, rich with nourishing properties, capable of sustaining life when consumed in tandem with all sorts of other foods.
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Are some foods more dense in nutrients than others? Of course. But then again, the lack of density in some foods is what has relegated them to the super list. Turkey is considered a superfood precisely because it lacks much of the richness inherent in beef. But then again, bison is a superfood because it contains even more protein, iron and zinc than lean beef.
Not to be outdone, an abundance of cell-protecting zinc makes lobster a superfood, too. Nearly every food that we put in our body, whether super or not, contains beneficial qualities.
The next time you’re in line waiting on your blueberry-acai superfood smoothie, remember that phytochemical-rich blueberries are also incredibly high in sugar. Those fiber-rich chia superfood seeds you’ve been adding to your yogurt can likewise cause gastrointestinal issues like constipation and diarrhea.
No food, super or not, can save us from ourselves. In matters of diet, like most everything else, just use your best judgment and err on the side of common sense.