Currently, there are no uniform criteria or definitions for classifying a food as a superfood. In other words, there is no such thing as Superfoods.
The term was coined for marketing purposes to influence food trends and to sell specific products (nutritious foods believed to have positive health effects), and nutritional supplements.
Although no food can provide all the nutrients our bodies need – we know some foods are healthier than others. For example, lettuce is healthier than French fries, salmon fillet is healthier than burgers, and yoghurt sauces are healthier than butter or flour sauces.
Over the years, studies have shown that healthy eating habits can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancers.
Dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean diet have shown significant health benefits and reduced risks of chronic diseases.
This article is about what qualifies a food as a superfood, what the most common superfoods are and what they do for our health and well-being.
What are Superfoods?
The term “superfood” has no precise origin, and its usage has changed noticeably over the years. In the early 21st century, it gained considerable popularity as a marketing term for foods with excellent nutritional value and health benefits.
One of the first mentions of the term ‘superfoods’ was in the book ‘SuperFoods’ by Dr. Steven G. Pratt and Kathy Matthews in 2004, which published a list of foods that were considered at the time to be highly nutritious and beneficial to health.
Although this book helped to popularise the term, it should be noted that the concept of nutritious and health-promoting foods has been around for centuries.
Over the years, the meaning of “Superfood” has expanded considerably and has become a common term in the marketing of various weight loss products, diet products and nutritional supplements.
Here are 5 common definitions of superfoods based on how the term is commonly used:
- Foods that are extremely rich in nutrients (high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants).
- Foods that are particularly beneficial to health, for example – reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
- Food with high antioxidant content, which helps fight oxidative stress and inflammatory processes in the body.
- Natural and raw or minimally processed foods (not highly refined or saturated with various additives such as preservatives, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, etc.).
- Foods that provide maximum nutrients with minimum calories.
As you can see, there are options.
In other words, almost any food, unless highly processed, can be called a superfood. 😊 And in some cases, it is also used to refer to ultra-processed products, such as many nutritional supplements.
Rely less on advertising, but read the ingredients and try to evaluate them critically.
What makes a food a superfood?
The closest definition to superfoods for me is – foods that provide maximum nutrients with minimum calories and are particularly beneficial to health.
In other words, not every healthy food is a superfood. Only products that:
- Are rich in nutrients but low in calories.
- Provide outstanding health benefits.
- These health benefits go far beyond what we would expect based on the nutritional profile of these products alone.
To ensure this, superfoods need to be rich in:
- Antioxidants – natural compounds that protect the body’s cells from damage and can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
- Minerals (calcium, potassium, iron, etc.) which play an important role in various physiological processes in the body, including enzyme function, hormone regulation and general health maintenance.
- Vitamins – organic compounds that play an essential role in various functions of the body, including metabolism, the maintenance of the immune system and overall health. It is better to take them in natural foods than in the form of supplements.
Ideally, they should also contain lots of:
- Dietary fibre, which is essential for regulating digestion and bowel movements, weight management (as it helps you feel fuller for longer) and helps lower cholesterol (reducing the risk of heart disease and helping to control glucose levels in type 2 diabetes).
- Flavonoids (also called P vitamins) – polyphenolic plant compounds found in fruits, vegetables, cocoa, tea, wine, etc.) which have anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties.
- Healthy fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that help to lower cholesterol and prevent the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Which foods can be considered as superfoods?
Most superfoods are plant-based (which could be the basis of the idea of healthiness of vegetarian diets), but the term can also be used for some fish, dairy products, eggs…
Here are some of the most popular superfoods and what makes them superfoods:
1 Dark leafy greens
It’s no surprise that salads are healthy. But instead of iceberg lettuce and other light green lettuces, it is better to choose dark leafy vegetables that are rich in vitamins A, C and E, high in vitamin K, which is good for bone health, and folate (vitamin B9), which promotes heart health.
For example, one cup of kale provides 550 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin K, more than 680 per cent of a person’s daily requirement. Turnip and other green-leaf vegetables are high in fibre and water, which help prevent constipation and promote a regular and healthy digestive tract.
Dark green leafy vegetables are also an excellent source of zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium.
Dark leafy greens also:
- Help reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Contain high amounts of carotenoids (anti-inflammatory compounds), which may protect us against some cancers.
There is a wide choice, here are some of the most popular:
- Beet greens.
- Bok choy.
- Broccoli rabe.
- Collard greens.
- Dandelion greens.
- Mustard greens.
- Swiss chard.
- Turnip greens.
Some dark green leafy greens have a bitter taste, and not everyone likes them.
You don’t have to eat them alone – add them to soups, salads, smoothies, curries… Or enjoy them as a dessert, like a creamy strawberries and greens smoothie.
Berries are very rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibre.
Berries contain flavonoids, and it is believed that they may help reduce the risk of heart attacks in women.
The high antioxidant content of berries is associated with a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and other inflammatory diseases.
When used alongside traditional medicines, berries can also effectively treat various digestive and immune disorders.
The following berries fall into the superfood category:
- Açaí berries.
- Goji berries.
- Sea Buckthorn.
- Sour cherries.
The easiest way to eat berries is, of course – to eat them. But you can also start your day with a berry smoothie, add them to healthy muffins or salads, make delicious sauces, etc.
The health benefits of berries are as versatile as their culinary uses.
Eggs have historically been controversial in the nutritional world because of their high cholesterol content.
But they remain one of the healthiest foods.
Whole eggs are rich in high-quality protein and other nutrients, including B vitamins, choline, selenium, vitamin A, iron and phosphorus.
Despite concerns about the dietary impact of eggs on cholesterol, studies show that eating 6-12 eggs a week does not increase the risk of heart disease or diabetes, and some health organisations no longer impose restrictions on egg consumption for healthy people.
In fact, some studies have shown that eating eggs can increase ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels in some people, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. However, more research is needed to say this for sure.
Legumes are a food group consisting of beans (including soya), lentils, peas, peanuts and alfalfa.
Legumes deserve to be a superfood because they are rich in plant-based proteins essential for cell renewal (which is why legumes can serve as meat substitutes for vegetarians).
Legumes are also a rich source of B vitamins, various minerals and fibre.
Studies have shown that legumes are very healthy, for example – they can improve the control of type 2 diabetes and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Regular consumption of legumes can also contribute to maintaining a healthy weight as they improve/ prolong satiety.
5 Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are rich in fibre, plant-based proteins and healthy fats.
They also contain various plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can protect against oxidative stress.
Studies have shown that eating nuts and seeds can protect against heart diseases.
The following can be considered as superfoods:
- Nuts – almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts.
- Peanuts – technically a legume, but usually considered a nut.
- Seeds – sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, linseeds, hemp seeds, Milk Thistle Seeds.
Interestingly, although nuts and seeds are calorie-dense, some kinds of nuts contribute to weight loss when included in a balanced diet.
6 Kefir and yoghurt
Kefir and natural yoghurt without additives contain protein, calcium, B vitamins, potassium and probiotics.
Kefir contains more probiotic strains than yoghurt, making it better for digestive and gut health.
Although kefir is traditionally made from cow’s milk, lactose-intolerant people usually do not have problems with it because the bacteria (probiotics) ferment the lactose.
Kefir and yoghurt have been linked to cancer prevention and boosting the immune system. The probiotics they contain can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improve digestion and have a beneficial anti-inflammatory effect.
Choose fermented dairy products without added sugar and other additives, for example – plain yoghurt or Greek yoghurt. If you want to use them as a dessert, add chopped fruit or berries yourself rather than buying ‘flavoured’ yoghurt.
7 Green tea
Green tea is a lightly caffeinated beverage with many medicinal properties.
Green tea is rich in antioxidants and polyphenolic compounds, which have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. One of the most common antioxidants in green tea is catechin epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG.
EGCG is probably responsible for green tea’s ability to protect us against chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and possibly cancer.
Studies have also shown that the combination of catechins and caffeine in green tea can also be an effective weight-loss aid for some people.
It is believed that both green and white tea can reduce stress levels. However, more research is needed to confirm the beneficial effects of green and white tea in reducing stress.
Garlic is a popular culinary ingredient for its distinctive flavour and for its medicinal properties – it has also been used in folk medicine for centuries.
Garlic is a good source of manganese, vitamin C, vitamin B6, selenium and dietary fibre.
Studies have shown its effectiveness in lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and boosting the immune system.
In addition, the sulphur-containing compounds in garlic may help prevent the development of some cancers.
Raw garlic is healthier than cooked garlic, but fermented black garlic, containing particularly high amounts of powerful antioxidants, is probably the healthiest.
9 Olive oil
Olive oil is one of the key elements of the Mediterranean diet.
Its main health value is its high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenolic compounds.
It also contains antioxidants such as vitamins E and K.
It should be remembered that all these “benefits” are only fully present in cold-pressed and virgin olive oil (labelled “extra virgin” and with a visible residue at the bottom of the bottle), while refined (clear) olive oil has almost none.
Ginger is used both – in cooking and folk medicine for its numerous medicinal effects.
Ginger root contains vitamin C, magnesium and potassium and antioxidants such as gingerol, which are considered the main cause of the healing effects associated with this food.
Ginger also helps regulate blood sugar levels.
Ginger can be used in soups, stews, sauces, drinks – fresh, as an oil, juice or in dried and ground form.
11 Bee pollen
Bee pollen is a mixture of flower pollen, nectar, enzymes, honey, wax and bee secretions, which, in addition to proteins, carbohydrates and fatty acids, also contains vitamins, minerals, antibiotics, antioxidants, minerals, enzymes… – about 250 active substances in total.
In other words, bee pollen is a true superfood, and its health benefits are wide-ranging.
12 Turmeric (curcumin)
Turmeric is a bright yellow spice widely used in India in both cooking and folk medicine.
The active constituent of turmeric is curcumin, which has a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect.
Studies have shown that curcumin can be effective in the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Unfortunately, curcumin is poorly absorbed by the body and therefore should be combined with fat or other spices such as black pepper in the diet.
In short – eat curries!
Salmon is a very nutritious fish. It contains healthy fats, protein, B vitamins, potassium and selenium and is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids (which the body cannot produce on its own).
Including salmon in the diet can also reduce the risk of diabetes and help maintain a healthy weight.
Don’t let anyone diminish your love for avocados, as they are not only delicious but also rich in many nutrients. It is full of healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre.
For example, one avocado contains more potassium than a banana.
Like olive oil, avocados are also high in monounsaturated fats. Avocados contain mainly oleic acid, which has been associated with a lower risk of inflammation in the body.
15 Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are rich in nutrients, including potassium, fibre, vitamins A and C…
Sweet potatoes are also a good source of carotenoids, which have strong antioxidant properties and may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
Despite their sweet taste, sweet potatoes raise blood sugar levels much less than you may expect. Studies have shown that they can even improve blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
Some of the most common varieties of edible mushrooms are button, portobello, shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms.
Although the nutritional content varies according to the type of mushroom, mushrooms contain vitamin A, potassium, fibre, and several antioxidants not found in most other foods.
Mushrooms are virtually a ‘bomb’ of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, having a very beneficial effect on our health.
Interestingly, the consumption of mushrooms is associated with a higher consumption of vegetables in general, thus contributing to a healthier diet.
Mushrooms, thanks to their unique antioxidant content, can also help to reduce inflammation and prevent the development of certain cancers.
Seaweed is the term used to describe certain nutrient-rich sea vegetables. Seaweed is a part of Asian cuisine, but thanks to its nutritional value, seaweed is becoming increasingly popular in other parts of the world.
Seaweeds contain a number of nutrients, including vitamin K, folate, iodine and fibre and are a source of unique bioactive compounds not typically found in land vegetables.
Some of these compounds may also reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Superfoods in the diet
Look at the products described as an integral part of your daily diet.
If some of them are not available, don’t make too much effort to find them.
The secret is that any dark green leafy greens or berries will give you many (if not all) of the same benefits as the more expensive products on the “Superfoods” shelf.
To ensure the highest nutrient content – buy produce in season and from local sources. Don’t underestimate the humble apple or carrot – all fruit and vegetables are actually superfoods.
If you replace refined/ultra-processed foods with wholesome foods – your health will improve significantly.
- Pay attention to the colour of your food – if it’s all brown or grey, it’s most likely low in antioxidants. To increase antioxidants – add vegetables, fruits and berries of different colours such as cabbage, beetroot, blueberries…
- Add chopped greens to soups and potatoes.
- Eat oily fish like salmon, sardines, anchovies… at least a couple of times a week.
- Add berries to breakfast cereals, salads and bakery products.
- Make sure you have vegetables or fruit at every meal.
- Use turmeric, cumin, oregano, ginger, cloves and cinnamon as spices to improve the antioxidant content of your food.
- Use vegetables, whole fruit, nuts and seeds as snacks – especially Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and dried fruits (without sugar and salt).
Taking “superfoods” as nutritional supplements is not the same as getting nutrients from real foods.
Many food supplements contain ingredients that can cause strong biological effects on the body and/or interact with medicines. Taking dietary supplements can cause vitamin or mineral toxicity, affect recovery from surgery and cause other side effects.
Although many foods could be described as superfoods, it is important to understand that no one food can ensure good health and prevent all diseases.
The term “superfood” is unlikely to disappear, as it is very “thankful” for promoting different products.
- The label “Superfood” does not mean anything in itself – read the ingredients and compare them with the nutritional content of wholesome foods;
- Getting nutrients from supplements is not the same as getting them from real food;
- A healthy diet means including all food groups in your diet while paying attention to calorie intake;
- Try to separate your body’s needs from fad diets and the “latest diet trends”.
Including the foods mentioned in this article in your daily diet can benefit your overall health and prevent some chronic diseases.
Good health and well-being are best maintained by eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods every day.
That is what I wish for you!
Eat a varied (balanced) diet, exercise and – be healthy!
Tree nut phytochemicals: composition, antioxidant capacity, bioactivity, impact factors. A systematic review of almonds, Brazils, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts
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