What are superfoods?

With all the media hype going on with superfoods, you’ve probably heard of them. Often touted as miracle foods that can ward off a plethora of daunting diseases, superfoods have created a real buzz in the health community. But what distinguishes a superfood from another food? Read on to find out.

What is a superfood?

To be considered as, well, ‘super’, a food needs to satisfy the following characteristics:1

  • Nutrient dense. Superfoods usually have an impressive résumé compared to other foods when it comes to vitamins, trace minerals, phytonutrients or fatty acids like omega-3s. They are considered to have a high ‘nutrient density’; that is a small portion of the food is loaded with nutrients but is low in calories.
  • High ORAC value. ‘ORAC’ stands for Oxygen radical absorbance capacity, which is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities of food samples in vitro.
  • Free from toxins. For a superfood to be able to offer some kind of protection against diseases, it has to be a chemical-free, pesticide-free, hormone-free, clean food.
  • Food. It has to be a food. A superfood is neither a pill nor a supplement powder. It has to be a whole food to maximize nutrient absorption.

If you want to get the most bang for your buck, forget rare, exotic superfoods and simply include more fresh, local fruits and veggies in your diet.

You’ll find these superfoods in the produce section or bulk food aisles of your local grocery store and perhaps your garden. Not very glamorous, but they may contain more nutrients than the exotic superfoods. Foods that come with a host of health benefits include:

  • Barley. Rich in phytochemicals, minerals and fiber, barley can help keep your blood glucose levels steady, and reduce your risks of heart disease and cancer2,3,4.
  • Flaxseed. This versatile grain, which is a terrific source of minerals, omega-3s, antioxidants and fiber, has been shown to protect against heart diseases and some cancers.5,6
  • Strawberries. These delicious berries are packed with antioxidants, vitamin C, folate and potassium making them powerful ‘combatants’ in the war against inflammation, cancer and heart disease.7
  • Sweet potatoes. These starchy veggies can improve insulin resistance, cognitive function, and decrease risks of kidney cancer.7,8

Individual superfoods are not as important as overall diet. The Mediterranean Diet is not about superfoods, but takes a holistic approach. It centers on eating fresh, seasonal produce that are packed in nutrients, healthy fats, and fiber.

Criticism of the Term “Superfoods”

Superfoods is not a scientific or technical term. Scientists and health pros don’t use the term superfood. The term is more of a marketing strategy to get consumers to spend more – food is everywhere but there’s just so much we can eat, which means that, to boost sales, food industry marketers have to make their product stand out.

  • Price. Unless you’ve got extra cash to spend, there’s really no need to buy exotic superfoods at high prices!
    Solution: It’s true that acai berries are jam-packed with antioxidants but so are kiwis, blueberries and strawberries.
  • Eco rating. Has your superfood crossed the oceans or the country to reach your grocery store or health food shop? Yes? Then, be aware that the longer the trip, the more potential for damage and the greater the nutrient losses.9
    Solution: Instead go local – you’ll also be helping to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases!
  • Know-how. So you’ve decided to purchase quinoa? Good for you: this pseudo-cereal contains all the essential amino acids and lots of minerals. But do you know how to prepare it? Or how to store it? If not, chances are this expensive superfood may go to waste.
    Solution: Do research into prep before buying and trying.
  • Density. Some superfoods like wheatgrass and goji berries sound more extraordinary than they really are but that’s only because they’re sold in a concentrated form – remove the water and you’re left with more nutrients per unit volume. This makes it a easy way to get in your nutrients.
  • Origin. Not all superfoods come from pristine regions (although the packaging may incline you to think so). “Himalayan goji berries” may in fact hail from China.10 While there’s nothing wrong with that, it just wouldn’t sound quite so enticing if they were called “Chinese goji berries”?


  1. Rubin, J. (2012). What does ‘superfood’ actually mean? ExtraordinaryHealth, Volume15, 26-27.
  2. Behall KM, Scholfield DJ, Hallfrisch JG, Liljeberg-Elmstahl HG. (2006) Consumption of both resistant starch and beta-glucan improves postprandial plasma glucose and insulin in women. Diabetes Care.;29(5):976-81.
  3. Keenan JM, Goulson M, Shamliyan T, et al. (2007) The effects of concentrated barley beta-glucan on blood lipids in a population of hypercholesterolaemic men and women. Br J Nutr.; 97(6):1162-8.
  4. Thompson LU. (1998) Experimental studies on lignans and cancer. Baillieres Clin Endocrinol Metab. ;12(4):691-705.
  5. Psota TL, Gebauer SK, Kris-Etherton P. (2006) Dietary omega-3 fatty acid intake and cardiovascular risk. Am J Cardiol. 21; 98(4A):3i-18i.
  6. Donaldson MS. (2004) Nutrition and cancer: a review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet. Nutr J. 20; 3:19.
  7. Grotto D. (2007) 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. New York, New York: Bantam; 313-6.
  8. Washio M, Mori M, Sakauchi F, et al. (2005) Risk Factors for kidney cancer in a Japanese population: findings from the JACC study. J Epidemiol.; 15 Suppl 2:S203-11.
  9. Watada AF, Ko WP, Minott DA. (1996) Factors affecting quality of fresh-cut horticultural products. Postharvest Bio Technol.; 9: 115–125.



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