The lowdown on superfoods: what they are, what they are not, and whether you should be including more superfoods in your healthy eating routine.

An arrangement of superfoods on a blue table, including mangos, beets, figs, cherries, and avocados.

You’ve likely heard the word “superfood” thrown around the internet when describing certain trending foods. The term is usually associated with new-to-you (which often means hard to find) foods like acai, goji berries, and bee pollen and generally many claims are made about superfoods’ abilities to detox your body, fight cancer, and stave off aging.

But what makes a food a “superfood” and are they really the key to improved health and wellness? Let’s take a deep dive into what superfoods are, what they aren’t, and whether you should try getting more superfoods in your diet.

What are superfoods?

The word “superfood” is a term used to describe foods that are nutrient-dense, or high in certain nutrients that are known to have a positive impact on health. Superfoods are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and are often times low in nutrients to avoid, such as sodium and cholesterol. For this reason, foods referred to as superfoods are often plant-based but can also include certain types of dairy and some fish that are high in essential nutrients our bodies need.

Sounds good, right? Let's take a look at the hoopla around using the word superfood.

The controversy around the term “superfood.”

What does “high in nutrients” actually mean and what distinguishes one fruit or vegetable as a superfood compared to another? The line gets fuzzy when asking what makes a food “super,” as there is no set definition or regulation for the word superfood like there is for other terms, like the word healthy. This leaves the word superfood open for interpretation and allows food marketers to throw around this nutrition buzz word to describe…well, basically anything they want to sell.

The controversy with nutritionists is that using the word superfood to describe a food implies it is inherently healthy or has “healing powers” associated with it that other healthful foods do not. If we were to look at some of the most common foods being described as superfoods like acai, goji berries, bee pollen, turmeric, ginger, avocados, etc., we would see that:

  • Many of the foods listed are usually trending food products that are being marketed as a “new discovery” that will be the key to fighting some particular disease or ailment.
  • While each superfood is high in certain vitamins and minerals but that doesn’t mean that other “boring” everyday healthy foods that are not labeled as superfoods (apples, pears, corn, beans, etc.) are not as healthful or do provide the same (or even more) nutrients.
  • Actually, many of these foods are tropical or specific to certain regions of the world, meaning that growing, shipping, and packaging these foods may be expensive and have large impacts on the environment if they are not grown responsibly (see some green teas, coconuts, etc.)

For this reason, many nutritionists hesitate to use the word superfood when describing healthy foods, and you will rarely hear it used in nutrition science or government dietary recommendations because the term is not defined or regulated and can be easily misconstrued.

Mangos, cherries, avocados, beets, and figs on a white table with sprinkled bee pollen.

My take on superfoods and how I approach them here on Fork in the Road.

While the marketing around superfoods is usually not based in truth (raspberry ketones will cure your heart disease! coconut oil will dissolve bunions!), I like to have a more positive take on the superfood craze. While I don't think that we should assume that one food will heal all ailments, I can't deny that is warms my dietitian heart to see people adopting new healthy food s that would have never otherwise tried before.

How many people do you know that love kale, turmeric, beets, or chia seeds that would never have tried them if they hadn't been hyped by the media?

I understand the contention with using the word superfood to imply that some foods are a magic cure to health, I personally think that the term can be used intentionally. I use the word superfoods to describe whole foods that provide a high percentage of nutrients that contribute to health, with the understanding that all foods fit into a healthy balanced eating pattern.

I describe the recipes here on Fork in the Road as “superfood recipes” with this in mind, and with the hope that by focusing on the health benefits and recipe possibilities of healthy foods that my readers are inspired to try and adopt a new food in their healthy eating routine.

Should you eat more superfoods?

If we are referring to superfoods as I do as foods that are high in nutrients (and not assigning them magical healing powers), then superfoods should definitely be a large proportion of the foods you eat! I love balancing a dish with nutrient-dense foods like greens, healthy oils, and fresh fruit with less nutrient-dense foods like pasta or pizza.

Because I believe fruits and vegetables have as much of a place in a healthy eating pattern as pizza and pasta. #balance

Where do you start when trying to eating more nutrient-dense superfoods?

Add more plants to your plate! Eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is the best way to increase your intake of nutrient-dense foods. The recipes in the Fork in the Road superfood recipe index are a great place to start!

Some favorite Fork in the Road superfood recipes include:

THE TAKEAWAY (TL:DR): What are superfoods? Superfoods are nutrient-dense foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that play a role in optimum health. The term superfoods is not regulated and therefore is often used as a marketing ploy to describe trendy foods as having special health benefits that others do not. However, “superfoods” like fruits, vegetable, whole grains, healthy fats, and fish the best foundation for a balanced and healthy eating pattern.

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