What is a Superfood? A HealthCentral Explainer

SSuchy Editor

    flickr, 2friends4cooking.com

    (Pomegranate: superfood or just really good for you?)               2friends4cooking.com, flickr 


    You’ve probably heard the word ‘superfood’ tossed around to describe exotic-sounding foods that your health-obsessed friends say they cannot live without.   


    But what exactly is a superfood?


    Whatever sells


    The term ‘superfood’ is a marketing term.   “A complete construct of Madison Avenue,” says Dr. John Swartzberg, Chair of the Editorial board of the University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter.  There are no scientific standards to define the term, nor do nutritional scientists or government regulators, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration, offer a definition.

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    The term superfood has grown in popularity since it entered the lexicon with acai berries.  Several years ago, this berry, native to South America, became widely touted as a ‘superfood’ when its fans claimed it was helpful for a variety of health concerns, including arthritis, cancer, weight loss, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, detoxification and an overall improvement in health.


    But the term superfood itself was never defined and acai berries were found to be no more or less nutritious than many other popular berries.


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    What does a ‘superfood’ label tell you?


    Nothing, actually, because ‘superfood’ is used as a marketing term with no scientific backing or government regulation.  A food company that wants to make a certain product appeal to the health-conscious crowd could slap the label on just about anything.


    Chances are that products deemed superfoods are not explicitly harmful, but they are no better or worse than any other healthy food.  As always, it’s a good idea to take a close look at the nutrition facts on the label to see just what you’re getting.


    Better to look for complete proteins


    While superfoods aren’t real--sorry to be a buzz kill--there are such things as complete proteins, which are key to a healthy body and, unlike superfoods, are grounded in scientific fact.


    When proteins are consumed through the foods we eat, the body breaks them down into amino acids, which are perform important functions, such as repairing body tissue, breaking down food and helping us grow.  Together, amino acids and proteins are considered the building blocks of the body.


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    A protein by any other name


    In total, there are 21 amino acids that the body uses for various functions, the majority of which the body can produce on its own. These are called nonessential and conditional amino acids. 


    Then there are essential amino acids, which must come from the foods we eat.  They are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan (yes, the kind in your Thanksgiving turkey) and valine.


    Foods containing protein will often provide a few of these amino acids. But there are some foods that provide all nine essential amino acids.  Those are the “complete proteins.” 


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    Dishes such as quinoa, beans and rice, soybeans, seafood and spirulina are all complete proteins.  They’re the foods you should try to make a regular part of your diet.



    Works cited:


    Interview with Dr. John E. Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P.  June 14, 2012. 


    National Institutes of Health, Amino Acids (2012). Retrieved from website: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002222.htm


    Zeratsky, Katherine, R.N., Nutrition and healthy eating. Retrieved from website: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/acai/AN01836


Published On: June 15, 2012