What Makes a Food a Superfood?
By Dr. Matt Marturano
Superfood. It‚s a term that we have seen more and more often in the marketplace. On the other hand, no new foods have been discovered in recent history. What‚s changed?
In short, it‚s two things: research and marketing.
Let‚s talk about marketing first. According to Google Trends, searches for the term ‚superfood‚ have increased about 250% over the last ten years1. Marketers have taken note, and the competition is becoming fierce.
According to Mintel Research, between 2011 and 2015, the number of food products launched and marketed with the super- increased by 202%2. Stephanie Mattucci, Global Food Scientist at Mintel, remarks, "The popularity of 'super' products is clear as food and drink manufacturers globally are tapping into a demand for these nutritionally dense ingredients."
Referring to food as a ‚superfood‚ is an effective way for marketers to quickly communicate that their product has an exceptionally high nutrient density or offers outstanding health benefits. They are foods in the top one percent with proven health benefits.
On the other hand, labeling a product as a ‚superfood‚ is also a great way to increase sales.
Unlike other labeling claims that require substantiation with scientific research, there is no legal definition or standard for what has the label of superfood.
So what does the research say?
One might presume that there has been an increase in the number of research studies looking at the health benefits of various foods and the nutrients they contain. But this isn‚t the case. Instead, the quality of the research and a broadening of the class of compounds generally considered as nutrients have evolved.
Regarding publications in scientific journals on nutrition, one recent review found: ‚The number of publications has not changed over time, but the research type, design, and translation phases have.‚3. The relative increase in clinical study designs that lend themselves to evidence-based dietary guidelines means we get more actionable health information about foods.
A fascinating trend in nutrition research is looking at the effects of combining multiple foods. After all, nobody eats a diet of just one thing alone. One recent clinical trial found that a combination of pomegranate, quercetin, licorice and grapeseed has a ‚distinctly different effect‚ on the expression of genes related to bone health than when taken alone.4
While there still is a way to go, we now know about all kinds of specific health benefits to certain foods that we weren‚t previously aware of. Whether or not we call them ‚superfoods‚ is somewhat beside the point.
Nevertheless, let‚s take a closer look at some types of superfoods and the health benefits they offer.
Arguably the first superfood dietary supplement, green powders offer a way to get substantially more leafy greens in one‚s diet than they might otherwise consume. In addition, on a per calorie basis, greens are exceptionally high in minerals, like magnesium and potassium, that are often found to be insufficient in a standard diet.
As the focus of nutrition research turned to antioxidants, berries emerged on the scene as a top category of superfoods sought after by consumers. Besides more commonly known varieties, like blueberries and cranberries, a whole host of more exotic berries have become known to offer substantial nutritional and health benefits. Some examples include Camu Camu, goji, acai, and sea buckthorn.
Fungi are quite different from other forms of life, and this difference is reflected in possessing chemical pathways not found elsewhere. For example, several immunomodulatory, hormonal, and stress-mediating effects in humans broadly known as ‚adaptogenic‚ have emerged from nutrition research in recent years. In addition, some mushrooms with exposure to ultraviolet light can be a good source of vitamin D.
Also known as land-race crops, spelt, quinoa, and chia have been increasingly popularized over the last decade. The general idea is that these grains and pseudocereals that plant breeders and seed companies have not preferentially selected for higher yield are more nutritious than the standard three grains (corn, wheat, and rice) that comprise the majority of consumption throughout the world. However, the flip side of lower yields is that many of these crops are in short supply, and increasing economic demand means that many growers can no longer afford to eat their produce. Therefore, it is essential to choose fair-trade certified products in this category and practice good stewardship by limiting their consumption.
By now, we‚ve all heard about probiotics- these are ‚live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.‚5. However, as impactful as the regular consumption of probiotics can be to our health, they come with certain limitations. For example, many strains of probiotics require special handling and delivery formats to ensure that they are still alive by the time they reach the intestines.
Some of these limitations can be overcome with prebiotics. A prebiotic is ‚a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit.‚6. In other words, prebiotics is foods for probiotics. They help probiotic microorganisms to live and flourish inside the digestive tract.
The two most common forms of prebiotics are oligosaccharides- short chains of carbohydrates found in several vegetables- and polyphenols, which are more commonly found in fruits.
Although it may be overwhelming to navigate the marketing hype around superfoods, much of it is grounded in the reality of emerging research into the specific health benefits of particular foods.
From fruits and vegetables to grains and mushrooms, and even bacteria and algae, each food class offers us another avenue to diversify our diets and reap the health benefits.
As always, if you are seeking to use superfoods as nutritional support for a specific health condition, it is best to consult with a knowledgeable health professional about which superfoods would be most appropriate for you.
1. Google Trends. (https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=superfood) Accessed 12/24/2021.
2. Mintel Group. Super growth for ‚super‚ foods: New Product development has shot up 202% globally over the past five years. (https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/super-growth-for-super-foods-new-product-development-shoots-up-202-globally-over-the-past-five-years) Accessed 12/24/2021.
3. Yoong SL, Jackson J, Barnes C, et al. Changing landscape of nutrition and dietetics research? A bibliographic analysis of top-tier published research in 1998 and 2018.Public Health Nutr. 2021;24(6):1318-1327. doi:10.1017/S1368980021000136
4. Lin Y, Kozlova V, Ramakrishnan S, et al. Bone health nutraceuticals alter microarray mRNA gene expression: A randomized, parallel, open-label clinical study.Phytomedicine. 2016;23(1):18-26. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2015.11.011
5. Hill C, Guarner F, Reid G, et al. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic.Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2014;11(8):506-514. doi:10.1038/nrgastro.2014.66