What is a Superfood?
The most basic question I get asked when I tell people I am a superfood hunter is, “What is a superfood?”
First, all real, whole, organic traditional food is — to some degree — a superfood. No, I’m not undermining all my travels all around the world searching for superfoods. Real, whole, organic traditional food fuels your body in incredible ways, and when you consider that all food is the miraculous end result of the condensation of gases, water, light, and minerals then you better believe that all food has a “super” quality to it.
Secondly, you might be surprised, but there is no one single definition of a superfood. No really. Look around. The idea has been around for some time. You’ll find “superfood” in the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as World War I in the context of “a food considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being.” But while you’ll see similar versions and themes in books and around the Internet, there is no legal or medical definition that has been set.
Most superfood definitions do point to nutritional support that goes beyond what you would normally expect. It’s a wild west of marketing, however, so some definitions will stretch the definition a bit, such as this version from Health Magazine:
“Superfoods are nutrient powerhouses that pack large doses of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals. Eating them may reduce the risk of chronic disease, and prolong life, and people who eat more of them are healthier and thinner than those who don’t.”
This Health Magazine definition starts off great, focused on the nutrients, but it ends by emphasizing that superfoods somehow make people thinner, which feeds into the image obsessed, “magic pill” mindset that we’re all prone to sink into. Yes, eating healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle, including eating superfoods will more than likely steer your body to thinness, but that’s not something about superfoods that should be over-hyped.
Other definitions do a great job of detailing all the unique “positives” a superfood contains and use the micronutrients they contain to differentiate them from other foods. Just look at this definition from Navitas Naturals.
“A superfood is a nutrient-dense fruit or vegetable that contains a high content of antioxidants, protein, omega-3, minerals, fiber or other essential nutrients that have proven health benefits. Nutrient density is the ratio of calories to micronutrients – the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that are essential to health, wellness and feeling great. Nutrient-dense foods, like most vegetables and fruits, have a high amount of valuable micronutrients and a low amount of calories. To protect the ‘super’ quality and nutrient integrity, a superfood must be certified organic and minimally processed.” – Navitas Naturals
Because there is no clear definition on what a superfood is and much less a regulation on how to label and market such products, this has led to a very confusing scenario where everything seems to be labeled a superfood or people claim that nothing should be a superfood. Both extremes are wrong.
It is frustrating how much the term has been mutilated commercially. Read the Wikipedia definition of superfoods. It was written by someone with an axe to grind. Yet, it captures the reputation of over-exaggerated claims that some marketing efforts have created. The very word “super” donates something special and extraordinary, so it is not a surprise marketers have picked up on the term as a sales message. After all, no one wants to buy “ordinary” do we?
The Noni Effect
A common issue that arises when sales numbers are prioritized over health is what I call the “noni effect.” Noni is a wonderful Polynesian fruit with actual health benefits. Sadly, so many exaggerated claims built up this superfood’s potential benefits so high that it couldn’t help but fail to live up to its exaggerated claims. When people who bought the product under false expectations were not “miraculously cured,” it fell out of favor and out of sight. It can still be found today but it has been forced to rebuild its reputation from the ground up on the real traditional and scientific evidence to once again gain consumers’ trust.
This is the general issue with superfoods; the list goes on of how many foods have come and gone under the superfood banner, gaining short fame and fortune and disappearing like a musical one hit wonder.
The hype with superfoods is that you eat it once and it will solve all of your problems.
But the reality is that if you constantly eat foods that are nourishing and powerful and strong over time that is how you become powerful, nourished, and able to thrive. This includes superfoods. The magic is in the routine, which is why all real, whole, organic traditional food is — to some degree — a superfood when eaten regularly. You are giving your body the nutrition is needs to be strong!
The more technical (and correct) definitions of a superfood will focus tightly on the nutrients the food offers and their impact on the body. Look for this! The ultimate conclusion is that a superfoods’ unique mix of plant chemicals and macronutrients and micronutrients can – calorie for calorie – promote greater health when compared to other foods.
A superfood” is a food that has more nutrients (antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals) for your body when compared calorie for calorie with another food.
In the medical field, look for studies about powerhouse fruits and vegetables (PFV), which are classified as foods providing, on average, 10% or more daily value per 100 kcal of 17 qualifying nutrients per the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Institute of Medicine (potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K).
I’m a superfood hunter at heart, so I’ll be calling these so-called nutrient-dense powerhouse fruits and vegetables, well, superfoods.
That said, labeling some foods as superfoods leads to the default assumption that other foods are not as healthy. A reductionist way of thinking about food is a massive failure in nutrition. Our bodies need all the help they can get – including superfoods.
But there is no magic pill: true health and vitality happens with continuously eating a variety of fresh, whole, organic foods AND “superfoods.”
Don’t turn to a small section of “superfoods” – instead pull in all the fruits and vegetables to your diet that you can and research a broad spectrum of superfoods that tackle your specific health issues and make YOU feel good with the additional support they provide YOUR body. Become fanatical about variety and daily choices. This is the foundation of a SuperLife.