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What are superfoods and do they really exist?

For those of us wanting to improve our health, the idea of a ‘superfood’ as a one-stop shop for nutrition can be pretty appealing. But are ‘superfoods’ really the miracle-workers some claim them to be? Salmon, broccoli and blueberries are just some of the foods that have been given the ‘superfood’ label. And while we know that these are all healthy, the term ‘super’ suggests they have special benefits beyond simply being good for us. But do superfoods really exist?

What is a ‘superfood’?

Generally, a food is promoted to superfood status if it contains a high level of nutritional value. This might mean they contain a variety of nutrients, such as healthy fats, fibre and phytochemicals – chemicals in plants which are responsible for vivid colours and smells, which have been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular and other diseases. Many superfoods are said to contain antioxidants, which are compounds that can fight off harmful free radicals – molecules that can damage the body’s cells.

While consuming foods that are packed with nutrients is a good idea, there is no scientifically based or regulated definition for superfoods. In 2007, the EU banned the use of the word superfood to sell products without credible scientific evidence. The NHS also highlights that claims of certain foods being ‘super’ are almost always overstated in the media – and are often inaccurate. Critics also warn that the description encourages us to fixate on a single food rather than eat a balanced diet.

The term superfood seems to be a marketing term rather than one based on or recognised by science. There are undoubtedly some foods that contain particular ingredients that are very beneficial for health. But we still need to eat a wide range of foods in order to get all the nutrients we need – it is not appropriate to rely on a small number of superfoods.

It is true to say that some foods are better for us than others and some are more densely packed with nutrients than others. Blueberries and açai are examples of two foods that are often labelled as superfoods. Açai is a berry from the Himalayas said to be packed with antioxidants.

However, there are many other foods that are considerably cheaper and more widely available that are also packed with antioxidants, such as other berries, or vegetables such as carrots or sweet potatoes.

There’s no denying that eating more fruit and vegetables is good for us. But research has suggested that the benefits of antioxidant-rich foods may be overstated. This is because the amount of antioxidants in a food source does not necessarily reflect their potential health benefit, as it depends on how these are absorbed and used in the body.

What should we be eating?

It is important to eat a range of foods such as fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein to gain a wide range of nutrients. Most berries are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre all packed into a small serving. Eggs are another example – ‘packaged’ into a single serving which is easy to eat hot or cold, and contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals including iron, B vitamins, choline, phosphorous and also lutein which is important for eye health. Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of fibre, ‘healthy fats’, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Interestingly, although they are energy-dense, they have actually been shown to be beneficial in some weight loss studies. Less healthy foods include those that are highly processed and/or high in fat and sugar. These should form only a very small and occasional part of our diet. Dieticians often tell patients to “eat a rainbow” – to try to include as many different coloured fruit and vegetables as possible.