Do Superfoods Exist?

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A client recently asked me which foods I consider to be ‘superfoods’? It is an interesting question and not one that is easily answered.

An example that immediately comes to mind is the humble sweet potato and its use by mothers in Kenya. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in Africa and leaves people, especially children, more vulnerable to blindness, complications from infection, and other health issues .

The Mama SASHA project is a health initiative that links health, food and agriculture by providing pregnant mothers with sweet potato vines along with growing instructions and recipes. Its orange flesh is full of beta-carotene that the body can readily convert to vitamin A, promoting positive health outcomes for families while supporting self-sustaining food strategies. By any measure, sweet potato would be a ‘superfood’ in this context, and is literally saving lives.

History of the Term "Superfoods"

The concept of ‘superfoods’ came about in the 1990s.  I first came across it in the book ‘Superfoods’ by Michael van Straten and Barbara Griggs, who were encouraging the inclusion of nutrient-rich foods in our diets. The use of the word ‘superfoods’ is now considered to be more of a marketing strategy designed to improve the market share of a specific food at a premium price. The promise of health benefits, such as prolonged lifespan and reduced risk of chronic disease, are the major market drivers, with consumers spending $130 billion worldwide in 2016 on foods marketed as ‘superfoods’.

Superfoods Today

In an era in which the media has become a successful purveyor/distributor of health information, and with the number of items labelled as ‘superfoods’, ‘superfruits’ and ‘supergrains’ on the rise, consumers can easily fall prey to the promises of health optimisation.

Coupled with the time constraints many of us feel today, it is quite seductive to think that adding a specific food product to our daily routine is a beneficial and effective health hack. The trend away from three square meals a day to snackification further reinforces the idea of a healthy, nutrient-dense choice, and this is where marketers attempt to turn up the marketing volume and turn heads towards their specific product.

However, the nutritional reality is more complex and foods called superfoods, while not necessarily unhealthy, are not a magic bullet alone, but may contribute to health as part of a larger food web.

Food as Self-Care

The success of the  ‘superfoods’ phenomenon reflects our growing interest in the relationship between health and food.  It is significant that as a population we are willing to invest extra dollars for returns on our health. In my practice I find I am often a strategic partner and resource to well-informed clients who are moving towards taking more responsibility for their health outcomes.

A mintel survey found that 45% of Canadians were willing to add the latest ‘superfood’ to their diet if there are perceived health benefits. In addition, 63% of Canadians believe that what they eat has an effect on their physical and emotional well-being, a fact well supported by research.


What makes a food more nutritious?

Plant-based foods contain not only the usual suspects- protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals- but they also contain an abundance of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are generally responsible for the colour and aroma of plants.

‘Phyto’ is the Greek word for plant and ‘chemical’ refers to many of the natural constituents found in plants. See my article on phytochemicals for more on this subject.

Some components of foods that provide powerful health benefits:

·      Vitamins and minerals – these are essential for health and are involved in many processes essential to living and growing, support immune health and perform an antioxidant role

·      Phytochemicals – these are gaining increasing attention for their potential in promoting health and preventing chronic disease. Some phytochemicals are related to preventing cancer growth, reducing inflammation, and improving heart health. For example, apples only have about 10mg of vitamin C, but their antioxidant capacity is equivalent to about 2250mg of vitamin C as a result of the phytochemicals (polyphenols) they contain.

·      Antioxidants  - these are plant nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, zinc, manganese and selenium and some phytochemicals. They reduce damage to cells by ‘mopping up’ the free radicals. Free radicals can damage cells and lead to inflammation and chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer.

·      Essential fatty acids – omega-3 and omega-6. These play a key role in keeping all bodily cells working optimally and in promoting healthy hearts, joints, and immune function, and they can also modify inflammatory reactions. They may also contribute to improved mental health.

·      Fibre – perhaps it is difficult to think of fibre as promoting more than increased bowel movements, but fibre can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by binding cholesterol in the gut. In addition, fibre promotes the health of cells lining the bowel wall, thus reducing risk of bowel cancer. Beyond this, it plays an important role in balancing blood sugar and thus exerts anti-inflammatory properties.

Some benefits of eating nutrient and phytochemical rich foods daily:

·      Reduction in cholesterol

·      Reduced risk of heart disease

·      Increased antioxidant activity

·      Enhanced immune function

·      Reduced risk of some cancers

·      May help balance hormones

·      Anti-inflammatory

·      Reduced risk of overweight/obesity

·      Improved blood sugar balance

·      Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes

Foods that Pack a Great Nutritional Punch

Many sources list the ‘top 10’ superfoods, and these choices vary because there are so many foods that provide great quality nutrition. One common theme, however, is that these foods are not processed and remain close to their natural state. Variety and a rainbow of colours are key.

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Research does show that a variety of whole foods have a synergistic action that is significantly greater than the individual foods alone.  Listed below are just some of my favourite nutrient- and phytochemical-rich foods known to have high nutritional quality, not listed in any specific order.

  • Berries  - blueberries, raspberries, blackberries etc. contain phytochemicals such as anthocyanidins and flavonoids that may help brain function, skin and heart health.
  • Cruciferous vegetables - including broccoli, red and green cabbage, Brussels sprouts which contain indoles and isothiocyanates which have been shown to play a role in breast cancer prevention and liver detoxification.
  • Onion, garlic, leeks – garlic has been recognised for its health-promoting qualities for over 4000 years. It has potent anti-microbial properties and promotes healthy gut bacteria and heart health.
  • Green and black tea – both are rich in flavonoids, and may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Ongoing research suggests their association with reducing cancer risk.
  • Flaxseeds, Walnuts – a rich source of omega-3 fats that can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions, flaxseeds may reduce the risk of some cancers. 
  • Apples – the skin is full of phytochemicals, while the flesh is full of soluble fibre. Although an apple may only contain 10g of vitamin C, its phytochemical content is equivalent to about 2250mg of vitamin C. 
  • Oily fish - particularly salmon, mackerel, and herring. These are another wonderful source of omega-3.
  • Oats, barley – contain the cholesterol lowering soluble fibre beta-glucans.  These also have a slow energy release to the body, thus regulating blood sugar and hormonal balance, and preventing obesity. They encourage healthy gut bacteria.
  • Tomatoes and watermelon – high in lycopene, a specific phytochemical associated with lowering the risk of prostate cancer in men.
  • Wheat berries – these have a higher protein content than most grains, and encourage healthy gut bacteria. Whole grains reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • Quinoa – technically a seed, but categorized as a whole grain, it is a complete protein and rich source of minerals. It is gluten free and is thus suitable for people with celiac disease.
  • Herbs and spices – turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, sage, thyme and many others are high in phytochemicals and can be added to cooked dishes any time. They can be used to create more variety to meals.
  • Mushrooms – button, shitake, maitake, Portobello, cremini. There is some evidence to support the use of mushrooms as a general health improvement strategies.
  • Nuts – they contain healthy fats, and are a great source of protein. Just 28g five days a week has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease (about 22 almonds, 14 walnut halves).
  • Soy – a great source of protein and isoflavones, it may offer some protection against breast cancer. Fermented natto, tempeh and tofu as well as edamame can be added to stews and soups.
  • All green leafy plants - kale, spinach, swiss chard, dandelion greens – rich in nutrients such as magnesium, iron, and B vitamins, and also contains an abundance of phytochemicals.
  • Greek natural yoghurt - with double the protein content and probiotics to promote healthy gut bacteria.
  • Other foods with healthful benefits include avocados, citrus fruits, beans, beetroot, pomegranate, seaweed, sprouted seeds.

For more on cancer prevention, see my article on the most recent recommendations from the World Cancer Research Fund, released in May 2018.

If you are interested in discussing strategies for healthy and preventative eating that work for you and your family, I would love to meet with you. To schedule an appointment, please book online or call us at 613 233 2040.