By: Hana Jun
“The problem with superfoods is that people may overestimate their power…there is no one food that provides everything your body needs…we have to be careful using that term. They’re not magic foods. We must pay attention to the total diet."
- Penny M. Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., RD
With our society’s growing interest in the relationship between food and health, food industries, media, and nutritionists have increasingly popularized the concept of superfoods to the public. A scientific or established definition for ‘superfood’ does not exist, but the common notions regard them as nutrient-rich, remarkably beneficial for health and well-being, and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber, all of which are multiple disease- fighting nutrients. Although superfoods such as blueberries, salmon, chia seeds, and acai berries are glorified in the media by applying the latest scientific literature to support their health claims, it is important to distinguish between truth and hype regarding these products. The range of nutritious foods consumed in the diet is more important than solely concentrating on a handful of foods with superior claims.
Although health claims for superfoods are present everywhere from health and fitness magazines to shows on television like Dr. Oz, an in depth look at the scientific literature behind the claims shows that many of them are exaggerations set forth by these various industries. Often, the people making the claims neglect to disclose the specifics of studies that may reveal confounding factors, inaccurate methodology, and self-report bias, among other issues.
Berry fruits are nutrient dense and support the immune system, having a profound impact on human health. Specifically, blueberries have been one of the most popularized superfoods for their source of vitamin C, vitamin K, fiber, and notably anthocyanins. Over the years, the media has advertised that the consumption of these fruits has the potential to prevent and reverse memory loss and decrease cardiovascular risk.
Blueberry supplementation in the form of a freeze-dried blueberry beverage has also been studied regarding its effect on metabolic syndrome, inflammation, and other related cardiovascular risk factors in obese men and women. A greater decrease in LDL cholesterol levels (bad cholesterol) and systolic and diastolic blood pressures in the blueberry-supplemented group was found compared to controls. However, taking a closer look at the research methods, there were only forty-eight participants (4 males and 44 females), which is a relatively small sample size. It is difficult to generalize information to the entire public based on a sample size this small.
A glimpse at these articles with impressive headlines and scientific citations fool many Americans into buying superfood products that are surrounded by claims that cannot be attained. Dissecting the methods and results of the studies reveals the difficulty in applying the conclusions to real humans and their diets. There is no doubt that superfoods contain important and healthful components that contribute to optimal health, but keep in mind that the goal should be to consume a range of nutritious foods in part with an overall healthy lifestyle. I urge you not to merely limit yourself to a handful of foods that have superior claims that are not yet scientifically supported.