© Joanne Rymell | Dreamstime.com
You’d need to review a lengthy list of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients found in a specific food to determine whether it qualifies as a superfood. That level of research simply wouldn’t be practical (or even possible) for most of us. Fortunately, there are plenty of clues that will help you sort out the endless superfood claims out there.
Here, we offer up some general guidelines that will help you identify the types of so-called superfoods that really aren’t so super. (See also our post “What Are Superfoods?“)
Superfood Claims: Red Flags That Should Catch Your Eye
So what attributes can lead us to the truth when it comes to superfood claims?
- Highly processed foods. First, think about the level of processing the food has undergone. If it is unprocessed (for example, a head of fresh broccoli) or minimally processed (for example, broccoli that is frozen with no salt, sauces, or other additives), it’s far more likely to be a superfood than foods that are heavily processed.
For example, the nutrients in items like broccoli bacon cheese bites or Buffalo-style broccoli with Ranch dressing are compromised by ingredients that add unwanted saturated and/or trans fat, sodium, and calories.
- Lengthy lists of ingredients. If the ingredients list is long, it’s probably not a superfood—especially if you see several additives that enhance the color or flavor, or that serve as preservatives or stabilizers. (If you can’t pronounce the ingredients and/or don’t know what they are, that’s a dead giveaway.)
- Types of ingredients. If a food contains a significant amount of salt, saturated fat, added sugar, and/or refined white flour, then it’s probably not a superfood. For example, green tea is rich in a plant compound called epigallocatechin gallate, which is believed to have anti-cancer properties. However, ice cream that contains added green tea extract, as well as added sugar and cream that is high in saturated fat, will never appear on a nutrition expert’s list of superfoods.
- Dietary supplements. If it is in pill form, it is not a superfood, nor is it a “food” at all. Many manufacturers of supplements want you to believe that you can get all of the benefits of eating whole foods by popping a pill or capsule, but it’s not true. For instance, blueberries contain fiber, natural sugar, potassium, unsaturated fat, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K, and traces of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Each of these nutrients has beneficial properties of its own, and, when combined in the same food, they act synergistically to provide an even greater benefit. You cannot get the same benefits from taking a blueberry extract as you can from eating a cup of blueberries.
That’s not to say that all supplements have no nutritional value. In some cases, supplements such as iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 can help correct nutritional deficiencies for people who are unable to consume and/or absorb the needed amounts from their diets.
However, taking a supplement that contains lutein and zeaxanthin is not the same as eating a spinach salad. And swallowing a fish oil capsule does not provide you with the nutrients you’ll get from a fillet of baked salmon.
About Those Supplements. . .
Regarding the issue of supplements: Keep in mind that dietary supplements do not require review or approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. As such, their label claims may be misleading, and they can cause potentially harmful interactions with prescription and/or over-the-counter medicines, as well as damaging the liver or other organs and systems.
If you’re going to take a dietary supplement, do your homework:
- Find out which brand(s) have passed purity and potency testing.
- Check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out whether there are any potential dangers of taking the supplement.
For example, the FDA banned ephedra—a plant extract once used in weight-loss supplements— due to safety concerns that include the possibility of stroke, heart attack, seizures, and death. And a number of supplements—including garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, St. John’s wort, and coenzyme Q10—may increase your risk of bleeding if you also take the drug warfarin (Coumadin), since the supplements can amplify the drug’s effect.