What is so super about so-called superfoods?

It seems every week there is a new must eat, cure all, “Superfood” that hits the media. Remember coconut oil, acai berries, pomegranate juice, kale, Himalayan pink salt, and it seems bone broth (previously known as soup stock) is the new superfood.

What is a superfood? By dictionary definition it refers to: a natural food regarded as especially beneficial because of its nutrient profile or its health-protecting qualities.

In reality there is no such thing as a superfood, and yet there are many superfoods. What does this mean? It means the term is frequently used as a marketing tool to bring attention to a food, and thereby make health claims, many of which are overblown or not necessarily backed by science.

On the other hand some of these foods have always been a superfood, in that they are nutrient dense and have important properties necessary for a healthy diet. Frequently they are a food that might not be very well known or used much in the modern American diet, thereby giving an exotic twist to the possibilities being touted.

And since we like our information shiny and new, wrapped in a fancy package, we flock to articles about the newly named super-food.

For example, to read once again about the same old health benefits of fruits and vegetables such as — Eat A Rainbow; Eat Five A Day –seems boring. But that new superfood, the blueberry!  is somehow worth a month of headlines and before you know it, everyone’s putting blueberries on everything.

Why does this matter and what’s the harm in using this term? It does both the consumer and the food a disservice. Many unsubstantiated health claims follow the crowning of a food as super, such as cancer cures, effortless weight loss, and eliminating diabetes as some of the more common.

All of a sudden it becomes what every food blog is talking about and many get carried away with touting the benefits. Then after a few months, when the miracles anticipated from the food don’t occur, it is tossed aside and a new one takes its place. This is where it does the food a disservice, as many of the foods titled “super” are foods we should include in our diet. But because they can’t live up to the hype, we may think they don’t have any value and move on to the next one. This is where we are done a disservice, because those who follow such trends can feel like they are on a roller coaster of nutrition information, and after a while, they just want to get off, so they stop trying, or paying attention to even good information.

So what’s a person to do? The reality is that nutritional science is a slow, messy and constantly evolving process. Of course we know more now than we did 20 years ago. This means recommendations may change over time, and that’s OK.  Official recommendations continue to follow the science of what we know at the time. It can seem like this slow moving science doesn’t fit in our fast paced, nutrition news of the day cycle.

On the positive side, sometimes the focus on a new superfood gets us to try something different, creates new recipes and ways to include a healthy food such as kale or blueberries into our diet. That’s a good thing, just keep it in perspective!

When reading nutrition information, look at the scientific basis for the claims and make sure it is credible. Government, medical and educational organizations are your most reliable sources. Triangulate the information — search it in a few different ways and look for the consistency of the scientific message.  Don’t automatically react to every news item with a top 10 list or any other catchy headline. Keep your focus on the big picture and your overall diet by eating more fruits and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats, and not focusing on just a few “superfoods.”


Karen Bracey is a Penn State Extension Educator.