What makes superfoods so super? Superfoods are aliments that are highly beneficial and help you lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer, and also boost your endorphins to put you in a better mood. More specifically, these types of foods are very rich in nutrient density compared to calories, and rich in Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) ratings, which is an antioxidant potency indicator. Antioxidants are important in neutralizing free radicals that have the potential to destroy healthy cells and mutate DNA. Over time, the damage can become irreversible and lead to disease.
There are plenty of superfoods full of antioxidants that are easily accessible and relatively cheap such as: oats, beans, berries, nuts, avocados, oranges, green or black tea, and salmon, to name a few.
However, superfoods that get more media attention include berries and seeds sourced in South America and Asia. These are described as the “newest” trendy foods. But, are these glamorous foods really appealing and worth the hype? And do the benefits prevail over the drawbacks like the lack of availability hence higher prices? Nope.
Let’s look up few examples.
1. Goji berries
These are rich in flavonols and ORAC. Flavonols contribute in reducing cancer risk as well as the spread of cancer. The amount of ORAC in these Chinese berries is 25, 300 µmol per 100 g. Alternatively; there are many more economical berry choices such as blueberries, raspberries and cranberries. Moreover, cacao beans have the highest concentration of ORAC and stand at 95, 500 µmol per 100 g for raw cocoa powder, and 62, 100 µmol per 100 g for raw cacao nibs. Cooked dark chocolate comes in at 13, 120 µmol per 100 g.
2. Maqui berries
These are also very high in ORAC. These berries have anti-aging, immune-boosting flavanoids and anti-inflammatory properties. Besides being a great source of vitamin C, calcium, potassium and iron. However, maqui berries are not available neither affordable as other superfruits.
3. Acai berries
Acai berries are also one of the glossier of the hyped superfoods. They are the “marketing darlings” for their weight loss and antioxidant properties. But, the National Institute of Health (NIH) do not find any conclusive evidence as for these properties. Alternatively, red wine, pomegranate juice, grape and blueberry juice are richer in antioxidant properties. And regarding the weight loss hype, there’s no clear evidence to support the hypothesis according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Chia is another superfood that offers a great source of vegetable-based proteins, potassium, fiber, essential fatty acids and minerals such as phosphorous, manganese, calcium, and sodium. One drawback is that chia is not easily found in regular grocery stores. Some substitutes that are more available include less expensive substitutes such as flax seeds and quinoa.
Kombucha is renowned for its ulcer-healing properties and helps in the digestion process. Kombucha tea is called superdrink. There’s no direct substitute for kombucha tea, which sells at $3-$5 per bottle. But it’s easy to make this tea at home with SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) to ferment your black tea.
6. Bee Pollen
A tablespoon of bee pollen contains 24 to 35% of complete protein, 12 vitamins, 28 minerals, 22 amino acids and up to 5000+ enzymes. However, besides it's $30 a jar, the human body doesn't need foods that contain so much protein, and of the 22 amino acids you only need up to 9, which you can easily get from fresh fruits, nuts and seeds. In addition, there's no scientific evidence that suggests that any of these enzymes are beneficial.
Finally, Spirulina contains 2,300% more iron that spinach, 3,900% more beta carotene than carrots, 300% more calcium than whole milk, 375% more protein than tofu and sells for $50 a pound, which makes it one of the most expensive superfoods out there. Technically these nutrition facts are true "per calorie" and not "per serving", which are usually so tiny that you'd be lucky to get a few grams of protein for example, and you'll go broke in the process. Additionally, spirulina is often erroneously and dangerously said to contain vitamin B12. Taking spirulina for vitamin B12 might increase the risk of deficiency in this essential vitamin since it has an analog form of the vitamin that isn't metabolized by humans.
There are several important factors consumers should consider when buying superfoods. Consumers should make sure there is significant scientific evidence to back up the foods properties. In addition, one should look for alternatives that are more easily accessible and relatively cheaper, yet as super nutritious as superfoods.
Most recently, the USDA questioned the validity of ORAC measurement and removed the USDA ORAC Database for Selected Foods because there is higher evidence suggesting: “the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds.”