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01st Mar 2024

What are superfoods and are they a real thing?

Anna Martin


Superfoods. Are they just snake oil or is there something, well, super about them?

It started with spinach, then moved on to blueberries and somewhere in between we got salmon maybe or it could have been kale, who knows at this point?

Of course, these foods are nutritious, not always delicious but they definitely packed full of vitamins and minerals but why do they get a Marvel-like title?

Well, we went down a rabbit hole to find out more and put it all together in one handy-dandy article.

Where did the name come from?

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Interestingly, not from nutrition scientists or dietitians. One of the earliest recorded examples may have taken place in the early 20th century around World War I, used as part of a food marketing strategy.

The United Fruit Company initiated an enthusiastic advertising campaign to market bananas to the public using the term before it was part of anyone’s everyday lingo.

According to the Harvard School of Health, an article published in a 1918 volume of The Scientific Monthly, noted “since the edible portion is surrounded by a thick enveloping skin it is effectively protected against the attacks of bacteria, moulds and other agencies of decomposition,” about the fruit.

As the fruit’s popularity began to grow so did its moniker.

For a time, doctors even endorsed bananas as a means to combat a number of ailments, including celiac disease and diabetes.

What actually makes them ‘super?’

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Superfoods are generally described as having special healthy effects, such as “cholesterol-lowering” or “cancer-preventing.”

Some of these foods may actually have evidence behind them to support the claims as they’re generally foods that are nutrient-dense, and packed with antioxidants or vitamins.

Yet the issue comes when this is linked to a health effect, such as the impact of antioxidants.

The evidence is derived mostly from studies that show that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables produces a number of health benefits.

So, we conclude antioxidants are good. If we now have a food that is high in a particular antioxidant, we may call this a superfood.

There is nothing ‘super’ about that food, other than it has a high concentration of certain antioxidants.

It’s more about super sales

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“Superfood” is a marketing term, invented in order to sell products. It’s not a legitimate concept in nutritional science and has no standard definition.

Sure, some foods might be more nutrient-dense than others, but in the scheme of a well-rounded, varied diet, they’ll make no difference.

A 2017 study in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity found, not surprisingly, that superfood consumption is highest among those with more disposable income.

It also suggested that people opt to eat “superfoods” due to the perception that it’s what “high-class” people do.

Your overall diet and long-term eating patterns will always matter more than any single food.