Super Food or Super Hype? Can you tell the difference?

Are there really super foods?What exactly is a “superfood?” Is it a special category of food that is unusually high in nutrients? Does it have the power to cure disease?

Although the word does appear in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and all over popular media, it is not recognized by dietitians as a definitive classification for foods or beverages. There are no standards a food has to meet to be called a “superfood.” Rather, it is a descriptive term used by food marketers to promote products with supposed health benefits.

For example, it is true that açai berries are low in calories and high in vitamin A and antioxidants. However, their Amazonian origin does not bestow magical properties upon them. Sweet potatoes, carrots and cantaloupes offer much higher levels of vitamin A at a much lower price. Do you love açai juice or smoothies? Check the ingredients list, because often those drinks are composed mostly of apple, pear or orange juice. Açai is added to boost the color and the price. The same goes for goji berries. Yes, they are full of vitamin A, selenium, riboflavin and antioxidants, but so are lots of other, less expensive foods.

Marketers of these “superfoods” and media-saavy “doctors” may proclaim the powers of these foods to fight disease; control blood sugar, cholesterol  or weight; boost your mood, metabolism or endurance; protect your skin or eyes; and even kill cancer cells. Sadly, there are no good studies to back up those claims. One example of marketing gone wild is the case of POM Wonderful. The company claimed its juice could prevent heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction. In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission told POM its ads were “false and unsubstantiated,” and they were violating a ban on deceptive advertising. POM appealed the ruling in 2015 and lost.

Super Good Choice

Sometimes foods or products proclaiming “super” status are a good choice, and they make a nice addition to an overall healthful diet. Here are just a few foods and their positive attributes:

  • Flaxseeds – omega-3 fatty acids and fiber
  • Quinoa – fiber and protein
  • Blueberries – vitamin C, vitamin K and antioxidants
  • Avocado – healthy fat and fiber
  • Kale – calcium, folate, vitamin A, vitamin K
  • Fermented Foods – probiotics
  • Pumpkin – vitamin A and fiber

Can you tell the difference? Laurie Ledford , registered dietitian at Tucson Medical Center's Wellness Department fills you in on the deets!

Other “Superfoods” Are Not so Amazing:

  • Alkaline Water – there is no evidence that it kills cancer cells or soothes acid reflux; plain old water hydrates just as well
  • Apple Cider Vinegar – there are no good studies that demonstrate it can actually control blood sugar or weight
  • Lemon Water – does not actually boost your metabolism
  • Coconut Oil – high in saturated fat, which is not good for cardiovascular health
  • Whole Milk – also high in saturated fat

Super Health Risks

Watch out! Some so-called “superfoods” can pose a potential health risk. Sprouts (alfalfa, radish, broccoli sprouts, etc.) are indeed nutrient-rich, and they can provide a nice crunch in a salad or on a sandwich. Unfortunately, they could be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, such as E. coli or Salmonella. These bacteria love the kind of warm, humid environment in which sprouts are grown. According to, there have been more than 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts in the last 20 years. Please consider that when deciding whether or not to include sprouts with your dish.

Another risky “superfood” is raw milk, which is milk that hasn’t been heat-treated to kill bacteria (a process called pasteurization). Proponents claim that this type of milk contains more vitamins, minerals, probiotics and enzymes than pasteurized milk. However, the protein, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D are most likely not affected by pasteurization. Vitamin C will certainly be destroyed, but even raw milk contains relatively little vitamin C. A safer choice would be to get that vitamin, and your probiotics and enzymes, from other foods in your diet.

Everyday Diet Key to Your Health

It is your overall diet and daily habits that have the largest impact on your health. No single food or food group can cure disease, improve your metabolism or give you super-human strength. To satisfy all your nutrient needs you need to eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Think of them as your team of superheroes. You can support this team and protect your health by adopting a routine of healthy habits:

  • Move your body every day.
  • Get the best sleep you can every night.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • Don’t neglect your mental/emotional/spiritual health.

Laurie Ledford RDLaurie Ledford is a registered dietitian from Atlanta, Georgia, the land of grits, collard greens and super-sweet iced tea. She now works as a registered dietitian  in the Tucson Medical Center Wellness Department. She enjoys helping people improve their health through sustainable dietary changes while still relishing occasional indulgences. In her off hours, Laurie engages in foodie pursuits such as sampling unusual flavor combinations (olive oil and basil ice cream was a good one) as well as hiking and skeptical of the next “superfood” claim you see or hear!


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