Superfood is a marketing term used to describe foods with supposed health benefits.
The superfood term is not in common use by dietitians and nutrition scientists, many of whom dispute that particular foodstuffs have the health benefits often claimed by advocates of particular superfoods.[n 1]
The Macmillan dictionary defines 'superfood' as a food that is considered to be very good for your health and that may even help some medical conditions.
The group Cancer Research UK says, "the term 'superfood' is really just a marketing tool, with little scientific basis to it". Another source defines superfood as "a non-medical term popularized in the media to refer to foods that can have health-promoting properties such as reducing one's risk of disease or improving any aspect of physical or emotional health. So-called superfoods may have an unusually high content of antioxidants, vitamins, or other nutrients."
Use of the term
Many recent superfood lists contain common food choices whose nutritional value has been long recognized. Examples of these would be berries, nuts and seeds in general, dark green vegetables (such as kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli), citrus fruits, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, vegetables with bright, dark, or intense colors (such as beets and their greens, and sweet potatoes), certain wild mushrooms, many legumes (peanuts, lentils, beans, raw cocoa), and whole grains as a group.
Possibly the most studied superfood group, berries remain under scientific evaluation and are not proven to have "superfood" health benefits. In fact, blueberries, as a popular example, are not especially nutritious, having high content of only three essential nutrients: vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese.
Potential health effects
Cancer Research UK note that superfoods are often promoted as having an ability to prevent or cure diseases, including cancer; they caution, "you shouldn’t rely on so-called 'superfoods' to reduce the risk of cancer. They cannot substitute for a generally healthy and balanced diet".
Possible health benefits and effects of foods described as superfoods are often disputed or unsupported by scientific studies. For example, in one study, raw cocoa had positive effects on blood pressure and markers of heart health, while other research indicated less certainty about the possible effects of cocoa on cardiovascular disease.
The term 'superfood' is often misused, with one expert saying it can actually be harmful when applied to foods which have drawbacks. For example, some seaweeds hailed as superfoods contain natural toxins which are thought by some to increase risk of cancer and liver damage. According to the Dutch food safety organisation Voedingscentrum, the health claims on many of the so-called 'superfoods' such as goji berry, hempseed, chia seeds and wheatgrass are not scientifically proven. The organisation warns that people who go to extremes in their conviction and consume large quantities of specific superfoods end up with an "impaired, one-sided diet".
Dietary supplements industry
Another noticeable consequence of the term 'superfood' is that it is often used as a marketing strategy for companies. For example, many weight loss supplements contain green tea extracts as key ingredients such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Currently, there is insufficient scientific evidence that consumption of green tea or EGCG specifically has any health benefit. Concerning possible anti-cancer effects, a review of research and promotion about green tea produced a 2013 warning letter from the US Food and Drug Administration about false advertising and health claims concerning the effects of green tea consumption.
- "The term 'superfoods' is at best meaningless and at worst harmful," said Catherine Collins, chief dietitian at St George's Hospital in London. "There are so many wrong ideas about superfoods that I don't know where best to begin to dismantle the whole concept."
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