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What’s So Super About Superfoods?

Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 8, 2023

Over the course of the past decade, the term “superfood” has become a common part of the national lingo. While there is no official FDA-approved definition of what a superfood is, those in the food industry seem to agree that it is a group of foods that each contain a very high number of nutrients, including antioxidants. In today’s “get healthy quick” society, what’s not to love about the idea of a food that claims to have it all and do it all? 


According to the Harvard School of Health, the term “superfood” originated with The United Fruit Company around the time of World War I to market its bananas. The company published pamphlets that included information about the nutritional content of the banana and encouraged people to eat more of them because of how plentiful, healthy, and cheap they were. Shortly thereafter, the American Medical Association endorsed bananas as a cure for celiac disease if given to a child who had it. While we now know that gluten found in grains is actually the culprit for those diagnosed with celiac disease, the thought of a cure propelled bananas to real “superfood” status in the eyes of those parents. 


Beyond bananas, there are some other well known superfoods. Berries–specifically blueberries–are the most well-known superfood group. Though small in size, these mighty fruits are packed with a specific antioxidant called anthocyanin, which can help you lower your risk for coronary heart disease. 


So, considering the emphasis the health industry puts on antioxidants nowadays, what are they anyway?


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Put as simply as possible: they are molecules that work to protect the cells in the body from what are known as “harmful free radicals.” These free radicals are created naturally and also come from sources such as alcohol and cigarettes. Having too many free radicals in our body can cause cell damage and lead to major diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. 


So here we have it–our superhero antioxidants with their little blue cape, fighting off the free radicals and carrying us through the air to good health.


However, we clearly wouldn’t be very healthy trying to survive on blueberries alone. Not only might we look like Smurfs, we also wouldn’t be able to survive all that long because no matter how many antioxidants blueberries contain, they don’t provide all the nutrients you need to be a fully functioning healthy human.


So what are some other foods that make the cut to superfood status? 


Well, fish for starters. Fish (particularly salmon) are rich in omega 3 fatty acid–an essential nutrient and well-known antioxidant that your body cannot produce on its own. Omega 3s are known for “lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and decreasing risks of diseases.” Additionally, fish don’t just provide antioxidants, but also give a good dose of low-fat protein. Salmon in particular also has B vitamins and potassium.


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Omega 3 Fatty Acids Explained

And we’ve all heard about the “good fats” in nuts, right? Touted for years as a great source of vegan protein, nuts are also a great source of antioxidants, and walnuts in particular have a high ratio of omega 3s. “A handful of walnuts contains almost twice as much antioxidants as an equivalent amount of any other commonly consumed nut,” says Joe Vinson, Ph.D. Another bonus to eating walnuts in particular is that people generally tend to eat them unroasted. Since torching nuts can reduce the amount of nutrients you get from them, eating walnuts unroasted means you get the benefits of everything it has. 


Lastly, what about grains? It’s all the rage to go gluten free/carb free or grain free. If that’s you, maybe you’ve made that choice because your body needs it but you might want to remember our good friend quinoa. Though technically a seed, quinoa is usually included in the grains category because of the space it occupies on your plate. One of the original superfoods, quinoa is packed with vitamins and minerals including manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, folate, and thiamin. Unlike rice, it is also considered a complete protein, meaning you don’t need to add anything to it to get the full benefit of protein. 


While we may live in a “now” culture where we expect things to happen instantly, it’s clear that despite the moniker “superfood,” none of these foods independently contain all of the nutrients one needs to survive–and none of them are likely to work magic instantly. Ultimately, the more we develop a taste for a variety of these “superfoods” and the more they are integrated into our snacks and mealtimes, the more we’ll be giving those pesky free radicals a run for their money.

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