Ever wondered what exactly health writers, brands, and nutritionists mean when they use the term “superfoods”? You’re not alone.
The term, despite being wildly popular, has no formal medical or scientific definition. Apart from singing these foods’ praises, blogs and articles provide few guidelines as to where the list starts and stops – for some writers, beans, apples and spinach top the list, whereas for others, exotic powders from ancient cultures are seen as the ultimate superfoods.
This week, I would like to provide some clarity about superfoods, and give you some tips on how to incorporate them into your diet.
From a nutritional perspective, superfoods are foods that contain large quantities of beneficial macro- and micro-nutrients.
Macro-nutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) feature in large quantities in food, and contribute to the energy (caloric) value of the food. Micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) only feature in small quantities and do not influence the caloric value of food.
Both types of nutrients, when consumed in the correct quantities and ratios, contribute to health and longevity.
With micro-nutrients in particular, the aim is to consume foods that are as high in vitamins and minerals as possible.
It is also important to ensure that our food choices are high in antioxidants, which may contribute to keeping cancer at bay; and phytochemicals, natural chemicals that give plants their rich colours and smell, and are beneficial to human health, as possible.
“Superfoods” is technically a marketing term as opposed to a scientific one. This means that there isn’t one specific food group that can be labelled as a “superfood”.
Within each food group, however, there are certain foods that stand out more than others in terms of their nutritional value.
This would move them into the “superfoods” category. For example, wild caught Alaskan salmon is known for its high beneficial Omega-3 content, which allows this particular salmon to earn the title of a “superfood” within the fish sub-category.
The important thing to remember is that when foods are consumed in their unprocessed, unrefined, whole state, they are teeming with beneficial nutrients.
Organic whole foods, in particular, are very beneficial, as they do not contain any pesticides and chemicals that could be harmful to human health. From this perspective, and keeping the definition of superfoods in mind, consuming a varied, whole foods diet is in many senses, a superfood diet.
Some of the top whole foods superfoods include:
Berries (blueberries, goji berries, cranberries, acai berries)
Raw nuts and seeds
Grass-fed dairy and eggs
Wild caught Alaskan salmon
Beans and legumes
The other connotation of superfoods is more exotic, and includes dried powders, fruits and pastes from across the globe.
Usually revered by ancient cultures for their specific health-promoting benefits, these superfoods are highly concentrated in vitamins and minerals.
Each of these products are usually known for a key benefit or healing property – for example, maca powder is synonymous with increased energy and stamina (a favourite among athletes), while camu-camu powder is a vitamin C powerhouse that may prove useful for fighting colds, flu, and inflammation.
Here is my list of three easily accessible “exotic” superfoods that you can incorporate into your diet for a health boost:
Flax, hemp, and chia seeds: These seeds are all high in inflammation-fighting Omega-3 fatty acids.
For optimal health, it is important to balance your Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acid intake, as Omega-6 (found in most vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, grains, and animal products) tends to promote inflammation, while Omega-3 (found in fish, nuts and seeds) tends to reduce inflammation. Grind a tablespoon of either seed (or a mix of all three) in a coffee grinder just before eating and add to smoothies, cereals, or porridges.
Maca: For a caffeine-free energy-boost, add a teaspoon or two of maca powder to your smoothie or cereals, or incorporate it into your own raw treats such as date balls or brownies.
Cacao: Who doesn’t love chocolate? Raw, unprocessed cacao has an exceptionally high ORAC (oxygen radical absorption capacity) count. This means that it is rich in antioxidants that gets lost during high heat processing in conventional cacao.
You can purchase either raw cacao powder, or cacao nibs. Add some to smoothies, coffee, yoghurt, or milk.
Note: cacao is naturally bitter, so combining it with a natural sweetener such as raw honey or dates makes it more palatable.
If you aren’t sure where to start, there are also a number of convenient superfood powder mixes available at most health stores.
These are formulated to provide a balance of nutrients for your nutritional needs.
Because at the end of the day, we believe that every superhero needs to be equipped to save the day, no matter what phase of life they are in.
Tracy Venter has an MSc in personalised nutrition, and her column appears twice a month.