Superfoods. Though conjuring images of exotic mega-veggies in red underwear, blasting vitamins over a produce aisle of limp, regular foodstuffs, the definition of superfoods is in reality more arbitrary. There is no scientific definition – just a general idea that superfoods have high levels of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants (chemicals that fight free radicals, which damage cells) and contribute to aging and the development of diseases like cancer (1, 2).
Superfoods have been getting more exotic (and pricey) over time, but how do they really compare to the everyday heroes? The broccoli, the cauliflower, the spinach and kale – those nutritional powerhouses that aren’t so shiny and tropical. Is there really that much difference? We took to the literature to see just how heroic superfoods really are. Here’s our run down of the 7 top superfoods:
Açaí is touted as an anti-ageing, weight-loss superstar, and indeed, it’s very high levels of anthocyanin antioxidants would slow cell ageing, as well as fight cancer and heart disease. High fiber and low sugar berries keep you fuller and fight blood sugar spikes and cravings, though more research is needed to know for sure.
Açaí is one of few fruits containing heart-healthy oleic acid, which makes it a great choice for keeping the ticker running smoothly. Watch out, though – açaí is often sold as powders, juices or tablets, which can not only be crammed full of sugar, but often contain little to no açaí at all! Best to eat fresh when they’re available, and choose another high-antioxidant food like blueberries when they aren’t.
Little red gojis have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries for visual ailments, poor circulation and the immune system – but it turns out, they’re incredibly rich in Zeaxanthin, an antioxidant well known for reducing optical problems (4). Goji berries are rich in vitamin B2, A, iron, selenium, antioxidants and a whole ton of vitamin C, but the benefits don’t end there – evidence suggests they can both halt cancer’s progression and make chemo more effective by weakening tumor cells (5).
They’ve also shown a ‘positive effect on overall wellbeing’ including lower fatigue and stress, improved digestion, better athletic performance and sleep, (6) but the studies were all small and short. Still, some pretty encouraging stuff. Look for dried, whole beans for the most benefits – you can eat them raw, in tea or smoothies, on cereals or in salads but they contain sugar so don’t go too crazy!
Cacao is full of flavanol antioxidants – awesome little compounds shown to significantly improve memory and brain function (7), lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to brain and heart and improve cardiovascular health. The benefits of cacao have been widely demonstrated – this chocolatey bad boy is definitely good for you. Plus, with a chocolate flavor and none of the bad stuff that come with regular chocolate, it’s great to add into smoothies and baked goods. One thing to look out though, is that processing can remove up to 90% of these wonderful antioxidants – choose raw varieties to keep the flavanols, phytochemicals and other nutritious benefits.
These little Mexican gems are one of the world's most nutritional foods, calorie-for-calorie, with 11g fiber, 4g protein, 5g omega 3s, 18% RDA of calcium, 30% RDA of manganese and magnesium and 27% of your RDA of phosphorus per 2 tablespoons. They also pack in zinc, potassium and B-vitamins, plus antioxidants (8). Gram for gram they are higher in calcium than dairy – with the added benefit that, unlike dairy, they won’t leach calcium from your bones.
Chia feeds friendly bacteria in the gut bacteria (9), have a great amino balance (10, 11), and absorb water, expanding in the stomach to increase fullness and slow food absorption. Not to mention, it may be a healing factor for diabetes - in a famous study (12), blood pressure and inflammatory marker (hs-CRP) went down 40% and another risk factor, vWF, decreased 21%.
Maca is a root vegetable from the Andes, that is ground into a powder and used to boost energy, endurance, fertility and libido. Though most of the evidence is anecdotal, it has been shown in studies to increase sperm count and mobility, as well as its potential as an adaptogen and as a nutraceutical in preventing a few diseases (13).
These little seeds are high in protein, and contain all the essential amino acids needed for growth and repair. They also have a great ratio of omega 3 to 6, supporting heart and brain health, and as a good source of phosphorus, sodium, sulfur, calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium and potassium – yeah, they’re pretty nutritious!
Hemp seeds have been shown to reduce risk of heart disease in humans (14,15,16) as well as decreasing both blood pressure and risk of blood clots, and aid in the recovery from a heart attack (17, 18, 19) although these have only been demonstrated in animals. Being exceptionally high in arginine make hemp seeds highly anti-inflammatory, and being a good source of fiber aids digestion (20, 21). They’re also rumored to be good for skin disorders and heart disease. We approve!
Matcha is simply concentrated, ground green tea. Whilst there is little scientific testing into Matcha’s health benefits, there are a lot of studies demonstrating green tea’s advantages (22), and it’s a safe assumption that any effect in green tea would be replicated by consuming matcha powder. So here we go:
Green tea is stuffed fill of polyphenol antioxidants, associated with brain protection and cognitive enhancement (23, 24), though more research is needed. It also can boost metabolism (25), and is rich in fibre, chlorophyll and vitamins, plus minerals chromium, magnesium, zinc and selenium. It also has been suggested to lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Most notably, catechins found in green tea may have strong cancer fighting abilities, both protecting cells from DNA damage and inhibiting tumor cells from multiplying (26). Studies have shown its consumption reduces risk of prostate cancer (27). Green tea also enhances concentration and can positively affect mood due to L-theanine (28).
With this many benefits, we’d say Matcha is a pretty good bet for nutritional purposes. But for the budget-conscious of you, I’d recommend green tea… although you have to drink 10 cups a day to match the amount of nutrients found in the powder.
Here at the pricier end of the superfood trend, a lot of the foods that have gained popularity have done so for good reason. As long as they are the real thing, these foods are highly nutritious and if scientific testing has some catching up to do, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. But are they really that much better than everyday foods? Remember to check back next week where we’ll be taking a look at superfoods broccoli, garlic and more!