THE BLOG
03/13/2013 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2013

Are 'Superfoods' Really That Super?

The headlines scream from every magazine cover: "Number One Superfood Everyone Should Eat." Superfoods have taken over our collective consciousness as the second coming of food, the saving grace of our health.

Seriously?

We are told by various experts that certain foods are powerful enough to have dramatic effects on the various health conditions that challenge us as a modern society. These foods, some common and some a bit more exotic, have been tapped as the answer to what ails us.

And I am sick to death of the whole idea.

For decades, the natural food and natural healing communities have stressed the fact that eating whole grains, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and fruit are therapeutic for human health. For decades this information was considered in the realm of hippie tree-huggers and was not to be taken all that seriously.

Now we have added the word "super" to some of our foods, elevating them to a special status that, quite frankly, companies are simply using as a means to more profit (think "kale power!"). Whether the food has special nutrient value is barely relevant; the goal is to make us believe it does. In this process, the confusion builds and the true meaning of food is once again lost. We drown in a sea of promises, lost in a maze of information.

The truth is simple. What you eat greatly affects your health, short and long term. We live in an environment where we are bombarded by toxins, both tangible and, well, not so much. Pesticides and GMOs compromise our food; our air is polluted; our water supply is a major source of concern. As a result, we have come to the conclusion (correctly, in my view) that foods with the highest nutrient density are our best hope of staying vital in a rather toxic world.

None of this is new information, but rather a resurrecting of ancient wisdom from cultures that paid attention to the effects of nature on human health.

And with a new fruit, vegetable, nut, seed or spice being knighted with the label "superfood" every day (or so it seems), it can be daunting to figure out just what makes a food, well, super. What do we believe? How can we tell if a food is really all that super?

The theory is that any food that is vibrant in color and freshness, nutritionally dense (meaning a rich source of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, amino acids and other nutrients) qualifies as a "superfood." They are food on steroids, without the steroids. They are powerful, effective allies in our fight to hold onto our collective health.

Nutrient density and diversity are essential to a food being called a "super." The richness of the nutrients in a food and the number of different nutrients help us to understand the super-ness of a particular food. Any superfood worth the label is a rich source of phytonutrients (healthy chemical compounds that exist in plants). Finally, to qualify as "super," a food has to load the body with as many nutrients as possible and be as free as it can be of toxins like pesticides, herbicides, hormones, steroids and other chemicals.

Now, anyone worth their degree in nutrition (me included) will tell you that no one food provides everything for everybody. We will say that variety helps ensure we are getting the nutrients we need to create vital health and wellness. We will say that eating seasonal foods, organic where possible, local when you can and of course, fresh is the best ways to get the life we want from the food we eat.

But can we only create vitality with goji berries? Or quinoa? Or some other exotic ingredient that comes from a faraway land and leaves one heck of a footprint to get to our dinner plate?

The top 10 superfoods, according to WebMD, include salmon, eggs, berries, nuts, beans, sweet potatoes and broccoli.

Nothing exotic here -- just age-old, common-sense eating that is steeped in ancient wisdom, told to children by mothers since the dawn of time: Eat your veggies.

References:

Wolfe,D. (2009). Superfoods: The food and medicine of the future. California: North Atlantic Books.

Rubin, J. (2012). "What does superfood actually mean." ExtraordinaryHealth, Volume15, 26-27.

Perricone,N. (2010). Forever young: The science of nutrigenomics for glowing, wrinkle-free skin and radiant health at every age. New York: Atria Books.

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