Are superfoods real?

Are superfoods real? There’s surprisingly little science around them – but still plenty of reasons to include so-called superfoods in your diet

Are you eating enough superfoods? It’s the kind of question – like whether you’re drinking enough water, or sleeping enough – that seems designed to make you feel anxious and guilty.

Everywhere you look, influencers are filling their social feeds with multicolour mosaics of fruit and veg (#breakfastbants), while supermarket displays claim to be stuffing your daily superfood intake into shakes and ready meals.

But what are superfoods, what do they do for you, and should they really be the endgame of your nutritional strategy? Here’s what you need to know. 

What is a superfood?

There’s no legal or scientific definition of a superfood – there’s no threshold of goodness a type of potato, for example, has to hit before it makes the grade. That makes the term a bit nebulous to start with, but it’s mostly used to define foods that are loaded with nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and other active compounds with antioxidant or anti-inflammatory properties.

This can mean they’ll improve your mood and your health in the short term, but also gives them more important long-term effects – antioxidants, for instance, might reduce the damaging effects of free radicals, which have been linked to a whole host of diseases including Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Ideally, you’d get enough of all these nutrients from a normal, balanced diet. But with many modern, processed foods stripping out the beneficial stuff in favour of extended shelf life, improved cost efficiency and what food-scientists call ‘mouthfeel’, it’s a good idea to check you’re actually getting them. 

So where’s the problem? Well, firstly, since there’s no agreed way to define a superfood, the term’s open to abuse. This can happen with individual foods, but it’s more common with processed products – supermarkets are happy to plaster the ‘superfood’ label all over pre-packed salads, frozen sweet potato fries, or (true story) brownie mix, happily ignoring that the actual ‘superfood’ content of them is outweighed by the amount of sugar, fat or calories they pack in.

The fix to this is fairly simple – if your ready-made pancake powder’s bigging itself up because it has chickpea flour and baobab pulp in it, check the rest of the ingredients and then make a decision. Or preferably, ignore the ‘superfood’ label entirely, and stick to making your meals from whole, natural ingredients, using superfoods where it’s practically possible.

So, that's the science (or lack of) around superfoods, but which foods really live up to the super name?

Superfoods: Proteins

Eggs are a true superfood, containing high-quality protein, healthy fats, and a diverse range of vitamins and nutrients.

For fish, choose salmon where you can – it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acid, high in B vitamins and loaded with potassium.

If you're a meat-eater your best bet is to keep it lean and red to pack in protein and B vitamins – venison is one of the best, but grass-fed steak is another good option.

Veggie or vegan? Use a mixture of legumes and pulses in your cooking – they’re not just a good way to pack in protein, but a key way to ensure you’re loading up on hard-to-get B vitamins. 

Superfoods: Fats 

You’ll get good fats from eggs and meat, but top up with raw, unsalted nuts, extra virgin olive oil or flax seeds. And yes, they might be everywhere, but avocados deserve all the love they get - as well as being packed with heart-healthy monounsaturates, they offer a good hit of potassium and fibre. 

Superfoods: Fruits and vegetables

Aim for a mixture of colourful leafy greens and cruciferous veg such as broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower. Yes, kale is packed with vitamins A, C and K, but don’t ignore spinach and rocket – they’re both nutrient dense, and if you find them easier to eat then you’re on to a winner. Cruciferous veg, meanwhile, tends to be rich in cancer-fighting compounds, calcium, magnesium and iron.

A mix of colourful berries is also ideal – blueberries in particular are packed with antioxidants – but don’t forget tomatoes, which are packed with cancer-fighting lycopene (and especially important for men). Cook them rather than keeping them raw to make the lycopene more bioavailable to your body. 

Superfoods: Carbs

When you’re looking to round out your meals, sweet potatoes are a great option – they’re an excellent source of Vitamin C, as well as potassium and beta-carotene.

Quinoa is high in fibre, protein and resistant starch – the name for carbs that resist digestion in the small intestine and ferment in the large intestine, acting as a natural prebiotic – and also high in phytonutrients, which could help fight heart disease and cancer. 

Superfoods: Summary

So, are superfoods real? Yes, in that some foods pack more of a nutritional punch than others, but there is no special 'superfood' stamp of approval.

Just try to make sure you’re getting a mixture of the above throughout each day. Ideally, you’d have a good source of protein, a healthy form of fat and either a fruit or vegetable in every meal.

Also try to get a mixture of colours where you can, avoid processed foods where possible, and if you have to eat something out of a packet scan the label for artificial ingredients and high levels of fat, sugar and salt.