The term “superfood” has become increasingly popular in the media and mainstream language. It is commonly used as a marketing technique to describe foods that will make us healthier, keep us looking young, and prevent illnesses. For example, cocoa, kale, blueberries, and quinoa have all been touted as superfoods due to certain food components that are associated with health benefits.
But are “superfoods” really superior to other foods in the same category? Does kale offer any unique health benefits over its less-popular cousin spinach? The answer is no. Some foods like kale have rocketed into the superfood stratosphere by riding the food trend wave, but there are tons of other foods with proven health benefits that are just waiting for their time to shine.
Many foods contain components or nutrients that are associated with health benefits. These foods, also known as “functional foods,” may play a role in improving overall well-being and reducing or minimizing the risk of certain diseases and other health conditions. Examples include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, some types of seafood, fortified foods and beverages, and some dietary supplements—You could call all of these superfoods since they all contain components or nutrients associated with health benefits. By knowing which foods can provide specific health benefits, you can make food and beverage choices that allow you to take greater control of your health.
3 Superstar Food Components
Functional components of many traditional foods are being discovered and studied, while new food products are being developed to include beneficial components. You’ve probably heard of some of the more common functional components linked to health benefits like whole grains, calcium, and Vitamin D, but there are a variety of others. Check out these three less commonly known food components that are associated with “super” health benefits of their own:
Flavonoids are a class of antioxidants found in a wide variety of sources such as red wine, tea, and dark chocolate. There is growing evidence that moderate long-term intake could have positive health effects against chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and neurodegenerative diseases.
You can find flavonoids in: Berries, cherries, grapes, bananas, apples, oranges, citrus fruits, broccoli, onions, sweet potatoes, chocolate, tea, cinnamon, peanuts, and wine.
Probiotics are live, “healthy” bacteria that promote digestive health and may be important for preventing chronic diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease. While scientists are still figuring out how exactly probiotics work, we know the gut needs probiotics to move food along, keep the “harmful” bacteria at bay, and help fight infections.
Probiotics are naturally found in the body, but can also be obtained through foods and supplements. Lactobacillus is the most common probiotic strain that is found in yogurts and other fermented foods. Probiotics may help:
- Increase the number of helpful bacteria and reduce the number of harmful bacteria in your gut,
- Reduce the risk of certain infections, particularly those of the digestive tract,
- Control or reduce the risk of developing certain allergies,
- Prevent diarrhea and help with digestive regularity, and
- Alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance.
You can find probiotics in fermented food products like: Yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, microalgae, and tempeh.
Soy is a plant-based food derived from soybeans that contain protein, isoflavones, and fiber. Soy is considered a “complete protein,” meaning it has all the essential amino acids to support healthy growth and development. Increasing soy intake has been associated with lowering total cholesterol and LDL levels, thus reducing risk for cardiovascular disease.
Moreover, the antioxidants found in soy have been shown to reduce blood pressure, further highlighting the role of soy in cardiovascular health promotion. Soy has also been associated with lower body weight.
You can find soy in: Tofu, tempeh, miso, soybean oil, soy sauce, soy milk, soy flour, and soy protein concentrate (found in products like veggie burders).
The bottom line is “superfoods” is a generic term used to describe a lot of different foods, but you don't have to eat only whole fruits and vegetables to get your superfood fill. From whole foods to processed foods, there are a variety of foods that provide either inherent or fortified health-promoting nutrients. The best way to ensure a nutritionally adequate diet is to include a wide variety of functional foods in your everyday eating.
Sarah Romotsky, RD, is the Director of Health & Wellness at the International Food Information Council. Sarah leads the development and implementation of strategic communication initiatives on science-based health and wellness topics. A native of Southern California, Sarah received a BA in Mass Communications from UC Berkeley and later completed the Dietetic Program at SF State University.
Main photo credit: MaraZe/Shutterstock.com; Chocolate photo credit: joannawnuk/Shutterstock.com; Yogurt photo credit: mama_mia/Shutterstock.com; Soy photo credit: Igor Dutina/Shutterstock.com