Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Super-food: nutritious foods that, when added to an already balanced diet, can bring health benefits. - American Heart Association.
This term has been thrown around a lot, especially in light of the rise of social media. From coconut oil to kale chips, we hear a lot of these Instagram-worthy, powerhouse-type foods that will supposedly make us skinnier, sexier, and healthier. But how much of this is true?
The term superfood was first coined not by a nutritionist, dietician, or even a doctor. The United Fruit Company started using this term during World War I as a part of their marketing campaign for their new exotic fruit import: bananas. After the United Fruit Company released a series of pamphlets and newspaper ads that labeled bananas as superfoods, the USA went into a banana diet frenzy.
Yes, bananas are a super healthy food that everyone should include in their diet. However, the United Fruit Company and other corporations were more intrigued by how the word “superfood” increased their sales. Fast forward to the 21st century where we have smartphones, social media, and a whole "diet culture," and it now seems as though there’s a new and improved superfood list each month. That’s because food distribution companies conduct trend analyses that prove what the United Fruit Company first discovered a century ago, the term superfood is a lucrative marketing strategy in itself. Since 2015, foods and beverages that carry the “superfood” label have seen a 36% increase in sales. As a result of this finding, there are now three times as many foods that carry the label of "superfood."
So what’s all the hype about? Don’t we all already know that vegetables and whole grains are good for us? Dr. Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public health professor right here at NYU, writes in her new book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, that every superfood that has been studied is already widely considered to be healthy. “Why would you need to research to prove that blueberries or raspberries or pomegranates or grapes are healthy?” She poses. “Of course they’re healthy. So the only reason [companies] are doing it is because they’re trying to increase market share.” The term ultimately just preys on our nation's ignorance and vulnerability when it comes to nutrition. Labeling a fruit or a vegetable as a “superfood” doesn’t mean there’s been a groundbreaking discovery proving that pineapple cures cancer or that salmon gives you lungs of steel. Superfoods have always been regarded as healthy, but food companies know that the superfood label makes us want to buy them more.
It’s important to remember that foods that aren’t considered “superfoods” are still crucial to a well-balanced diet. The American Heart Association’s (AHA) definition of “superfood’ explicitly says that superfoods can’t make you healthy if you don’t eat a balanced diet. The AHA labels berries, but not all fruits, as superfoods, and it includes leafy greens, but no other vegetables. This doesn’t mean that only berries and leafy greens are good for you, rather they can bring some health benefits to someone who already eats a balance of other fruits and veggies. Even if food companies decide to label more products as superfoods each year, that doesn’t detract from the nutritious value of other whole ingredients.
Superfoods, like all other foods, can be bad when consumed in excess. Take coconut oil for example. It’s been referred to as a superfood for several reasons; it improves hair and skin health, raises good cholesterol, and kills harmful pathogens. However, more modern research says it’s nothing more than an unhealthy saturated fat, with links to increased LDL cholesterol (i.e. the bad cholesterol), high blood pressure, and heart disease. This doesn’t mean that you should never eat coconut oil, but that you shouldn’t eat it excessively just because it has this label of a superfood. Like all foods, it is best for you when consumed in moderation with other food groups.
So, in short, the term “superfood” is just a marketing label. They are extremely healthy, but they can’t cure all of your health concerns if you fail to eat a healthy balance of carbs, proteins, fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If you are concerned about your health, don’t rush to grab the chia pudding and hemp hearts from the back aisle of Trader Joe's. Start by eating a balanced plate of healthy grains, veggies, and lean protein, then maybe work some “superfoods” into your diet. Eating should always be a fun, relaxing, and healing experience, so go out and eat your favorite foods. Only you should dictate your diet.