What’s So Super About Superfoods?

It’s not hard to get on board with adding more “superfoods” to your diet. Who doesn’t want their food to be super? But here’s a followup question: What are superfoods, really? And what does it take for a food to be deemed super (as opposed to just, ya know, regular healthy)?

If you’ve been pondering these vexing questions lately, you’re not alone. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults report being more focused on their health compared to a year ago, and sales of “functional” foods—i.e., foods that are sold on the premise of being beneficial to your health in some way—spiked by almost 7% in 2021 compared to the year before, per a recent report on food trends from the Institute of Food Technologists. So if you’re looking for the foods that will go above and beyond when it comes to ticking your nutritional boxes, the whole superfoods concept is probably on your radar (and all over your Instagram feed).

The only issue: There’s actually no formal or universal agreement on what actually counts as a superfood. And many items that tend to really let their superfood flag fly tend to be more expensive—and less accessible—compared to those that haven’t earned that sparkly health halo, research shows. As a result, you might be passing up perfectly super (but not so exciting) foods in favor of their flashy, exotic-seeming counterparts—and have a higher food bill to show for it. More luxe and sexy? Yes. More important to include in your diet than many of the more familiar and cost-efficient healthy foods you likely already eat? Not so much, as we’ll discuss.

So exactly what are we getting from these so-called superfoods? Who the heck decides what foods qualify as superior? How important of a role do these foods actually play in your diet? And are they worth shelling out on? We spoke to the experts to help sort this all out. Here’s everything you need to know, plus a look at some of the most nutrient-packed and healthiest foods that can fit the super bill. (Some of them might surprise you!)

What is considered a superfood?

Let’s start with the literal dictionary definition of a superfood. According to Merriam-Webster, a superfood is “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.”

Basically, superfoods are good-for-you and whole or minimally processed foods that are juuust a little extra. “They truly pack a nutritional punch and deliver a substantial dose of disease-fighting nutrients like phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” Charlotte Martin, MS, RDN, author of The Plant-Forward Solution, tells SELF.

For many nutrition experts, it’s those phytonutrients, or plant nutrients—some of which are antioxidants—in particular that set ingredients we often classify as superfoods apart, Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, author of The Superfoods Rx Diet, tells SELF. 

“These plant compounds have the potential function to help support health and reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases beyond simply eliminating potential nutrient deficiencies or supporting energy needs,” Bazilian says. Antioxidants are thought to do this by keeping levels of free radicals—a type of naturally occurring and highly reactive molecule in the body that, in excess, can damage healthy cells—in check, as SELF has explained. (You can read more about the science of how antioxidants are thought to work here.)

For instance, phytonutrients like anthocyanins, found in blue-purple foods like blackberries, blueberries, acai berries, and red cabbage are thought to protect against heart disease and diabetes. Carotenoids, found in red and orange foods like tomatoes and carrots, may reduce the risk of certain cancers and protect skin from the sun’s UV rays.

The thing is, there are no official qualifications or cut-offs for what counts as a superfood versus, well, any generally nutritious food—no minimum amount of antioxidants they must contain (or any other nutrient, for that matter). Unlike other feel-good food claims such as “healthy,” “excellent source of,” and “organic,” the term “superfood” is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means that companies or manufacturers can declare anything a superfood, Noah Quezada, RD, owner of Noah’s Nutrition, tells SELF.

That can definitely lead to some confusion at the supermarket. (Is this kale-infused cereal a superfood?) On the other hand, a broad definition means that lots of the foods you eat on the regular could probably count as superfoods. 

In fact, when you squint hard enough, almost any generally nutritious food—think fruits and veggies, healthy high-fat foods like salmon, eggs, beans, yogurt, and whole grains—can fit under that gigantic umbrella. (There’s no official superfoods list, people!) When you look at it that way, “There really isn’t anything that sets a superfood apart from other healthy foods,” Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, owner of Peace and Nutrition, tells SELF. 

How does a food become a superfood, anyway?

Since there’s no formal criteria for what counts as a superfood, the coveted status is achieved mainly through marketing. Basically, if a brand or manufacturer wants to rebrand a food as “super,” they’ve got free reign to do it, Quezada says.

Whether or not a food ultimately catches on as a superfood really depends on whether the rest of us agree. “Foods become superfoods essentially by popularity in the media,” Jaramillo explains. So once a food that has some eye-catching nutrition stats gets a good ad campaign and enough momentum behind it, boom. “If we can notice a large quantity of vitamins and minerals in the nutrient label…that food has a good chance of becoming a superfood,” Jaramillo says.

This often happens with foods that have been around for pretty much ever and have always been healthy, but that people weren’t really interested in—think kale or Brussels sprouts. Which is great, because both of those foods are really nutritious and yummy! But there’s a downside, since the trend can cause consumers to think of more commonplace healthy foods (like spinach, oats, beans, or apples) as less nutritionally valuable—or even inferior—despite that not being the case, Kansas City-based dietitian and wellness nutritionist Dianna Sinni, RD, LD, tells SELF.

What’s the #1 superfood?

Considering that “superfood” doesn’t even have an official definition, it’s impossible to crown one single food the super-est of all. That said, many experts see plant-based foods as more likely to be worthy of the title compared to most animal-based foods, simply because they give you more nutritional bang for your buck, especially in terms of those aforementioned phytonutrients and antioxidants.

“Plants are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” Quezada says. “When we look at our diet, which is typically low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, we can see that plants are more likely to fill those gaps,” Quezada says. Plant foods are also more likely than animal products to be low in saturated fat, which the USDA generally advises people to limit.

Still, some animal foods may fit the bill. Bazilian considers foods like yogurt and kefir to be superfoods because they’re packed with probiotics to support the population of healthy microbes in your gut microbiome (the ecosystem of organisms that is thought to influence not only your digestive system but your health in many ways). Salmon is widely cited as a superfood too, thanks to its omega-3 fatty acids, linked to heart and brain health.

Do I need to get more superfoods in my diet?

Many experts agree that it’s better to focus on eating a diverse array of whole, natural foods in general rather than chasing down the latest superfood. In other words, you don’t need to eat quinoa and chia seeds every single day. Swapping them out for basic brown rice and peanut butter, or oatmeal and sunflower seeds, is totally awesome.

“It’s important to note that a ‘healthy diet’ is one that provides you with all the nutrients you need, and one single food can’t provide everything,” Quezada explains. “The key to a healthy diet is variety and moderation. You need to eat a variety of foods from all the food groups.”

On the other hand, it’s usually fine to eat lots of a specific superfood if you really love it. Just keep in mind that no one food will completely change the game health-wise (no matter what you might’ve seen about it on Instagram), Bazilian says. Also, don’t eat so much of one superfood that it ends up crowding out other good-for-you options. Diversifying the nutrients in your diet (not to mention, the tastes and textures!) really is key to supporting your health and generally feeling your best.

What’s the new superfood?

It’s hard to stay on top of superfood trends given new ones crop up so often (or recycle themselves over the years). Blueberries, green tea, seeds, avocado, spinach (mmm, try these spinach recipes!), kale, salmon, nuts, garlic, ginger, green tea and fermented foods (like yogurt or tempeh) were the big superfood winners in 2021, according to an annual nutrition survey from Pollock Communications.

If you want to enjoy these superfoods du jour, go for it! Just remember that there are plenty of foods out there that are pretty damn super, even if they’re not thought of as “super” per se. Many of the foods on the list below, for instance, aren’t the hottest new trendy foods—but they’re all pretty darn healthy in their way. So here are 34 foods you could totally call super…if you wanted to.

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