We’ve got news for you: technically, there is no such thing as a "superfood." That's a term created by the food industry. Many of the so-called superfoods do deliver significant nutritional benefits, but beyond that, there's nothing magical about them. They certainly don't have the power to cure or prevent any one disease on their own.
What Superfoods Actually Do
So why do we call certain foods super? Many superfoods contain high levels of nutrients called antioxidants. These help protect our cells from free radicals (side effects of our natural bodily processes), which create oxidative stress and can contribute to cancer, heart disease, and other diseases. While they won't cure cancer, eating superfoods may lower your risk.
Unfortunately, these antioxidant-rich foods tend to come with a hefty price tag. So, if you’re interested in learning about which superfoods are actually worth the expense, this is the article for you.
Superfoods Worth the Price
Nearly all berries deserve the superfood title. They're a great source of antioxidants like vitamins C and K1. What’s more, they’re low in sugar compared to many other fruits. A few standout examples from this group include raspberries and blueberries, as well as a few extra-potent varieties like goji and açai.
A common measure of a food’s antioxidant capacity is its Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) value, and both goji and açai berries more than double the content of many other berry varieties. However, scientists note that ORAC value is an oversimplification of the relative nutritional value and health benefits. So if those imported goji berries seem super expensive, feel free to stick with locally-grown blueberries.
These plump little seeds are native to Central America. Chia is particularly popular as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to many components of health including proper brain function (they're also found in fatty fish like salmon). Additionally, chia seeds also pack more fiber than many other grains, and they offer both a higher proportion of and a more complete profile of protein. The nearly tasteless seeds swell up when soaked in liquid, so they’re delicious in agua fresca or pudding.
As plant-based eating continues to increase in popularity, sources of plant protein do too. One challenge of plant-based eating is that most plant proteins offer an incomplete number of the essential amino acids (proteins) we need. But hemp protein offers all 9 of the amino acids the human body can't produce on its own, and it's easily digestible. It’s also a rich source of fiber, phosphorous, iron, and magnesium, which is essential for energy production in the body. It’s nutty in taste, so try a spoonful in your morning smoothie, or use the seeds to make hemp milk.
Ginger is popular the world over for its spicy, slightly sweet taste. Native to Southeastern Asia, it’s been used in many culinary dishes, teas, and homeopathic medicines for centuries. More recently, it's made its way to western nations as a popular superfood. Ginger is known for its ability to fight inflammation, which is related to a host of diseases including osteoarthritis and Crohn’s disease. Further, it’s been shown to have antibacterial and antiviral properties, which helps explain why it’s a popular choice as a first-line defense against illness.
Garlic isn’t pricey or trendy, but it’s stood the test of time as a superfood. It’s particularly high in Vitamins C and B6, and in manganese, which is a trace mineral that is vital for proper nervous system function. One of garlic’s compounds, diallyl sulfide, demonstrates a far more powerful antibacterial effect than two commonly prescribed antibiotics. It’s also a strong antioxidant and has been shown to help with high blood pressure, cholesterol, and heavy metal detoxification. For maximum benefit, eat raw or minimally processed garlic, crushing or mincing it first to release its beneficial compounds.
Mushrooms have also launched into the superfood spotlight lately, finding their way into protein powders, lattes, and supplements galore. There are thousands of species of mushrooms, and to say that they’re all of equal benefit would be inaccurate. But it is true that all varieties are rich in beta-glucans, a fiber known for its immune system-boosting effects. Some of the best-studied mushrooms include reishi, turkey tail, and shiitake. Each show particular promise as anti-cancer agents, likely related to the immune-enhancing properties found in most mushrooms. That said, no one mushroom has been fully accepted by the mainstream medical community as a treatment or complement to cancer care.
Sea vegetables are edible marine algae and include red, green, and brown varieties. Common culinary varieties are kelp, nori, dulse, wakame, and kombu. Chlorella and spirulina make for popular choices as supplements. They’re an overall nutrient powerhouse, supplying omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and iodine, a nutrient that’s crucial for thyroid function but is often insufficient in many modern diets. That said, the issue of oceanic pollution and unclean growing conditions is a very relevant concern for this class of superfoods, so be sure to do your homework before you invest or ingest any sea vegetable or similar supplement on a regular basis.
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