Debunking miracle foods: Are exotic superfoods better than ordinary produce?

Sep 3, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. ET

Ten years ago, had you ever heard of goji (or wolf) berries or noni? Weren't cranberries just the canned jelly you had with your turkey at Thanksgiving, and broccoli the stuff that George Bush, Sr. refused to eat? Today many ordinary fruits and vegetables are deemed superior in nutrition, but there is also a host of exotic "superfoods" claimed to have near miraculous nutritional powers. Read on for more information debunking the so-called superiority of superfoods.


Many fruits and vegetables are superfoods

Exotic berries, cranberries, broccoli and many other fruits and vegetables, from acai (fruit of a Central and South American palm) to yacon root (sweet tasting tubers from Peru) are all supposedly superfoods — foods that some people believe have almost miraculous health-giving properties.

Superfoods are said to have high levels of particular nutrients, such as vitamin C in rose hips, polyphenols in pomegranates or flavonoids in blueberries. Superfoods are bursting with antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber and many other nutritional goodies. But do fruits and vegetables, particularly the exotic ones, deserve all the healthful hype?

Exploding the superfood myth

The problem with many of the claims for superfoods is that many of them have not been proven. In June 2007, the European Union banned the use of the word "superfood," unless it is used with specific health claims explaining the benefits of the product.

Some examples of superfood myths:
  • Berries are claimed to help brain development and increase IQ, but there is no published evidence to support this.
  • Seaweed is supposed to stimulate the immune system, increase brainpower and protect against a range of disorders, but it contains exactly the same nutrients as in everyday green vegetables. Seaweeds may even contain natural toxins that can be harmful.
  • Wheatgrass is claimed to clean and detoxify the blood, but green vegetables contain just as much vitamin C and folic acid. Further, the human body can't absorb the plant's chlorophyll — another component of wheatgrass (as well as other plants) claimed to deliver a bounty of health properties.
Just because a particular food is full of a certain nutrient doesn't necessarily mean that eating more of it would be better for you, explains Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George's Hospital in London, UK in an article by Amelia Hill in UK newspaper The Observer in May 2007.

And some exotic superfoods aren't even eco-friendly

With the eco-friendly push to buy local foods, the superfoods from exotic locales aren't exactly leaving a small carbon footprint.

So-called superfoods are not only expensive, they have to be shipped from overseas, which piles on the "food miles." According to Toby Smithson, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and community dietitian for the Lake County Health Department, "You are better off getting your ‘5+ a day' from a range of sources rather than focusing on a few expensive superfoods."

Basically, the recommendations that have been in place for years are still the best advice — eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and consume at least five servings a day. If you happen to have the opportunity to include an exotic fruit or vegetable, it simply adds to the variety you should already be focused on consuming.

Despite the debunking, some foods may have superior nutritional powers

There is some scientific evidence about the positive effects of some foods — but don't forget that a lot of these studies are still in the early stages, may be carried out only on specific types of people, or are conducted with extracts of the foods rather than the foods themselves. Regardless, here are some superfoods with scientific backing:

Chocolate: Eating some "superfoods" isn't exactly a strain — chocolate is a welcome addition to most diets. Cocoa has been shown to have even higher levels of antioxidants than red wine, according to research at Department of Food Science and Technology at Cornell University. (Antioxidants come up regularly in conversations about superfoods, and early results suggest that they might help in preventing cancer and heart disease, but the jury is still out.) Chocolate even seemed to work as a cough remedy in a study carried out at Imperial College London, UK. But… don't forget that chocolate is high in sugar and saturated fat, so keep it in moderation!

Red rice: In a study in Chinese people who had had a heart attack (published in The American Journal of Cardiology in June 2008), Xuezhikang (XZK), a partially purified extract of red yeast rice (a fermented form of rice) taken for over four years, reduced heart attacks and improved blood fats. Other studies show that red rice reduces total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Broccoli and tomatoes: Rats given broccoli and tomato powder showed smaller prostate tumors than those not given the supplements, in a study at the University of Illinois published in the journal Cancer Research in January 2007. This was an early study in animals — a study in men, published in the journal PLoS ONE in July 2008, suggested that extra portions of broccoli might reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Research in the August 2008 issue of the journal Diabetes suggested that broccoli might also reduce some of the harmful effects of diabetes, but this was in human cells in the laboratory, so needs further work in animals and humans to see if there is a real effect.

Still, the best advice is eat a variety of foods

Though some superfood products might do what the manufacturers say they do, you should still consume the majority of your fruits and vegetables from your local supermarket produce aisle.

Until more scientifically valid studies are conducted, proving the superior health benefits of superfood products, get plenty of fruit and vegetables of any kind into your diet, and don't restrict yourself to just the ones that are listed as "super" — you could spend a lot of money that could have been better used to buy a wide variety of cheaper, "ordinary" fruits and veggies. And although that "ordinary" array of fresh produce may not be exotic, it still provides wonderful tastes, textures and nutrients.

Smithson says, "I recommend to consumers to keep their diet ‘rich,' meaning that they should choose nutrient-rich foods, those that give you more nutrition (vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients) per calorie that you consume. These types of foods help protect against illness and reduce the risks of chronic diseases."

What about those exotic foods — don't you get what you pay for? According to Smithson, not necessarily. "Nutrient foods do not need to be the expensive, exotic types of foods. Choose fresh whole fruits, colorful vegetables, switch out refined grains for whole grains, use lean meats or beans such as pinto, kidney, black, or navy beans for your low-fat protein source, and choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products such as skim or 1% milk," he adds. These recommendations mean you don't have any excuse for eating a nutrient-poor diet — these foods are readily available at nearly every grocery store.

Bottom line

It doesn't matter whether it's fresh, frozen, canned, dried or 100 percent juice, aim for 1 to 2-1/2 cups of fruit and 1 to 4 cups of vegetables a day depending on your age, gender and activity (but there's nothing stopping you from having more!).
Also, try and get as many different colors on your plate as possible — not only does it look good, it tastes great and will provide you with a wide range of nutritionally-potent phytochemicals that won't break the bank. Lastly, when possible, opt for locally grown fruits and vegetables and save the environment along with your health!

Additional reading on superfoods and nutrition

Five (ordinary) superfoods to supercharge your health
Vegetables from the sea: Sea-living superfoods
Seven super spices for super health