What are Superfoods?

Ali Holden

by Ali Holden

What are superfoods, and how can they be incorporated into a holistic diet?

Are superfoods really ‘superfoods’ or is it just ‘super-hype’?

In today’s world, the health-conscious are always looking for healthier and cleaner food sources. This has led to the emergence of the term ‘superfoods’, but what are they, and are they really as transformational as we are led to believe (by clever marketing)? 

What are Superfoods?

Generally, it is agreed that Superfoods are foods with extraordinary concentrations of nutrients and biological nutrients with satisfactory bioavailability and bioactivity within the body. Basically, they are packed full of the good stuff you need so that your body can easily access and use for great health, growth and repair. 

Is it correct to talk about superfoods, or does defining them as marketing operations make more sense?

Bananas: the first Superfood

In 1914, The United Fruit Company (USA) embarked on a massive advertising campaign to sell the humble banana (its flagship product at the time).  

The company did what most marketers do: find or create a problem then offer a solution. As part of a daily diet, they created a huge advertising campaign that highlighted the benefits of bananas: “convenient, cheap, nutritious, easily digestible and come ready packaged by nature”. And it worked. 

It worked so well that corporations realised just how much money the public was willing to spend on ‘healthy’, ‘healthier’, ‘may prevent’ or ‘good for XYZ’. And so the scene was set for a marketing strategy to label food as ‘super’; it was a guaranteed way to increase sales (plus if they added a bit of science to pot, the more money they would make). 

The effect of this kind of marketing was highlighted by a survey conducted by YouGov in 2011. It showed that 61% of British people reported buying food because it was considered super.

It’s not that ‘superfoods’ aren’t nutritious (as part of a whole food diet), but it’s important to consider that the naming of a food as ‘super’ is definitely more useful for sales incentives than for providing optimal nutritional recommendations. 

At The Nutritional Healing Foundation, we have several reasons to hesitate over the term ‘superfood’. One is that it gives people the false impression that they can merrily eat as much rubbish as they want, so long as they also have a superfood or two! Which is not the case.

Also, labelling food as ‘super’ often causes people to focus on exotic foods that have accrued a lot of miles to reach their plate.  Add this to the fact that this type of promotion can divert interest away from other equally nutritious but less attractive options. For example, blueberries are easily grown in the U.K., yet, some may consider (due to marketing) that goji berries are healthier and more nutritious… which they’re not!  

From an ecological perspective, as well as a health perspective, it is important to eat foods that are indigenous, in season and organic.  This is what really makes them truly ‘super’. 

Labelling a food as a ‘Superfood’ = super sales

It can be fun to explore individual foods, learn about them, and how to select and prepare them, but you should not be distracted by the latest food or overhyped mania. It is certainly more important to focus on creating a super-dish based on different whole, plant-based foods, which are good for the planet, healthy and tasty at the same time.

Examples of ‘Superfoods’

Foods rich in compounds such as antioxidants, fibre, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals are ALL super in our book. Here are some of our favourite superfoods:

Essentially, all whole fruits, berries and vegetables are super.

Dark green leafy vegetables (DGLVs) 

DGLVs are a fabulous source of nutrients, including folate, zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin C and fibre.  They also contain high levels of inflammatory-modulating compounds known as carotenoids.

Some well-known DGLVs include:

  • Swiss chard
  • Cruciferous Veg (e.g. broccoli) 
  • Mustard greens
  • Rocket
  • Bok choy 
  • Kale
  • Spinach 
  • Collard greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Spinach

Not only are they rammed full of nutrients, but the flavour profile of these fab foods is classed as ‘bitter’.  In Chinese medicine, ‘bitter’ strengthens your liver and gallbladder…a win-win in anyone’s book.  

You can get creative by including them in your favourite soups, salads, smoothies, stir-fries and curries.

Berries

No doubt, berries are a nutritional powerhouse of prebiotics, vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants, flavonoids & more. This strong antioxidant capacity of berries is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and other inflammatory conditions, whilst the other disease-fighting nutrients may also help reduce age-related conditions.

Some of the most common berries include:

  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries 
  • Blackberries
  • Elderberries 
  • Cranberries

Whether you enjoy them as part of your breakfast, as a healthy dessert, on a salad or in a smoothie, the health benefits of berries are as versatile as their culinary applications.

Green Tea

Originally from China, the plant is called Camellia Sinensis, which, surprisingly, is easy to grow in the UK and around the world (making it perfectly possible for you to grow and produce your own tea leaves). If you don’t have the room or the green fingers needed, plenty of companies now home-grow the plant and produce their own green tea. Check out a reliable source in your own backyard for a more sustainable product. 

Highly researched for its medicinal properties, green tea is known to be rich in antioxidants and polyphenolic compounds with strong anti-inflammatory effects. One of the most prevalent antioxidants in green tea is the catechin epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG.

EGCG is likely what gives green tea its apparent ability to protect against chronic diseases and life-threatening conditions; research has suggested that green tea may also help with the following:

  • Alleviating anxiety and stress. 
  • Protection against cognitive decline. 
  • Supporting bone health.
  • Improving longevity. 
  • Lowering cholesterol. 
  • Memory decline. 
  • Managing and preventing type 2 diabetes. 
  • Lowering the risk of stroke.
  • Reducing blood pressure 

Drink 1-4 cups of green tea daily. 

Legumes

“A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family that would also include its leaves, stems and pods.  A pulse is an edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils and peas. For example, a pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse.”

Other examples of legumes or pulses are beans, lentils, peas, peanuts and alfalfa.

They earn the superfood label because they’re loaded with nutrients and play a role in preventing and managing various diseases.

Legumes are a rich source of B vitamins, various minerals, plant protein and fibre.

Research indicates that they offer many health benefits, including improved type 2 diabetes management, reduced blood pressure, and normalised cholesterol.

Eating beans and legumes regularly may also promote healthy weight maintenance due to their ability to improve feelings of fullness.  

Whether you purée them into a dip, use them as a garnish, blend them in a soup, add them to a loaded salad or have them as the star of the show (as in falafels or bean burgers), the versatility of this food group is amazing and very good for increasing your plant-based dietary options.

Tip: if you find eating legumes, especially beans, makes you feel bloated or gives you gas, we suggest that you soak them overnight in clean water with a big squeeze of lime juice in it. 

Nuts and Seeds

We teach our students the importance of activating nuts and seeds before eating them. 

While they are high in fibre, plant-based protein, and heart-healthy fats, they are NOT easy to digest.

What does it mean to activate nuts and seeds?

Activated nuts and seeds are those that have been soaked in water for a while, usually between 6-12 hours and then dehydrated at a low temperature. This process mimics the natural germination process that occurs in nature, triggering enzymes and breaking down compounds like phytates and enzyme inhibitors. The result? Nuts and seeds that are easier to digest packed with nutrients and have a deliciously crispy texture.

Activated nuts and seeds pack various plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which can protect against oxidative stress. For this reason, research indicates that eating nuts and seeds can protect against heart disease. 

Common nuts and seeds include:

  • Almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts.
  • Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds.

Adding nuts and seeds to your diet is an important way to increase your plant-based protein and elevate your good fats. Using them as a handy snack is the ultimate fast food, whilst plopping a few spoons of nut butter into your smoothie makes it even more satisfying, as does making your own granola or muesli.  Cashews work brilliantly to thicken soup/stock, and many other nuts/seeds make delicious dips, and dressings.

(Note: on a technical point of order: peanuts are actually legumes, whilst cashew nuts, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and almonds are all technically seeds).

Turmeric (Curcumin)

Turmeric is a deep, golden-orange spice that adds colour, flavour and nutrition to foods. Easily grown in many different climates (even in the U.K.), turmeric is a relative of ginger and comes from the rhizome (root).  It has been used in cooking for hundreds of years. It has also been used in Ayurvedic and other forms of traditional medicine in China and India.

Touch a small amount of turmeric to your skin and watch how it stains the area for days. This shows its affinity with membranes (inside and outside of your body). It is this affinity that protects against free radical damage and oxidative stress (it protects you). 

Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric. It has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and is the focus of most turmeric research.

Studies show that curcumin may be effective in treating and preventing chronic diseases, whilst it also aids wound healing and pain reduction.  

In addition to these conditions, research studies have shown some possible benefits of turmeric/curcumin for:

  • Inflammation
  • Degenerative eye conditions
  • Metabolic Syndrome 
  • Arthritis 
  • Hyperlipidemia (cholesterol in the blood)
  • Anxiety 
  • Muscle soreness after exercise

Adding turmeric powder to your favourite dip, dressing, soup, stew, casserole, hotpot etc, is a great way to get it into your diet. Take curcumin as a nutritional supplement for optimal health.

Tip: One drawback of using curcumin medicinally is that your body does not easily absorb it.  Its absorption can be enhanced by pairing it with fats (e.g. coconut oil or olive oil in cooking) and black pepper. 

Avocado

Avocado is a highly nutritious fruit, though it’s often treated more like a vegetable in culinary applications.

It’s mega-rich in many nutrients, including fibre, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. 

Like olive oil, avocado is high in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs). Oleic acid is the most predominant MUFA in avocados, which is linked to reduced inflammation in the body.

Like all the superfoods on our list, eating avocado may reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and certain types of cancer.

Avocado makes your smoothie extra creamy and dreamy, guacamole goes with everything in our house, and as for desserts….check out a recipe for vegan avocado mousse, it’s a game changer. 

Sweet Potato – The Healthy Spud

Sweet potato is a great superfood.  It is a versatile root vegetable loaded with many nutrients, including potassium, fibre and vitamins A (one sweet potato delivers 100% of your vitamin A requirements) and vitamin C.

These little fellas are an excellent source of carotenoids, a type of antioxidant that should be at the top of your list for improved skin and eye health.  

It is also claimed that; 

  • They are a great source of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. 
  • They promote good gut health. 
  • They have cancer-fighting properties.
  • They support healthy vision. 
  • They enhance brain function. 
  • They support a healthy immune system.

Despite their sweet flavour, sweet potatoes don’t increase blood sugar as much as expected. Interestingly, they may actually improve blood sugar control in those with type 2 diabetes.  

Ok, they can be roasted, baked, mashed…still yum; however, some creative cooks out there have developed recipes using sweet potatoes as a base for desserts and cakes, pizza bases, nachos, crisps, biscuits and crackers (& more).  They are also fantastic for weaning babies. 

Mushrooms

Some of the most common varieties of edible mushrooms are button, portobello, shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms.

Though nutrient content varies depending on the type, mushrooms contain a good source of plant protein, vitamin A, potassium, fibre and several antioxidants not present in most other foods.

Interestingly, eating more mushrooms is associated with greater consumption of vegetables in general, contributing to an overall more nutritious diet.

Due to their unique antioxidant content, mushrooms may also play a role in reducing inflammation, and, of course, this can help prevent some types of cancers.  Another super feature of mushrooms is that agricultural waste products are used to grow them. This makes mushrooms a sustainable component of a healthy food system. You can also buy mushroom starter kits and begin your mushroom-growing journey, safely in the comfort of your own home. 

Seaweed

Seaweed is a term used to describe certain nutrient-rich sea vegetables. It’s most commonly consumed in Asian cuisine but is gaining popularity in other parts of the world due to its nutritional value.

Seaweed packs multiple nutrients, including vitamin K, folate, iodine and fibre.

These ocean vegetables are a source of unique bioactive compounds, not typically present in land-vegetables allowing them to boast about a host of health benefits including: weight loss, normalising blood pressure, supporting heart health, antiviral properties, cancer prevention and on and on we go. 

Using nori sheets for wraps is quick and easy. Sea spaghetti is another way to switch pasta for a healthier option. Simply adding a small amount to any soup, stew etc will boost its nutritional value and you won’t even know it was there. 

The Bottom Line

Focus on a Super Plate, Not Just a Super Food

Achieving optimal health through food and nutrition is about more than focusing on one or two of the latest food trends.

Instead, good health is best supported by eating various nutritious foods every day.

Including some or all, of the foods on this list as part of a balanced diet can benefit your overall health and happiness (as well as prevent the onset of many diseases).

To your great health. 

What are Superfoods?

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