Less than a decade ago, food was food. It’s what you ate when you were hungry, and if you wanted to eat healthy, you selected something labeled ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ as a snack or meal addition.
All of a sudden, ordinary foods we’d known for years were joined by extraordinary foods we’d likely never heard of in a new rank of “do more” foods called “superfood.” And in the mad dash to start finding and devouring these foods with superhero-like powers in the hopes of being imparted (perhaps) with super powers of our own, many still don’t know the difference between superfood and “regular” food.
So, what IS a Superfood?
What Makes a Superfood “Super”
Also called a “functional food” in some markets because it refers to the food’s ability to affect more target functions of the body than just those that aid basic survival, superfoods consist of the following key elements:
- Clean protein
- Good fats
- Essential fatty acids
- Amino acids
They are also rich in phytochemicals, which are known to have disease-fighting properties.
Basically, a superfood’s nutrient composition (vitamins, antioxidants and minerals) is notably higher than what the body’s basic nutritional needs for survival require.
There are 4 main components which make these superfoods stand out, this is where it gets a little technical….
Nutrient density: Nutrient density is rather straightforward. It refers to the ratio of nutrients per calorie. With that in mind, superfoods give the most nutrients possible for the least amount of calories (and who wouldn’t want that?!). Nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients are all taken into account in calculating nutrient density. A nutrient dense superfood is the opposite of an empty overly-processed calorie, and the fresher and more whole a food is, the more nutrient dense.
Aggregate Nutrient Density Index system (ANDI): The term ‘nutrient density’ first came about through the USDA, but was very limited. It initially only covered vitamins and minerals within a food, and nothing else. So, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, an MD focused on disease prevention through nutrition, created a more complex nutrient density system to take into account the full spectrum of nutrients within a food, including micronutrients, antioxidants and phytonutrients. And the ANDI system was born. It rates foods from highest (most nutritious) to lowest (least nutritious) in terms of nutrient density. For example, kale has an ANDI score of 1,000 and soda has a score of one.
pH balance: pH balance is the measure of acid/alkaline balance in your body using the pH scale of 1-14. An acid body becomes a magnet for sickness, disease and aging, and eating more alkaline foods helps shift your body’s pH and oxygenate your system back into balance. Foods high on the acidic spectrum include refined foods and animal products. To help maintain an ideal pH balance of 7.35-7.45, superfoods to the rescue.
ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) Value: ORAC measures the ability of just about any substance to subdue free radicals in the test tube, in essence a measurement of the antioxidant activity of any food. The higher the ORAC number, the stronger its antioxidant power. In order to get the most antioxidants into your diet, superfoods are critical, in addition to a natural, whole foods-based diet. Ditch the processed food in favor of acai, goji, mulberries and raw chocolate cacao as they prevent the production of free radicals in our body that lead to disease and aging.
Examples of superfoods you may be familiar with are:
- Brussels Sprouts
- Cacao (raw chocolate)
- Red grapes
- Pink grapefruit
Examples of more exotic superfoods that may be harder to find are:
- Chia seeds
- Goji berries
- Pumpkin seeds
- Flax seed
So, WHY Superfood?
The body cannot possibly get every nutrient it needs from a single food. As a result, a person needs to consume a variety of nutrient-rich foods are throughout the day. The advantage of eating superfoods versus other foods (and even other fruits and vegetables) is that, since they often have more nutrients per gram of volume (aka nutrient density), you get more nutrients per bite than you would eating any other healthy food.
In addition, though the term “superfood” is not scientifically defined and specific health-benefit studies are still in the works, the antioxidants within superfoods are known to help shield human’s organs from cell damage and help the body perform its instinctive/biological disease-fighting functions more effectively.
The Devil's Advocate
What constitutes a superfood depends very much upon fashion and what particular nutrient or nutritional feature is currently in vogue; it is essentially a marketing term or a buzz word used by journalists and self-appointed nutrition experts. If one were compiling a list of superfoods a few decades ago then one might choose foods that do not feature in many current superfood lists but one can highlight positive nutritional features for any food and call it a superfood.
- Lean grilled steak is quite low in calories but is a good source of high quality protein, readily available iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6.
- Whole milk is a good source of high quality protein and high in energy for growing children. It is a good source of calcium, riboflavin (B2), B12, selenium and iodine and is richer in vitamins A and D than low-fat milk.
- Liver has been called nature’s most potent superfood because it is a rich source of many essential nutrients like vitamin A, iron, selenium, zinc,
- folate, B6, B12 and high quality protein. It also contains useful amounts of vitamins D and C. (Animals and people store many vitamins and minerals in their livers)
Many older readers will probably remember a famous advert for a popular chocolate bar that “helps you work, rest and play”. It was promoted as having “all the goodness of milk, sugar, glucose and thick, thick chocolate”. A potential superfood? Maybe only on Mars!!!