We’re always hearing about superfoods, but what exactly are they? This guide gives you the lowdown, including easy ways to up your nutrient intake
Written by Madeleine Bailey on February 21, 2019
Reviewed by Dr Sarah Schenker on February 27, 2019
Still a bit puzzled about ‘superfoods’? The word usually describes a food, or indeed drink, that’s highly nutritious – from kale, beetroot and berries to nuts, green tea and salmon – although there’s no set legal definition.1
Why are superfoods considered good for our health?
Superfoods contain lots of vitamins and minerals, and also natural plant molecules which have powerful antioxidant or anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidants have been shown to reduce the damaging effects of free radicals, scavenging atoms that have been linked to the development of heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s among others.2
Often a superfood can promote health beyond simple nutrition. For example, some superfoods, like oats, are wholegrains, and have been shown to help reduce cholesterol and regulate blood sugar.3
Why are superfoods also controversial?
Many experts say that with no legal definition of the word, the term is arbitrary and may mislead people into believing that a few foods will counteract an otherwise bad diet.4
Some scientists are also concerned that the nutritional benefits may be over-sold: it can be tricky to prove scientifically how one single food impacts your health.5
5 superfoods for your shopping list
There may be no such thing as a miracle food, but these plant foods can still make a valuable contribution to a healthy, balanced diet:
This fruit contains a host of nutrients, including fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C and some B vitamins, plus calcium, potassium – needed for the nervous system and muscle health – and iron, for red blood cells.6,7 It also contains three times as many antioxidants as green tea.8
A 2012 randomised placebo-controlled study by Sheffield Hallam University showed that drinking 330ml of pomegranate juice every day could lower blood pressure in healthy, middle-aged people.9
This spice is a source of bioactive plant compounds called curcuminoids, shown to have strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. A 2017 review by USA’s Central Michigan University found it can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, and also has an anti-anxiety effect.10
A blue-green marine algae, spirulina is a great source of protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, essential for energy release and electrolyte balance, potassium and also phosphorus, needed for good bone health.11,12
A 2014 study in Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that taking 1g of spirulina per day for three months lowered overall cholesterol by almost 9% in people with raised levels of blood fats.13
This wholegrain isn’t just a great source of fibre. It’s also higher in protein than most grains – it contains a good balance of essential amino acids – plus magnesium, B-vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, zinc and vitamin E, both of which help protect cells from oxidative stress.14,15 It also contains antioxidants, including quercetin, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects.16
A 2004 study on people who ate quinoa instead of gluten-free breads and pastas experienced a drop in blood sugar, insulin and blood fat levels – factors important for heart health.17
Dark green, leafy vegetables are all superfoods, but many think kale wins the prize for its very high levels of vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin K – needed for bone health and blood clotting – and vitamin B6, which is important for the nervous system and immune health: plus minerals iron, manganese, calcium, copper, potassium and magnesium.18,19
It’s also high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two nutrients important for eye health.20 A French 2006 population study showed that people with low levels of these nutrients in their eyes were at increased risk of sight-threatening diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.21
Easy ways to get superfoods into your diet
Not sure where to start? Try these tips to boost your superfood intake:
- add pomegranate seeds, kale and spirulina to your salads, or stir into smoothies
- spice up scrambled eggs with turmeric. Season with black pepper, too – it boosts curcumin absorption22
- use quinoa instead of rice, or stir it pre-cooked into soups
- mix up your diet with as much brightly-coloured fruit and veg as possible – the more varied your diet, the wider the range of nutrients you’ll consume23
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. EUFIC. The science behind superfoods: are they really super?
2. Lobo V, et al. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health
3. Mayo Clinic. Dietary fibre: Essential for a healthy diet
4. Modality Partnership. NHS website – What are superfoods?
5. NHS Choices. Miracle foods myths and the media
6. BBC Good Food. The health benefits of pomegranate
7. European Commission. EU Register on Nutrition and Health Claims
8. Basu A. Pomegranate juice: A heart-healthy fruit juice
9. Lynn A, et al. Effects of pomegranate juice supplementation on pulse wave velocity and blood pressure in healthy young and middle-aged men and women
10. Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects On Human Health
11. Lana Burgess. Medical News Today. What are the benefits of spirulina?
12. As Source 9
13. Mazokopakis EE, et al. The hypolipidaemic effects of Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis) supplementation in a Cretan population: a prospective study
14. Kris Gunnars. Healthline. 11 proven health benefits of quinoa
15. As Source 9
16. Park JH, et al. Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) Seeds Cultivated in Korea
17. Berti C, et al. In vitro starch digestibility and in vivo glucose response of gluten-free foods and their gluten counterparts
18. Kris Gunnars. Healthline. 10 health benefits of kale
19. As Source 9
20. As Source 20
21. Delcourt C, et al. Plasma lutein and zeaxanthin and other carotenoids as modifiable risk factors for age-related maculopathy and cataract: the POLA Study
22. Amy Goodson. Healthline. Why turmeric and black pepper is a powerful combination
23. Megan Ware. Medical News Today. What are superfoods and why should you eat them?