Discovering the secret to a long and healthy life seems to be this century’s form of alchemy. Is it raw eggs and singledom? Purple potatoes? Roach milk? (We really hope it’s not roach milk.)
Over the years, the notion of superfoods have become more and more popular, to the point where it’s now common to overhear a conversation about chocolate-covered açaí berries at Target. “It’s a superfood, after all. It’s got those antioxidants.”
What does that even mean? What does any of this mean? Are the superfoods really all they’re cracked up to be?
Luckily, someone — specifically, the UK’s National Health Service, with the help of the British Dietetic Association (BDA) — has sifted through all the confusing and contradictory data and come up with a pretty comprehensive guide to ten of the most popularly-touted superfoods.
Or, so-called superfoods. Because, as the NHS is quick to point out on the report’s website, “there is no official definition of a ‘superfood’ and the EU has banned health claims on packaging unless supported by scientific evidence.”
Which is not to say that the scientific community isn’t trying to find evidence for the benefits of eating a single food. But, as the report points out, many of the studies being done isolate chemicals and extracts in much higher concentration than the foods they’re actually found in. Garlic, for example — in order to gain the cholesterol and blood pressure-reducing effects found in the lab, a person would have to eat 28 cloves at once. And is the social stigma of having really, really bad breath truly worth the health benefit those cloves might impart?
What it all comes down to in the end is a balanced diet — a “super diet,” if you will. As dietitian and BDA spokesperson Alison Hornby says in the report:
No food, including those labelled ‘superfoods’, can compensate for unhealthy eating. If people mistakenly believe they can ‘undo’ the damage caused by unhealthy foods by eating a superfood, they may continue making routine choices that are unhealthy and increase their risk of long-term illness.
Hornby recommends eating a variety of foods, starting with the NHS-recommended five daily fruits and vegetables. She also says all unprocessed foods should be viewed as “super,” instead a select few with supposedly miracle-working powers.
Still, though, if you’re considering upping your intake of goji berries, the report does offer advice. Below are the ten superfoods the NHS looked at, along with a summary of whether the nutrition claims are correct or just overblown.
THE CLAIM: All the antioxidants, along with the high levels of vitamins K & C, fiber, and manganese, improve memory and help protect against heart disease and some cancers.
THE REAL SCOOP: Actual studies on how blueberries link with heart health, blood pressure, and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) have been fairly positive, but inconclusive. Studies on their effect on cancer have shown decreased cancer-causing free radical damage in animals, but how those effects translate to humans is unclear. As for the berries’ effects on brain function, a few small studies have shown improved spatial learning and memory in animals that consume blueberries, but again — an actual, conclusive link hasn’t yet been found.
THE VERDICT: Hornby says blueberries are a fantastic fruit to eat in spite of the fact that the jury is still out on their actual benefits. “They are low in calories and high in nutrients, including phenolic compounds with an antioxidant capacity significantly higher than vitamins C or E.”
THE CLAIM: The vitamin C, vitamin B2, vitamin A, iron, selenium and other antioxidants found in goji berries help protect against heart disease and cancer, boost the immune system and brain activity, and can even improve life expectancy.
THE REAL SCOOP: There’s not really any great evidence for any of these claims. One 34-person study from 2008 linked drinking goji berry juice with improved feelings of well-being, digestion, and brain activity, but the sample size was really too small to be conclusive. An oft-cited Chinese study on 79 patients with advanced stages of various cancers found the cancers regressed after the patients were treated with goji polysaccharides combined with immunotherapy, but the design of the study makes it difficult to credit the significance of the results.
THE VERDICT: Hornby says the evidence is weak, and there’s no reason to waste your money on fancy berries. “Various goji berry products are sold as health foods, but the evidence of their health benefits so far comes from scientific studies using purified extracts of the fruit at much higher concentrations than the products contain. As these products tend to be relatively costly, it makes sense to stick to eating a range of fruits and vegetables rather than spending your money on this one item with no proven health benefits.”
THE CLAIM: Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains cocoa, which is a good source of iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous and zinc, as well as catechins and procyanidins (both antioxidants). Eating chocolate can lower blood pressure, prevent cancer, and help with stress relief. And probably wash your car for you if you’re tired.
THE REAL SCOOP: The studies of chocolate’s effects on blood pressure have been promising, if a bit short in duration. The cancer bit comes from animal and lab research on cocoa’s effect on bowel cancer; its actual effects on humans outside the lab is still unknown. As for cocoa’s stress-relieving properties, the study in question is slightly suspect — it was funded by a major chocolate manufacturer and was only conducted on 30 people for two weeks. (But really, who wouldn’t feel better when given 40 grams of chocolate each day?)
THE VERDICT: Hornby says the preliminary evidence for the benefits of cocoa are promising, but reminds chocoholics that the studies have primarily been done on cocoa extracts and not chocolate itself. As she says, “the potential health benefit of some compounds in chocolate have to be weighed against the fact that to make chocolate, cocoa is combined with sugar and fat. This means chocolate is an energy-dense food that could contribute to weight gain and a higher risk of disease. As an occasional treat, chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. Eaten too frequently, it is an unhealthy choice.”
Way to burst our chocolaty bubble, Hornby.
THE CLAIM: Fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines help protect against cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, age-related vision loss and dementia, due to the abundance of vitamin D, B vitamins, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, and healthy protein.
THE REAL SCOOP: Studies have actually found a link between the consumption of oily fish and lowered blood pressure and artery buildup. Evidence in favor of fish’s role in the prevention of prostate cancer, however, is limited, as well as its link to the prevention of dementia in older adults. The connection between oily fish and lowered risk of age-related macular degeneration is also weak.
THE VERDICT: In spite of some of the over-touted health claims, Hornby is in support of oily fish. “The benefits of eating at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish, include keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level and improving blood lipids, both of which reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease,” she said.
THE CLAIM: Wheatgrass has the highest nutritional content of any vegetable — containing chlorophyll, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, calcium and magnesium, all of which helps protect against inflammation, builds red blood cells and improves circulation. If you can choke it down, that is.
THE REAL SCOOP: Don’t believe the hype: pound for pound, wheatgrass contains a nutritional value equivalent to that of common vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. There’s no scientific evidence that it boosts red blood cell production, and a study done on patients with ulcerative colitis was too small to prove a link between daily consumption of wheatgrass juice and improved symptoms.
THE VERDICT: Hornby cautions against putting your all your eggs in wheatgrass’ touted nutritional benefits basket. “There is no sound evidence to support the claim that wheatgrass is better than other fruits and vegetables in terms of nutrition,” she says. “It cannot be recommended above any other choices in this food group.”
THE CLAIM: Pomegranates are a good source of fiber, along with vitamins A, C, and E; and iron and tannins. The fruit protects against heart disease, high blood pressure, inflammation and some cancers.
THE REAL SCOOP: Great news! Pomegranates definitively strengthen bones…in mice. Whether that benefit translates to humans is unknown. A preliminary study on the fruit’s effectiveness against prostate cancer was positive, but the subject needs further exploration to support the study’s findings. As for heart disease, a 2005 trial on 45 patients showed a lower risk of heart attack on consumption of pomegranate juice, but again — the trial was too small to establish a definitive link between the two.
THE VERDICT: Hornby is pulling the inconclusive card again. “Research suggests there may be a benefit, but we’ve not shown it yet,” she says. “The studies that have found an improvement in existing health conditions were very small and more investigation into the role pomegranate plays in these improvements is needed.” That said, if you’re going to drink the juice anyway, Hornby recommends looking for a brand that doesn’t contain added sugar.
THE CLAIM: Green tea contains B vitamins, folate, manganese, potassium, magnesium, caffeine and antioxidants called catechins, and can help with weight loss and the reduction of cholesterol, as well as prevent cardiovascular disease, prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
THE REAL SCOOP: There’s no evidence that green tea alone will prevent cancer. However, a 2015 lab study showed that the combination of green tea and a cancer-fighting drug called Herceptin, was promising; the next phase is to test that combination on humans. If you’re out to cut cholesterol with your tea habit, the studies have shown a positive link, but it’s still unclear how much you’d have to drink to really see any positive effects. The drink’s link to Alzheimer’s and lowered blood pressure is unclear, while the weight loss effect is essentially nonexistent.
THE VERDICT: Hornby says the benefits of the brew are inconclusive. “In the Far East, green tea has been used as a treatment for a variety of conditions ranging from arthritis to weight loss, as well as a preventative measure for diseases such as cancer, although the evidence for the majority of these conditions is weak or lacking.” Still, she says, there’s no reason to avoid the drink if you like it.
THE CLAIM: Broccoli is a good source of vitamins C, A and K, along with folate, calcium, fiber, beta-carotene and the antioxidants indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane. Consuming George H.W.’s favorite vegetable helps guard against cancer, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
THE REAL SCOOP: First of all, eating non-starchy vegetables in general has been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers. Broccoli’s specific health benefits still need to be investigated, though. As for high blood pressure, there’s no evidence the vegetable will help bring it down, while its effect on diabetes and cardiovascular disease is somewhat promising, yet inconclusive.
THE VERDICT: Of course the dietitian loves this one. As Hornby says, “Broccoli may not live up to the hype, but nevertheless it contains many nutrients…which are needed for numerous functions in the body. It is a member of the family of cruciferous vegetables along with cauliflower, bok choy and cabbage. These all contain compounds that are linked to improving the body’s ability to impede the growth of cancer cells.”
THE CLAIM: Garlic contains vitamins C and B6, along with manganese, selenium and the antioxidant allicin. In addition to fending off vampires, it helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as aids in combating cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
THE REAL SCOOP: So far, only one good-quality study has shown garlic (specifically, garlic powder, ingested three times a day) to reduce blood pressure. It’s also been shown to have modest effects on reducing cholesterol levels. Evidence is mixed on the cancer front, and no — garlic probably isn’t going to help you get through cold season unscathed. Only one good-quality study suggested it might help prevent the common cold, but more research is needed to back it up.
THE VERDICT: Hornby loves garlic…but mostly just for seasoning food. “Studies using high concentrations of garlic extracts have been associated with improved blood circulation, healthier cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, all of which reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,” she said. “However, current evidence does not support the use of garlic supplements to improve health.”
THE CLAIM: Beets (or, as the Brits say, “beetroot”) is a good source of iron and folate, and also contains nitrates, betaine, magnesium and the antioxidant betacyanin. People love it for its touted benefits of lowering blood pressure, boosting exercise performance and preventing dementia.
THE REAL SCOOP: The nitrates in beets have actually been shown to help lower blood pressure a modest amount, but more research needs to be done to determine if the root is clinically useful for people with a greater risk of heart disease. If you’re drinking beet juice as your pre-workout, it might actually be doing you some good, as long as you’re not an elite athlete — one study from 2013 saw moderate improvements in exercise performance among both inactive and recreationally active people. As for its effects on dementia, a fairly flawed 2010 study showed that beet juice (yum) may increase blood flow to certain areas of the brain; however, whether this is actually related to increased brain function needs to be studied further.
THE VERDICT: Hornby is in favor of the humble beet. “Beetroot and beetroot juice, along with green leafy vegetables, cabbage and celery, are very useful as part of a balanced diet as their nitrate content may help to reduce blood pressure.” But, she says, if you’re really out to lower your blood pressure, you might also consider getting active, cutting back on salt intake, and maintaining a healthy weight.