Everything you Need to know About Superfoods

27th November 2019
Today, it's common to hear about superfoods and their amazing health benefits. Is everything we hear about them true?

Nowadays, we have information overload. Trends come and go, but what’s real? “Superfoods” are one of those trends that seem to be sticking, even though it doesn’t have a technical definition! Here’s what you should know about superfoods, how they’re regulated, and whether or not they live up to the hype. Here’s everything you need to know about superfoods!

The term “superfood” is vague and doesn’t have a strict definition

It generally refers to a food lauded by its health benefits, usually because superfoods are rich in certain nutrients. These nutrients can be minerals, vitamins, antioxidants or essential fatty acids.

Another characteristic of superfoods is that they usually have a distant or even exotic origin. Chia, maca, chlorella, quinoa, acai, Goji berries, kombucha, kale, turmeric, and spirulina are some of the best-known superfoods, but there are many more.

Using foods and plants for health

Using medicinal foods and plants has been a common custom for centuries. Before western medicine became prevalent, many cultures around the world treated sickness with the resources they had.

Nowadays, most people around the world use western medicine to treat illnesses. Nevertheless, our way of life has fostered many chronic conditions that western medicine doesn’t always treat.

The surge in chronic diseases, obesity, anxiety, and depression have led to an increase in the use of alternative therapies. Because of this, many people have chosen to take medicinal plants in order to treat or prevent different health issues.

In Europe, medicinal plants aren’t subject to a unified regulation. In the case of Spain, the law doesn’t truly regulate medicinal plants.

When it comes to our country, only 30 percent of the medicinal plant market is sold through pharmacy offices. On the other hand, in Europe, pharmacies sell around 70 percent of these ingredients. This disparity in regulations throughout Europe is one of the main issues when it comes to medicinal plants.

Medicinal plants: a definition

Briefly put, a medicinal plant is a plant species totally or partially endowed with proven pharmacological activity.

This means that these plants have similar effects to those of traditional drugs. Because of this and similar to any other drug, consuming them also involves some risks.

On the other hand, the active compounds in plants can also interfere with any traditional drugs you might be taking.

Due to this risk, it’s important to let your doctor know about any natural supplement you take. Talk to them before they prescribe you anything.

For example, ginseng is commonly used to increase vitality, memory and sexual activity. However, if someone treated with oral antidiabetics takes high amounts of ginseng, it can also cause hypoglycemia.

Another example would be St. John’s wort, used as an antidepressant, for burns and scars. This herb interacts with the monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) drugs. This means you should not take St. John’s wort if you are taking antidepressants.

Interactions between plants and drugs are more common than we think. Because of this, it makes sense for pharmacies to sell them and regulate their consumption.

Ginseng for erectile dysfunction.

Do superfoods have medicinal properties?

As we already stated, superfoods are edible items with a high nutrient concentration. Nevertheless, they don’t necessarily have active pharmacological compounds.

Either way, consuming superfoods has usually been linked with better nutrition, because they act as supplements to make up for nutrients lacking in our regular diet.

What kinds of superfoods are there?

Any edible item can be considered a “superfood”. This is a mainstream term that isn’t regulated. Nevertheless, some superfoods sprung to fame after a re-discovery of their natural property.

Many plants are now called superfoods. Lately, many people consider spices as common superfoods. This is the case for turmeric and ginger.

Turmeric is a root native to southwestern India that was traditionally used as a dye. However, its antioxidant capacity has aroused scientific interest and given it greater utility.

Researchers found turmeric has an anti-inflammatory effect. This has been a great treatment complement with conditions such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, psoriasis, atherosclerosis, etc.

On the other hand, ginger is also a pantry staple that many people consider a superfood. Many people have heard that ginger relieves some digestive problems, such as nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. If you want to try it, you can prepare an infusion of ginger or a hot soup.

Where do we find superfoods?

In general, superfoods are non-native products that almost always come from exotic or distant countries. Maca is transported from the Andes, the acai berry comes from Brazil and the Goji berries from the Himalayas.

You can purchase superfoods online or in specialty stores. In both cases, you can easily find them as organic or biologically sourced products. Nevertheless, because of their popularity and their foreign origin, governments have poorly regulated superfood production. This means these trendy items usually come from non-sustainable sources.

In general, sustainable foods are those that respect biodiversity. They also meet established quality standards, come from local sources, have a low environmental impact and retain a social commitment. In the case of superfoods; what’s the point of producing food without using pesticides and then transporting it one hundred thousand miles?

    “If your diet isn’t healthy, no superfood will improve it. And if your diet is healthy, a superfood won’t help.”

—Lucía Martínez Argüelle, nutritionist—

Adding superfoods to your diet: how much?

This is a common problem with superfoods. How do we define how much we have to take to notice the desired effect? Surely this is clearer with another example.

Chia seeds, from Mexico, are a good source of fiber. They are also rich in vegetable proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, and potassium. However, the fiber content is definitely lower than that of some lentils. The omega-3 in chia seeds is also lower than salmon.

Because our usual consumption ratio of superfoods is proportionately very small, in some cases it might be better to stick with traditional dishes that we can eat in regular portions. Of course, superfoods can definitely improve our nutritional intake.

Nevertheless, we must be aware that superfood consumption won’t replace deficiencies. If your diet is poor or you have delicate health, it’s best not to completely trust your welfare on some exotic ingredient.

Chia seeds are also high in omega 3

Our final thoughts on superfoods

After this discussion, we can establish some conclusions about superfoods. In the first place, superfoods are not indigenous and, therefore, are less sustainable. They’re expensive products and vendors tend to exaggerate their properties.

On the other hand, if we already have an adequate diet, we’ll probably already have covered all our nutritional requirements. If you do have a deficit, you can always consume a cheaper supplement. This would make actual superfoods superfluous.

Finally, we must keep in mind that superfoods can’t outweigh a bad diet!

Because of the minuscule amount we usually eat, superfood consumption doesn’t have a big enough impact on our overall health to be a main nutritional resource.

  • Mintel. (2016). Superalimentos: A cuáles prestar atención en 2016 | Mintel.com. Retrieved from http://es.mintel.com/blog/alimentos/superalimentos-a-cuales-prestar-atencion-en-2016
  • Mulet, J. M. (2018). ¿Superalimentos? Quinoa, antioxidantes, bayas de goji, espirulina y algas. Fronteras de La Ciencia3, 80–83. https://doi.org/10.18562/fdlc0038