The Truth Behind Superfoods: Super or Sensationalized?

A recently popularized term that we’ve all become familiar with is “superfood.” We hear this buzzword thrown about on a daily basis. But have you ever stopped to think, “What exactly is a superfood?” Most of us haven’t. We simply hear a word that sounds legitimate, and is (let’s be honest) being used by a lot of credible-sounding people, and accept it as truth. (My husband even remembers being taught about superfoods in his high school foods class.) But what if I were to tell you that superfoods aren’t exactly what we’ve been lead to believe? I personally cringe inside when I hear someone say “superfood.” It’s one of those buzzwords that’s doesn’t sit well with me, or with most dietitians. Let’s discuss why!

The Surprising History Behind “Superfoods”

Some of the common superfoods we hear about today are kale, quinoa, blueberries, salmon, Brussels sprouts, Greek yogurt, sweet potatoes, turmeric, etc. But this story actually originates way back in the early 1900s with one particular food. A quick look back in history will show you that the first food referred to as a “superfood” was the banana. And not as any official scientific term as one would expect, but rather, as part of a marketing strategy.

Around the era of the first World War, United Fruit Company (now rebranded as Chiquita) was looking to boost sales and increase banana imports to the US. Most of us are familiar with the already sordid history of the banana industry. Intertwined into this sequence of events is the debut of the “superfood.”

Through various promotions of bananas such as informational pamphlets, including The Food Value of the Banana, and medical journals touting the efficacy of the “Banana Diet” as a cure for celiac disease (prior to the discovery of gluten), bananas, along with the term “superfood,” grew in popularity.

Other companies eventually caught on to this effective marketing trend. Now, into the 21st century, you can’t pass a grocery store or read a health article without coming across the term. With all these new foods being given such a prestigious label in the public eye, they have been widely sensationalized.

So, What Does This Mean?

What history shows us is that, despite public perception, there is no official criteria for something to be deemed a superfood. That’s not to say that the foods listed above aren’t extremely nutritious; they definitely offer many health benefits. However, there’s no real reason to place those particular foods on a pedestal above others that are equally nutritious but simply weren’t crowned with the distinguished title. Like far too many marketing terms in the food industry, “superfood” is unregulated and can be misleading to consumers.

As a dietitian, I don’t recommend getting too wrapped up in the superfood frenzy. As I’m always saying, all foods can fit into a healthy diet and there are no miracle foods. Rather than putting so much emphasis on an arbitrary and essentially meaningless term, it’s better to aim for balance, incorporating all fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc. This is what will truly benefit your health in the long run.

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