The term “superfoods” is thrown around so lightly, it seems any food can be tagged. To help you know what’s really beneficial to your health, we have decided to debunk some superfood claims
“7 Superfoods That Will Help You Lose Weight”
“Top 10 Snacks That Boost Your Mood”
“3 Foods You Need to Improve Your Immune System”
It seems that almost every health, fashion, cooking, and lifestyle website has one of these articles; the ones boasting about how your weight maintenance plan or your immune system only needs a handful of foods to really kick it into high gear. The word “superfood” is a marketing term used to describe foods with supposed health benefits. The term “superfood” however is not commonly used by dieticians or nutritionists, many of these medical professionals actually dispute that these certain foods have the health benefits they claim to possess. As of 2007, the European Union banned the use of marketing foods as “superfoods”, unless they were accompanied by a specific medical claim, supported by scientific research. In North America (and anywhere else online), however, the use of word “superfood” is thrown around so easily that it’s hard to know which foods are actually superfoods, and which are not.
How many of these “superfoods” are actually good for you? How many are backed by scientific evidence, proven to actually provide benefits for your health? It’s time all those reality-defining superfoods be put to the test. We have put 5 of the most popular “superfoods” to the test, to see if they really deserve that title.
Which acclaimed superfoods are actually superfoods? Let’s debunk some superfood myths:
(1) Almonds for Weight Loss & Lowering Heart Disease Risk:
Almonds are on multiple superfood lists, but are they definitely earned their place there. In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers determined that eating 10 grams of almonds per day for 12 weeks was able to increase HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) by 14-16%. Participants in this study also had lower levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind of cholesterol), lower levels of triglycerides, and lower levels of LDL-to-HDL cholesterol levels after 12 weeks, in comparison to baseline levels. A study conducted by Abazarfard and colleagues proved that almonds were also able to help lower weight. In their study, published in the Journal of Research in Medical Science, 108 overweight women were put into one of two groups with identical dietary restrictions, the only difference: one group was instructed to also eat 50 grams of almonds a day. The women in the almond-eating group experienced a stronger decrease in weight, BMI, fasting blood sugar and blood pressure. This study explains why almonds have also been linked to a decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. It has also been shown that the intake of almonds suppresses hunger, but this comes with a catch: to experience fullness when consuming almonds, they must be eaten alone as snacks; when almonds are eaten with meals, they do not seem to affect the appetite-modulating effects of the meal.
Verdict: Almonds have earned their name as a superfood.
(2) Green Tea for Weight Loss and Metabolism Boosting:
It has been suggested that green tea is able to boost metabolism in order to help with weight loss. Many websites add green tea as part of their weight-loss articles, but there might not be any sound scientific evidence to label green tea as a superfood. A review study published in Pharmacological Research reports that green tea’s ability to prevent metabolic syndrome (a cluster of symptoms, like high blood pressure and blood sugar, which occur together to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. In this review, researchers noted that although green tea extract was able to lower body weight in rats, these results were difficult to duplicate in human studies and many of the rat studies were confounded by the presence of caffeine. The exact mechanism of how green tea might lower body weight is under debate; researchers are not sure if it is the caffeine or the catechins in green tea that could have an influence on body weight. Catechin is a natural antioxidant of plants, and can be found in cocoa and tea. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that body fat reduction was possible after 12 weeks of consuming green tea extract daily. This extract, however, contained 690 mg of catechins, which is much, much, higher than the level of catechins in common tea bags (for example, one teabag of Lipton Black Tea only has about 50 mg of catechins; Snapple Peach Iced Tea has none!). A meta-analysis review by Phung and colleagues, also published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reported that green tea catechins were able to lower body weight and BMI but only when administered with caffeine; from the 15 studies they evaluated, researchers determined that there were no effects of catechins on body weight or BMI when administered alone. Even worse, a case report published in the British Medical Journal this year reported that excessive green tea consumption lead to low levels of potassium in the blood of an oriental couple. When the consumption of green tea was decreased, potassium levels returned to normal. In its teabag form, green tea’s ability to effectively lower body weight or BMI has not been proven within scientific studies.
Verdict: Green Tea’s ability (in its teabag form) to lower weight is not supported by evidence; Green tea’s title as a superfood should be reconsidered.
(3) Kale for Boosting the Immune System:
Kale has been linked to a boost in immune response for quite some time now. It has been suggested that kale is able to fight off infections and could possibly help regenerate other antioxidants in the body. Kale is said to be rich in several vitamins (A, K, and C), essential minerals (potassium, calcium, and magnesium) and dietary fibre. In reality, a cup of kale has: 206% of the daily value (D.V.) needed for vitamin A, 134% D.V. of vitamin C, 684% D.V. of vitamin K, but only 5% D.V. of fibre, 9% D.V. of both potassium and calcium, and 6% D.V. of magnesium; as a rule, foods are considered high in a nutrient if its D.V. is 20% or more. Previous studies have shown the importance of vitamins A, C and K on human health, but very few actually link the consumption of kale and an improved immune response. Even the consumption of vitamin C as a remedy for the common cold does not come with strong scientific evidence; in fact, research shows that, for most people, vitamin C supplements or vitamin C-rich foods don’t reduce the risk of getting the common cold, they may only result in shorter colds in those who have a constant intake of vitamin C. Vitamins C, A, and K are shown to help growth and development of the body and help strengthen the immune system, but there are very few studies which have looked at the direct relationship between consumption of kale and bodily health. A study published in the journal Pharmacological Research reports of the link between cruciferous vegetables (a category which includes kale) and a possible decrease in HPV cancer risk, but the study did not look at kale specifically and the number of people participating in the study was too small to generalize the results. A study published in Biomedical and Environmental Sciences reports that there was an increase in HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) and a decrease in LDL (the bad cholesterol) in the male participants, who were instructed to drink 150mL of kale juice everyday for 12 weeks; this suggests that there is a decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease. There was, however, no inclusion of any controls to compare the results to, and there were no changes in BMI or blood pressure from the beginning to the end of the study. Another reason why many question kale’s inclusion as a superfood is its lack of distinction from other cruciferous veggies. An analysis study conducted by Dr. Jennifer Noia looked at a number of vegetables and developed a classification scheme based on their nutrient levels. Vegetables were labelled as “power-house vegetables” if they contained 10% or more daily value per 100 kcal of 17 qualifying nutrients (like vitamins B6, B12, C and K, iron, folate, and riboflavin. Of the 41 veggies to make the list, Kale was ranked #15, being beaten out by a number of leafy greens, including watercress (#1), Chinese cabbage (#2), chard (#3), spinach, leaf lettuce, parsley, collard green, and chives. A study by Kahlon and colleagues determined that kale was no better at bile acid binding capacity (which is related to the cholesterol-lowering potential of foods) than collard greens and mustard greens.
Verdict: Kale doesn’t seem to be much (if not any) better for our immune system than other cruciferous veggies. Kale’s label as a superfood isn’t justified.
(4) Avocados for Cardiovascular Health:
All praise the glorious guac! Turns out, you can justify paying for that extra scoop of guacamole at Chipotle. Many health sites include avocado on their superfood lists, because of its suspected role in lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease; and they are right to do so. Although avocados come with some fallbacks (322 calories and 29 grams of total fat for one avocado), they also have some great benefits: 221 mg of omega-3 fatty acids, 54% D.V. of fibre, 33% D.V. of vitamin C, no cholesterol, and only 1% D.V. of sugar and sodium. A meta-analysis study by Dr. Peou and colleagues, published in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology, reports diets that include avocados were able to significantly decrease total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and triglyceride levels. Lowering levels of cholesterol has been linked to an overall decrease in the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. Another study published in The FASEB Journal reports that eating 1 avocado a day for 6 months was able to significantly increase the serum levels of lutein. Lutein is a dietary carotenoid, which is selectively taken up into primate neural tissue like the brain. Increased levels of leutin are related to better cognition, suggesting that daily avocado intake can also help with cognitive health. It has also been found that adding half an avocado to a lunch is able to increase the feeling of fullness in a period of 3 to 5 subsequent hours. Their cholesterol-lowering abilities have also resulted in them being linked to helping Diabetes management and lowering blood pressure.
Verdict: Avocados are indeed a superfood.
(5) Chia Seeds for Weight Loss
Chia seeds, from a flowering plant in the mint family, seem to get mixed up with flax and hemp seeds (and let alone any other “superfood” seed) pretty often. Who actually knows the differences between any of these seeds? As it turns out, knowing the difference could make a big impact on your health. Chia seeds (for a 1 ounce serving) come with 42% D.V. of fibre and 18% D.V. of calcium; if that’s not enough, they also come with a whopping 4915 mg of omega-3 fatty acids and is extremely low in cholesterol and sodium. Due to their flashy nutritional information, chia seeds have been linked to weight loss in many health articles; but this might not be the case. A study published in Nutrition Research shows the consumption of 25 grams of chia seeds every day for 12 weeks had no effect on weight loss. 90 overweight men and women were included in the study, and were asked to eat chia seeds or a placebo everyday for 12 weeks, with no other changes to their lifestyle. Researchers determined that there was no difference between groups or pre-to-post study scores for blood pressure, body mass and composition, and inflammation. Another study by Hilary Wu at the California State Polytechnic University also found that consumption of chia seeds had no impact on body composition for healthy women. Many critics are hesitant to label chia seeds a superfood, mainly because one of its greatest benefits (high levels of omega-3 fatty acids) can be found in other non-superfood-labelled foods, like Atlantic salmon. A review study by Dr. Ferreira and her colleagues analyzed a number of studies and has also found that there was no impact of chia seed consumption on lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, another proposed benefit of chia seeds.
Verdict: Seeing as there is little to no evidence of chia seeds causing weight loss, this food isn’t a superfood.
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet; yes, many superfood-labelled foods have great health benefits (a high concentration of vitamin C can rarely hurt!), but they don’t always do everything online posts claim they do. Many of these superfood lists are not evidenced-based, and yet, many people are quick to adopt lifestyles and bring about changes into their diets simply because crafty words like “superfoods” are added to article titles. Think twice about how super your food is.
Written By: Alexandra Lostun, BSc