Do superfoods actually exist? In this article we examine the scientific evidence behind five foods that have been labelled 'superfoods'.

Do ‘Superfoods’ really exist?

Is there any scientific evidence that Superfoods are ‘super’?

There are no two ways about it – the health, fitness and well-being industry is booming; ever-growing and looking sure to carry on indefinitely.

For consumers, this is a good thing. More brands, more products, and more competition among health and fitness companies all lead to a greater selection of products, technological and scientific progress and breakthroughs, and more competitive prices (a ‘consumers dream’ if you will).

However, there are also downsides to this exponential growth – the main one of which being a classic phrase conceived when the world of health foods and supplements was still in its infancy. Can you guess what it is?

Yes, that’s right – ‘snake oil.’

Despite countries such as the UK and USA implementing stringent laws regarding the manufacture and marketing of health foods and supplements, there are still numerous products that slip through the net every single year, with fads, trends and phases allowing them to gain traction.

One phrase that has been at the forefront of health and well-being news and media – as well as on the lips of all and sundry with the health and fitness sphere is ‘Superfoods’.

Therefore, in today’s piece, we will delve into ‘Superfoods’ and discuss whether they exist and if they are potent as is commonly made out.

Five foods that are purported to be ‘superfoods’

We examine five superfoods and delve into the scientific studies and evidence behind them.

To answer the above question as comprehensively as possible, we shall take into consideration the following five purported superfoods and examine what evidence exists for them to have earned this moniker.

Blueberries: If you asked 100 people to name a superfood, I’d bet my bottom dollar that at least 50% would say blueberries. The question is, are they really packed full of goodness? The latest research has shown that blueberries are teeming with a specific form of plant antioxidant known as anthocyanins, which – according to one study – are able to inhibit the growth and ultimately kill off cancerous colon cells in humans. Other antioxidants present in blueberries have also been shown to improve age-related memory decline in rats.

Beetroot: A strange one to most people, but one with credible evidence to back up the claims. According to research, high levels of nitrates in beetroot (and beetroot juice) are converted into nitric oxide (when consumed), which has benefits that include, but are not limited to lowering blood pressure and decreasing the tendency for blood clotting.

Acai berries: These famous (or perhaps infamous!) berries were all the rage circa 2012-2013, but was there any science to back the claims made in their favour? The jury is still out on acai berries. Although it has been shown that the fruit of the acai berry is antioxidant dense, the potential benefits they may offer has not yet been proven in humans.

Cocoa: Yes, that’s right – one of the ingredients that make the world’s favourite sweet treat, chocolate! Surprisingly, there is a small amount of evidence (currently two studies: here and here) that suggest that the high flavonoid content of cocoa both lowers blood pressure and increases the elasticity of blood vessels, which potentially could decrease the risk of heart disease. Although this is promising, I certainly wouldn’t advise any of our readers to start eating more chocolate!

Salmon: Being crammed full of Omega-3, it is no surprise that Salmon (and other ‘oily’ fish) are often listed as a ‘superfood’. But what health benefits does Omega-3 have? Studies have shown that Omega-3 fatty acids may help those who are at high risk of heart disease or other cardiac-related ailments, in addition to being useful for the treatment of joint pain induced by rheumatoid arthritis.

As you can see from above summaries (for each purported ‘superfood’ there is scientific evidence to support health claims made about them – but how much weight should and can be placed on the studies?

How reliable is the evidence?

Is there any scientific evidence that proves superfoods exist?

Upon first examination, the studies exemplified above appear to confirm the health benefits of the above food sources. But the most poignant question here is ‘does this translate over into the real world?’. The answer? Not really, no.

When scientific research is carried out in this area, there is a common theme that runs through most studies – that they all utilise exceptionally high levels of nutrients to garner the final results(s); higher levels than can typically be achieved through a conventional diet. If one were to consume sufficient levels of said nutrients, then it would either be cost-prohibitive for most people or increase levels of other constitutes of food that we are told to consume less of. For example, eating lots of chocolate would increase the amount of healthy flavonoids, but would also increase the levels of saturated fats, sugars, artificial flavourings and the like).

In addition to the above point, it must be made clear that the lion’s share of studies in this area is carried out on animals or in vitro using human cells. Although doing so will give scientists an indication of what health benefits certain foods and nutrients may offer, there is never any guarantee that they will have the same impact when consumed by a real human being.

Investigating and discovering how these foods and nutrients will affect humans is no easy task. Our genes, lifestyle(s) and diets are all different, which makes it almost impossible to determine how a specific food or supplement will affect the general population. Plus, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are never consumed alone and will always be absorbed alongside other micro and/or macronutrients; therefore, to assess the individual health benefits of nutrients is almost impossible.

Final thoughts

There is no doubt that many of the foods labelled as ‘superfoods’ are beneficial to the health of human beings; however, it is clear that none of the many foods and supplements adorned with that moniker are vastly superior (if superior at all) to other foods that also provide health benefits.

Our advice? Consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and omega-3 from a variety of sources. You don’t have to forget about ‘superfoods’, and there is certainly no need to exclude (they do, after all, provide health benefits) – just don’t get hung up on them.