We’ve all heard about the incredible powers of so-called “super foods” – from the Brazilian acai (pronounced ah-sigh-yee) berry, goji (go-gee) berry, blueberries to wild salmon and broccoli.  Oprah loves them, book publishers love them and we read about them monthly in popular magazines.  What is the real deal on super foods?

Let’s start off with: what ARE super foods?  Super foods are loosely defined as foods that contain a high amount of compounds called phytonutrients (nutrients naturally occurring in plants), of which many are known to have strong health benefits.  In fact, there is no standardized definition for super foods and that’s chiefly because it was coined as a marketing term.  Even I want to buy something that’s dubbed “super”.

A quick search yields innumerable foods that “qualify” for super food status and are not limited to: sweet potatoes, mustard greens, tomatoes, berries, eggs, turmeric, red wine, mangosteen, kale, pomegranates, oatmeal, broccoli, avocados, spinach, cinnamon, garlic,  etc.  So, what are we to do with this information?  Should we all be scouring the supermarkets for the elusive mangosteen during Canadian winters and eating these power foods?  The answer, it turns out, is mixed.

The evidence as it stands with many of these super foods lies squarely on the specific food itself and not simply on the entire category of super foods.  The benefits stand firmly rooted in the specific foods’ phytonutrients  – compounds found only in plants – fruit and vegetables, primarily.  Certain phytonutrients are responsible for the brightly coloured skins of fruit and veggies – like lycopene in tomatoes, resveratrol in grapes, carotenoids in pumpkins and carrots.  Research has found high antioxidant activity in these compounds, which has shown to help fight pesky free radicals.  Free radicals are volatile atoms that can wreak havoc in the body by damaging other cells, including our body’s DNA.  They are thought to be responsible for many diseases, including cancer.  A common belief is that too many free radicals lead a path to disease and aging.  To offset this cellular battle, enter antioxidants – the antithesis of free radicals.

Antioxidants are components of these phytonutrients, again which vary in amounts in various fruit and vegetables.  Super foods are seen as those with exceptionally high amounts of antioxidant activity such as blueberries and pomegranates.  In addition, we also have high antioxidant activity in vitamin C, selenium, and vitamin E, for example.

The bottom line with antioxidants, especially supplements, is it’s best to get it from food versus a pill.  What science hasn’t clearly shown is whether other compounds found in food play a role in the health benefits of antioxidants compared with an antioxidant isolated into a capsule or pill form.  Supplements may also provide you with higher amounts of antioxidants which can be harmful, especially in the case of vitamin E.  We know that more research needs to be done, but there are reams of research supporting consuming more plant foods in our diet.  Lower rates of heart disease, decreased risk for type 2 diabetes, lower incidence of obesity count among the many benefits of including more plant foods in our eating habits.

However, consuming super fruit juices like acai and blueberry juice cocktails or smoothies are high calorie and high in naturally-occuring sugars disasters waiting to happen.  Like all juice (and food choices for that matter), it’s best consumed in moderation.  We know that fibre plays a big role in health, something that is absent in fruit juice.  Aside from these juices, the foods that really rile me up are the so-called foods with halos – seemingly healthy foods that are, in reality, far from it.  I present to you exhibit A: Chocolate-covered acai berries (sigh)…

You don’t need me to spell it out.  This is totally fine in small amounts as a treat but to think you are doing your body a favour by chowing down on a bag of chocolate covered berries is not going to cut it.  This along with the media hype surrounding super foods can make it confusing for consumers.  Just because it’s been touted as the next best thing doesn’t mean you have to have it – unless of course, you like it.  I had a patient just the other day ask me if he should eat a particular food, something that was foreign to him, because of his perceived health benefits.  Sometimes my answer is yes to a question like that, but unless you think it tastes good and can be a part of your eating routine, it’s highly unlikely to stick. So, my advice is to keep it simple, eat more fruit and vegetables and enjoy some treats, too.  Just don’t think your super health will necessarily be powered by super foods.