Demystifying Superfoods: More Common Than You Think

Blood sausage, clay, and spirulina might be trending at specialty stores, but you'll find a majority of so-called superfoods right around the corner at your local bodega.

Chia seeds had their heyday. Then we had the year of kale. Now clay, spirulina, and black pudding (a.k.a. blood sausage) are taking their turn in the limelight.

But these trends give superfoods a bad name: portraying them as a fad—inaccessible to many, fleeting and taxing on your wallet.

There’s a danger in putting too much stock in whatever ingredient is deemed the hottest superfood of the moment (often by a group of marketing execs sitting around a conference room table), because in reality, while said food may provide some beneficial nutrients, a truly nutritious diet (that propels us towards achieving the ultimate health we are all striving for) includes a wide range of whole foods, each offering their own unique, and extremely beneficial, nutrient profiles.

“Superfood is not a scientific term and there are no criteria that qualifies or disqualifies a food as being super. It is simply a marketing term used to promote foods with health benefits,” said Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, culinary nutritionist and mindful eating proponent. “It came into use as we started to understand that foods, particularly plant-based foods, had phytonutrients with benefits above and beyond vitamins and minerals. But some animal foods, like salmon, are also referred to as superfoods. In my opinion, all wholesome, natural foods contain a unique package of nutrients that offer something to a healthy diet. Some are more nutrient-dense than others and so should be eaten in greater proportions.”

So we should be putting more stock in certain foods that offer up a greater nutritional value than others. But they aren’t the exotic powders you find in health food stores or the strange foods spreading like wildfire across your social media channels accompanied with promises to “Lose Weight!” and “Live Longer!”

Your Staple List of Superfoods

These foods aren’t new or exciting.

They are everyday, common foods you can find at any grocery store and they’ve been on dinner tables around the world for centuries. So if downing handfuls of goji berries isn’t the answer to achieving ultimate health, what is? Dr. Steven Pratt, MD, considered by many to be the father of the superfoods movement, penned his New York Times bestseller SuperFoods Rx: 14 Foods That Will Change Your Life with this question in mind.

“There was little mention of so called ‘superfoods’ prior to my first book in 2004,” said Dr. Pratt. “The definition that I’ve used for what constitutes a superfood is: one that can be readily found in stores and restaurants in America; It is a food that is loaded with longevity enhancing nutrients, and has a large number of studies in animals and humans confirming the foods health benefits. These foods are a major part of dietary patterns worldwide (Mediterranean, Japan, Okinawa, Native American), which have been associated with longevity and a lower rate of the many chronic diseases found through out the world today.”

So how did he narrow down it down to just 14? “The first question most people have is what makes one food more super than another? As you might imagine, choosing one food over another is not a simple matter. The guiding principle is which food, within a given category, is at the top of its class in promoting health. Also, I had to consider which foods had the most desirable nutrient density, in other words, the most known beneficial nutrients and the least negative properties like saturated fat and sodium,” wrote Pratt.

And the foods that came out on top may surprise you. We’re talking beans, oats, turkey, blueberries and ten other foods that don’t have buzzy names or shockingly high price tags that you justify by bragging to your friends about your glowing complexion and incredible energy.

  1. Beans
  2. Blueberries
  3. Broccoli
  4. Oats
  5. Oranges
  6. Pumpkin
  7. Soy
  8. Spinach
  9. Tea (White, Green, Oolong or Black)
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Turkey
  12. Walnuts
  13. Wild Salmon
  14. Yogurt

That was more than ten years ago, and since, Pratt said in a podcast, his list has only been supported by more research substantiating the health benefits of his chosen foods. “The good news is we have much more literature now substantiating the benefits than I had when I wrote the book over a decade ago. The only news will be good news because as time goes by we will find out even more tremendous benefits of these foods. They are never going to be outdated, they are never going to be declared bad for you,” he said. “That’s a diet you can do for life: you can find superfoods (or the sidekick foods) everywhere, they aren’t just located in one store. They are around the planet, wherever you go.”

As soon as the first book was published, Pratt began working on the follow-up, SuperFoods HealthStyle: A Year of Rejuvenation. “We added some more foods, because by that time there were a number of other foods that were begging to be in the original list. These are foods readily available around the planet and have tremendous amounts of health benefits associated with them,” he said.

Eleven more foods made the cut:

  1. Apples
  2. Avocados
  3. Dark Chocolate
  4. Dried and Freeze-Dried Fruit
  5. Garlic
  6. Honey
  7. Kiwi
  8. Onions
  9. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  10. Pomegranates
  11. Spices (Cinnamon, Turmeric, Oregano, Peppercorns, and many other herbs and spices)

And that’s not to say that other berries, nuts, or vegetables aren’t all worthy of a place in the grocery cart. Pratt acknowledges this top 25 list isn’t exhaustive, designating “side kicks” to the “best in class” foods. For example, “blueberries are the superfood in the ‘berry class’, and other berries like blackberries and strawberries are ‘sidekicks’ to the blueberry,” explained Pratt. (Think of them as a runner up, worthy of a place on the stage, but not wearing the crown and sash.)

And Pratt is the first of many experts who has attempted to boil down the huge number of foods available to us into an easily digestible list that consumers can use as a guide to get the most nutritional bang for their buck. And the majority of these lists, while organized in their own ways, are redundant, pegging the same foods as standouts and re-confimring Pratt’s initial group worthy of the superfood title. (For example, Dr. Frank Lippman’s “Superfine 9” focuses on larger food groups, but every single one of the foods he deems most “nutritionally valuable” has a counterpart on Pratt’s list.)

If we take one thing away from the research done by Pratt, and countless others, it should be a shift in perspective. There isn’t one food that will serve as a cure-all, or that’s worthy of a hyper-focused, cult following for an amount of time (before the buzz moves on to something new).

Instead, it’s about building your diet around the tried-and-true foods that have stood the test of time and supported our health sans all of the praise and hype. This back-to-basics approach guarantees a diet rich in nutrients, and anecdotally Pratt has also seen people lose weight simply by focusing on eating more of the superfoods he identifies in his book.

We’ve all fallen victim to the $9 immunity-boosting juice at some point, but if you’re looking to fuel your body with the most nutritionally superior superfoods, look no further than your corner bodega.