Just how super are 'superfoods'?

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What springs into mind when you hear the term 'superfoods'? Spinach, garlic, and blueberries? Perhaps the unusual acai and goji berries? Boasting incredible health benefits, superfoods continue to be a hot topic of discussion in the world of nutrition with many people asking this question: just how "super" are they? We take a look at the debates on superfoods and what to include in a meal to maximise the nutritious value of your plate.

According to some, superfoods - like goji berries - are foods that are high in nutrients and low incalories.

What are superfoods?

There is no single definition for 'superfoods' and there is no definitive list eitheri. According to Catherine Saxelby, nutritionist and author of Nutrition for Life (one of the best-selling books on nutrition), superfoods are those that 'stand head and shoulders above the rest' in their respective food groupsii. For example, berries trump the fruit groupii. Saxelby says that superfoods can also be defined as those that have a high nutrient to kilojoule ratioii.

Are they just hype?

Lunn warns that we should consider superfood claims with a grain of saltiii. Foods bidding for the coveted title of "superfood" pop up in the press regularly but what is said about them may be biased or misleading. After all, as Lunn claims, many of these new "discoveries" are 'usually backed by a large dollop of marketing hype'. It's no secret that these foods can be expensivei and while their nutritional effects may be proven to be true, headlines can exaggerate their benefitsiii. For example, the public may not be aware that huge quantities of these superfoods may need to be consumed before any clinical benefits take effectii. Claims about health benefits have ranged from improving intelligence, appearance, and fitness, to preventing heart disease and cancersi.

Disregarding the hype around superfoods, it's important to note that foods do have different nutritional values. Some are packed with more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids than othersi. Put simply, healthy eating is about making smart choices on the types of foods we eat, or as the Director of the Centre for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington Dr Adam Drewnowski sees it - 'making every kilojoule count'ii. Incorporating superfoods into a diet can be part of improving the nutritious value of a mealii.

Which foods are considered superfoods?

There is a tendency to associate superfoods with exotic fruits or dietary supplements, but superfoods can be a typical ingredient we would use in a main meal. They can be found on the shelves of any supermarket, and those which are "exotic" or in tablet/capsule/liquid form can be found in health food shops.

Superfoods in supermarkets

Drewnowski recommends replacing less nutritional foods with foods with a higher nutritional valueii. For example, in the vegetable family, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts are nutritionally superior to beans or zucchinii. Likewise, garlic is seen to be more beneficial than onions, leeks, shallots and chivesii.

According to Drewnowski and Saxelby, high nutritional value veggies include those mentioned above along with spinach, dark lettuces (mignonette, rocket, baby spinach leaves), avocadoes, chillies and orange sweet potato (kumera)ii. These vegetables give high quantities of vitamin C, folate, fibre, and minerals without overloading your systemii. Tomatoes and carrots contain high amounts of lycopene and beta-carotene, and ginger and garlic have medicinal propertiesii. Super fruits include oranges, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, blueberries and strawberriesii. Blueberries, in particular, are full of antioxidants, potassium and vitamin C and have anti-inflammatory propertiesiv.

Saxelby includes oats, brown rice, barley, wheatgerm, wholegrain bread and whole grain cereals as part of her super grains listii. Rich in fibre and group B vitamins, these grains offer a pick-me-up if you're feeling tired or run downv. Dairy-wise, superfood advocates look to the bacterial properties of yoghurtii. Yogurt contains probiotic bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, which helps with digestive balancevi. For protein, superfoods can include oily fish, liver, black beans, lentils, almonds and brazil nutsii. Olive oil, dark chocolate, propolis in honey, teas, and red wine have also been heralded as superfoodsvii.

Not restricted to fruits and vegetables, salmon and meats are also regarded as a superfoods.

Other superfoods

Other foods that claim membership of the superfoods club but are less common in the Australian diet include: acai berries, goji berries, ginkgo, spirulina, wheatgrass, maca, cacao, aloe vera, flaxseeds, chia, and cranberriesvii. These superfoods tend to be more controversial and the benefit claims come under much scrutiny.

Nothing beats a well balanced diet

The nutritional benefits that come from having a well-rounded and balanced diet cannot be underestimatediii. A healthy diet should include a variety of nutritious foods, such as low-GI carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables and even foods with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (when eaten in moderation)viii. Including foods with high nutrition and low calories - like many of the superfoods listed above - can make for a healthier diet and help combat lifestyle diseases such as obesityiii.

For more information on the recommended dietary guidelines for all Australians - children, adolescent and adult - visit the National Health and Medical Research Council website.

i Laurance, J., 2007, The Big Question: What are superfoods, and are they really so good for our health?, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/the-big-question-what-are-superfoods-and-are-they-really-so-good-for-our-health-436529.html

ii Saxelby, C., 2007, Super foods : Making each kilojoule count, reprinted in T. Chappell 'Super foods: The top twenty', ABC, http://www.abc.net.au/overnights/stories/s2037925.htm

iii Lunn, J., 2006, Superfoods, Nutrition Bulletin, Vol. 31 Issue 3, (British Nutrition Foundation)

iv Math, P., 2011, Superfood for Weight Loss, Livestrong.com, http://www.livestrong.com/article/451201-superfood-for-weight-loss/?utm_source=undefined_R1

v Saxelby, C., 2009, Super Foods, the ultimate health food – Wheatgerm, Food Watch, http://foodwatch.com.au/blog/super-foods/item/super-foods-the-ultimate-health-food-wheatgerm.html

vi Government of Alberta, 'Probiotics: Bacteria that are good for you', http://www.healthyalberta.com/HealthyEating/777.htm

vii Be well buzz, 2012, 16 Superfoods you should know about, http://www.bewellbuzz.com/superfoods/16-superfoods-you-should-know-about-part-1/

viii Helpguide.org, 'Healthy eating – easy tips for planning a healthy diet and sticking to it', http://www.helpguide.org/life/healthy_eating_diet.htm