It seems that everywhere you look, a new superfood is being touted. But it turns out, many of these so-called “super” foods aren’t that super at all. We tapped into nutritional experts to see which superfoods are truly worthy of the name and which ones you can stop spending your hard-earned money on.
7 Superfoods Worthy of the Name
While a balanced diet is the true key to lasting health, some superfoods do deserve the moniker. Rich in nutrients, these foods should be regular staples on your table.
“Although there’s no official definition or criteria for the term ‘superfoods,’ there are definitely foods out there that go above and beyond simply providing nourishment to help you achieve better health,” says Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com. “These foods provide a concentrated dose of important nutrients and health-promoting compounds that can ward off chronic disease and maximize energy levels.”
1. Leafy Greens
While kale tends to get most of the spotlight, the entire leafy green category, from spinach to chard, deserves quite a bit of praise. Low in calories and jam-packed with nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, and calcium, leafy greens are also rich in fiber (an oft-ignored building block that most Americans just aren’t getting enough of.)
“Including kale in your diet can boost weight loss, support regularity and optimize overall health,” says Dr. Axe.
It’s no wonder that for functional medicine expert Amie Valpone, HHC AADP, the best-selling author of “Eating Clean: The 21-Day Plan to Detox, Fight Inflammation, and Reset Your Body,” dark leafy greens are the “number one” superfood.
2. Cruciferous Vegetables
This category of veggies in the cabbage family doesn’t just contain tons of gut-healthy fiber. Crucifers like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and arugula are also rich in specific phytochemicals called glucosinolates. These sulfur-containing compounds have been linked to anti-cancer benefits in several studies, making them a bonafide superfood.
Crucifers also lend themselves quite well to fermenting: foods like sauerkraut and kimchi pack a one-two punch, with added probiotics to improve digestion and overall gut health.
3. Wild-Caught Salmon
Salmon is chock-a-block with omega-3 fatty acids that have been clinically proven to relieve inflammation, enhance cognition, and improve heart health.
“Salmon is a superfood staple that belongs in every diet.”
Wild-caught salmon is also high in vitamin D which eventually becomes the hormone calcitriol in the body.
“This active form has a wide spectrum of anticancer properties from reducing cell growth and proliferation to preventing the growth of blood vessels to tumors,” explains Dr. Robert Zembroski, Specialist in Functional Medicine, Clinical Nutritionist & Author of REBUILD. “Calcitriol is also a powerful anti-inflammatory, shutting down Nf‑KB, the genetic switch that controls inflammation—the driving force behind all chronic health issues and disease.”
“Salmon,” says Dr. Axe, “is a superfood staple that belongs in every diet.”
4. Wild Blueberries
Forget all of those fancy, hard-to-pronounce berries – regular old wild blueberries have far more antioxidants, manganese, and vitamins than most. One study conducted by USDA researcher Ronald Prior, Ph.D., found that wild blueberries had more antioxidants than 20 other fruits and veggies (including cultivated blueberries, with only half as many).
Many of the health benefits of blueberries are also boasted by other blue and purple fruits like blackberries, black beans, black rice, and purple cabbage. All of these dark-hued foods contain healthful compounds like anthocyanins, ellagic acid, resveratrol, flavonoids, quercetin, lutein, tannins, and zeaxanthin.
“These phytochemicals give berries the highest antioxidant action of all plant-based foods,” explains Zembroski. “The nutrients lower LDL levels, improve immune function, support digestion, improve mineral absorption, and reduce inflammation, tumor growth, and risk of developing coronary artery disease.”
“The almighty mushroom has an impressive resume as a functional food to stave off disease.”
From adaptogenic reishi mushrooms to the humble button mushroom, fungi are a superfood tasked with fighting against their nemesis: cancer.
“The almighty mushroom has an impressive resume as a functional food to stave off disease,” explains Zembroski, who cites an Experimental Biology and Medicine report noting that the beta-glucans in mushrooms stimulate white blood cells dedicated to seeking out and destroying cancer cells and cells infected by viruses.
6. Green Tea
Green tea is loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals, not to mention epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which Zembroski calls “one of the most powerful disease-fighting compounds.”
“It has been shown to not only prevent cancer but also, in combination with cancer therapies, to enhance the antitumor activity of the chemotherapy, while decreasing the toxicity caused by chemotherapy and radiation,” he says.
Packed with flavor, this allium also boasts nutrients like vitamin C, selenium, and allicin. Garlic also has natural antimicrobial properties, and one recent research review pointed to garlic benefits that fight cancer, reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, and improve high blood glucose concentration.
The Strange Case of Turmeric, Cacao, and Ginger
There are three superfoods that didn’t make the cut, but not because they’re not healthy – because they’re not healthy for everyone.
According to Valpone, turmeric, raw cacao, and ginger can all be helpful for some people, but because all three contain estrogenic compounds, they can be disastrous for others, contributing to hot flashes, PMS, and painful menstrual cramps. Women should be especially wary of including these ingredients in their diets in large doses before checking with a health professional.
5 Superfoods Not Worthy of the Name
Just because a food didn’t make the list above doesn’t mean it’s not healthy. That said, there are a few foods whose super-powers have been grossly exaggerated, according to our experts.
1. Dark Chocolate
Sorry, folks! While we’d all love to believe that our dark chocolate habit is a helpful one, the antioxidant and flavonoid profile of this sweet treat is beat by other foods, like berries.
2. Red Wine
Yup, bubble burst yet again. The health benefits of red wine are linked to flavonoids and other compounds found in all red or purple foods. So a handful of blueberries is far a better choice than a glass of red wine.
3. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are rich in fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, but so is a plateful of kale topped with a piece of wild-caught salmon. If you’re eating a plant-based diet, chia seeds can be good to indulge in, they’re by no means essential (and eating too many chia seeds has been proven to cause gut problems for some).
4. Goji Berries
While goji berries allegedly improve immune function and brain activity, the evidence just doesn’t stack up.
“Various goji berry products are sold as health foods, but the evidence of their health benefits so far comes from scientific studies using purified extracts of the fruit at much higher concentrations than the products contain,” Alison Hornby, a dietitian and BDA spokesperson, tells the NHS.
She recommends eating instead “a range of fruits and vegetables” instead of buying these pricey berries.
It used to be that soy milk was a staple in pretty much every healthy living household, but more and more, the downsides of this frequently genetically modified pulse have been highlighted far more than the benefits.
“The majority of soy products in the United States are made using genetically modified soybeans and contain phytoestrogens that can throw hormone levels out of whack,” explains Dr. Axe.
Shifting Our Focus from Superfoods to a Super-Diet
At its core, superfood is a snazzy term that taps into our desire for quick fixes to problems. “Eat these foods,” the word seems to say, “And all of your health problems will go away!”
Of course, this is far from the truth.
For many of our experts, “superfoods” are just a marketing ploy – and not a very useful one, at that.
“Unfortunately, the term is often misused by food manufacturers more concerned about profits than health,” says Dr. Axe. “With products constantly being pushed out and labeled as ‘superfoods,’ it can be difficult for consumers to keep up and know what they should be eating.”
Superfoods are rich in nutrients, it’s true, but they don’t have the power to undo the devastating health effects of an unhealthy diet.
“While consumers are always looking for the next product to look and feel better, a healthful diet—rather than a single food—provides all of what is needed to slow down aging, rebuild from a chronic health issue, lose toxic fat, and get lean,” explains Zembroski.
“Rather than singling out one superfood, consistently including these nutrient-dense foods in your diet will raise its level to super-diet.”
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