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Superfood: Worth the Hype or Flashy Fad?

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It seems there's always a new, hip super food. Chia, kombucha and acai berries -- they've all had huge commercial marketing pushes claiming their many health benefits. But are they really any more super than more economical superfoods like blueberries and almonds? Is it just a fad or is the hype well-founded?

Superfoods are foods that have very high nutrient density compared to calories, and high ORAC ratings (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), an antioxidant potency indicator. Antioxidants are important in neutralizing free radicals, which can attack cells and weaken immunity, leading to disease.

There are plenty of traditional everyday superfoods full of antioxidants that are probably in your pantry and refrigerator right now: Oats, beans, berries and nuts are all among the pantheon of superfoods. But, the superfoods that get more media attention include berries and seeds uncovered from the depths of South America or Asia, lauded as the "newest" health food. But, do these trendy foods really live up to the hype? And do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks of lack of availability and higher price?

Goji berries are full of flavonols, yet so are many more economical berry choices, like blueberries, raspberries and cranberries. Goji berries are near the top of the list when it comes to ORAC. Flavonols and other flavonoids are believed to reduce cancer risk as well as the spread of cancer. These Chinese berries tout an ORAC of 25,300, more than three times that of the next fruit on the list: black raspberries at 7,700. The much lauded antioxidant-filled pomegranate comes in at 3,307 ORAC. However, cacao beans (the key ingredient in chocolate) beats out everything else at 95,500 ORAC for raw cocoa powder, and 62,100 for raw cacao nibs. Cooked dark chocolate comes in at 13,120--about half that of goji berries.

Maqui berries are also at the top of the ORAC list, with a rating of 27,000. The berry has anti-aging and immune-boosting flavanoids (anthocyanins and polyphenols) along with anti-inflammatory compounds. It's also an excellent source of vitamin C, calcium, potassium and iron. But, as a burgeoning new superfruit, it's not as available or affordable as other superfruits. As with most superfruits, maqui berries have no direct equal, but a good variety of traditional, more available fruits, can stand in for the nutrient-packed maqui.

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From the Organic Authority Files

Acai berries are one of the flashiest of the hyped superfoods. With miraculous weight loss claims coupled with the berries' antioxidant properties, it's a marketing darling. But, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), no. Acai's antioxidant properties are less than many other sources, including red wine, pomegranate juice, grape and blueberry juice. And as for the weight loss hype, there's no evidence to support it, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Pomegranate juice has received much antioxidant acclaim. And most of it is actually warranted, with pomegranate juice rated by the NIH as the top antioxidant. (Red wine and Concord grape juice are close behind in antioxidant potency.) This hyped superfruit lives up to most of its flash. But even with its supported health benefits, advertiser have gone too far. The FDA and FTC slapped down some of POM Wonderful's claims about the superfruit in a lengthy lawsuit over the course of 2012. Another problem arises when you consider expense. While it's more potent than Concord grape juice and blueberry juice, it's also significantly more expensive. There are, however, additional health benefits to consider: While all three juices help with hardened arteries, pomegranate juice may also reduce the spread of both prostate cancer and breast cancer

Chia is one of the more recent additions to the superfood craze. Chia seeds offer a great source of vegetable-based proteins (double that of any other seed or grain). They also have double the potassium of bananas, beneficial antioxidants, fiber, and essential fatty acids (including triple the omega-3 fatty acids found in flax seeds). Essential minerals such as phosphorous, manganese, calcium, sodium and potassium are also on board. So, yes, chia is pretty darn super. It's, unfortunately, not often found in regular grocery stores, but usually available in health food stores and online. While not packing quite the same nutrient punch, some substitutes that are more available and usually less expensive include flax seeds and quinoa. 

Kombucha is lauded for its ulcer-healing properties and as a digestion aid. Kombucha tea, called a superdrink, has been found more effective than black tea in healing gastric ulcers, according to the NIH. Kombucha tea is derived from a fermented product somewhat like a mushroom that helps the stomach and liver with digestion. There's no direct substitute for kombucha tea, and the store-bought variety has a lofty sticker price ($3-$5 per bottle). But, it's easy to make at home with SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) to ferment your black tea.

These trendy superfoods are certainly nutrient packed, but until they become more widely available and less expensive, it may be more frugal to stick to more common superfruits. Most live up to the hype nutritionally, but perhaps not enough to warrant the extraordinary sticker price.

Keep in touch with Kristi on Twitter @Veggieconverter.

Images: Stuart Webster

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