A few years ago, I was responsible for heading up a wellness committee in the office where I worked. One day I printed out a beautiful poster of super foods — spinach, Greek yogurt, kidney beans, dark chocolate, blueberries, and salmon — and taped it to the refrigerator in our break room. I included the headline, “7 Foods to Eat Every Week,” and I felt especially virtuous because I regularly ate some of them.
Then someone asked me, “what about açaí berries? Dr. Oz says they’re a super food.” Someone else asked, “isn’t kale better than spinach? We’re supposed to eat kale now. And eggs. Eggs are a super food and you don’t have them on the list. Are eggs bad?”
Food can be confusing, especially with experts touting a new food every week as the magic secret to ending cravings, melting fat, and stopping the aging process. I began to explore the source of those recommendations, and my cynical side dug into the politics of how food becomes super. Not surprisingly, the super-ness of a food was largely dependent on whether it had recently been developed into a supplement or new diet plan in need of a hook.
In the scientific world these foods are called “functional foods” because they help our bodies function better. Many of these foods contain antioxidants, which protect against the damaging effect of free radicals on body cells, which can lead to inflammation and can cause a heart attack, cancer, and complications of diabetes. Others are a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which research suggests can help with treatment of inflammatory disease, high blood pressure, cataract, osteoporosis, certain kidney diseases, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Sounds pretty super to me.
Luckily, there are many foods that provide these benefits beyond the ones that have a marketing budget robust enough to pay for expert endorsement. Let’s take a look at some common “super foods” and their friends in the wings.