Superfood is the buzzword everyone from those who shop at Trader Joe’s to nutritionists use to describe particularly healthy food. You’d be hard-pressed to find a publication (Medical Daily included) that doesn’t a, speak to their benefits and b, offer a comprehensive list of the exact foods befitting of the label.

The one teeny, tiny problem is that there isn’t an official definition of a superfood. We know those that qualify tend to be whole, nutrient-dense foods, but, by and large, it’s an idea most people run with. That’s not to say some foods don’t pack a heavier nutrition punch than others. It’s that these foods may differ slightly from the ones on that list you have pinned on your fridge.

Let’s set the record straight on what the heck a superfood is, the ones that deserve recognition — and the ones that don't.

A Bite Of History

It may seem like the super food trend was only coined a couple years ago, but Ashley Harris, a registered dietician for the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University, told Medical Daily in an e-mail that a review of the word's use in literature shows that it started in about the 1960’s and has skyrocketed since the early 2000’s.

"Nutrition claims for superfoods [have to do with a] wide array of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, healthy fats, anti-oxidants, fiber, probiotics, and phytochemicals," Harris said. "While it is easy to declare a nutrition winner between foods when only looking at an isolated nutrient, trying to claim an overall winner between generally healthy foods is impossible. It is literally like comparing apples to oranges."

It's the idea that there are foods with a higher level of certain nutrients, or may have health enhancing or disease-fighting properties, that fuels the super food trend. But, Harris added, the obsession with making this narrow list of foods a part of your regular diet may not be as beneficial as people think.

Dr. Michelle Davenport, a registered dietician for the healthy delivery app Zesty, would agree. "People have been claiming to hold the fountain of youth and keys to good health since health even became a thing," she told Medical Daily in an e-mail. "In 1903, following an article in [the journal] Nature about the radioactivity in water, marketers claimed that radioactive water from health springs contained curative properties that could cure everything from chronic diarrhea to rheumatism. Science lends truth, which unfortunately can lead to a misrepresentation of data."

In this case, misrepresentation occurs when certain foods are fixated upon. Blueberries, for example, are a foodie's dream for both their taste and health benefits. They have a high level of antioxidants, neutralize cancer-causing free radicals and may even reduce belly fat. "Blueberries are packed full of nutrients and offer tons of health benefits, yet many of the same nutrients and health benefits can be found eating blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries," Harris said. "And because the same family foods have slightly different compositions, there are certain nutrients you would find in these berries that you would not in blueberries. If you spent your entire life only eating the blueberries, you would be robbing yourself of all of the nutritional benefits available."

Of course, it gets harder to separate food fact from fiction when a lot of people running with the super food trend are in marketing. Both Harris and Davenport acknowledged everyone's superfood obsession is the combined effort of health-conscious consumers and Internet marketers and advertisers. "Advertisers know that slapping the word 'superfood' on a product makes it an easy sell," Harris said.

Superfoods You Can Trust

Superfood may be the way advertisers and marketers sell food, but there's no denying a lot of the ones that make the cut do so for a reason. To Lindsay Martin, a registered dietician at the Hilton Head Health Institute in Hilton Head, S.C., all the berries, tart cherries, figs, avocado, lentils, beets, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, herbs, garlic, shallots, chia seeds, walnuts, kefir, wild-caught salmon, olive oil, green tea, and cocoa are worthy of the title.

Davenport agreed with the sweet potato ("This guy doesn't get enough recognition!") and added raw almonds, sardines, and red peppers. Fun fact: Red pepper contains two times as much vitamin C as an orange.

Though this list could easily read differently a week from now. "Chia seeds are now out and hemp seeds are in," Harris said. "We have said goodbye to quinoa and hello to other ancient grains, like amaranth and teff. The more we learn about nutrients, especially phytochemicals, the more super we are finding many of these foods."

More Like Superfraud

Fortunately, a lot of what's been labeled as a superfood really is. Yet there are some trends that aren't as helpful as their hype leads consumers to believe. "Some [foods] may not be as healthy as we think," Harris said. "They are, or need to be, consumed in moderation."


Juice cleanses are all the rage. They're purported as easy, nutritious ways to rid the body of harmful toxins when, in reality, they're mostly miserable experiences that leave you with crippling hanger and bad breath. Even worse, a lot of juicing results in super sugary drinks.

"Juicing eliminates the fiber, allowing you to condense large amounts of produce into a single serving drink," Harris said. "If you are using mostly fruits to juice compared to vegetables, which have much lower sugar contents, you are likely getting way too high amounts of sugar in a single serving. This can increase diabetes risk, cause weight gain and cause drops in energy levels."

Coconut Oil

There isn't anything you can't use coconut oil for. Cooking? Check. Better hair and skin? Double check. Turns out these claims may be a bit exaggerated. "Coconut oil does have healthy nutrients and, for [the most part], can positively impact health in a number of areas when consumed in moderation," Harris said. "Because it is high in calories and saturated fat, taking too much can have [an] opposite effect on your health."

Martin echoed this sentiment when she said she suggests her clients consume whole food sources versus any mimicking supplements or extracts. The food source is going to be the best, richest form of nutrients.

Agave Syrup

Agave nectar is a natural sweetener that ranks low on the glycemic index...for it's high levels of fructose, which is just another way of saying sugar. "Agave is straight fructose!" Davenport said. "There is no evidence that agave syrup is a better alternative than regular sugar, and closely resembles high fructose corn syrup."

Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, wrote on his website that "fructose is a major culprit in the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes and non-alchoholic fatty liver disease. It may also increase risks of heart disease and cancer."

Almond milk

Ah, the non-dairy darling. Almond milk has seen a serious spike in sales since 2010, often a staple in smoothies, and it's recently coming to light that its high-maintenance production is more trouble than it's worth. Namely, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce each almond. And California is the only state that produces almonds commerically. You know, the state that's in the middle of the worst drought in recent history.

Not only does it threaten the environment, but almond milk waters down all the benefits of raw almonds. It eliminates a majority of its high fiber and protein, sometimes swapping in vitamin and mineral additives.

Wheat Bread

Wheat bread is a complex carbohydrate, or a good-to-eat carb (which is totally a thing). However, a lot of the wheat bread that's available doesn't contain pure, whole grains. Forbes reported "if it isn’t 100% whole wheat, bread can contain enriched flour, which gives you a sugar spike and crash without any nutritional value."

Muscle & Fitness also found some wheat breads contain "hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives to improve shelf life, and even food coloring." All this to say it's worth spending an extra minute eyeing over the nutrition label.

How To Eat Super Healthy

The good news is that nine times out of 10, if it's labeled a superfood, it is. But relying on one list of foods, as Harris mentioned, isn't necessarily the best approach to maintaining a healthy diet. Instead, her hard and fast rule for healthy eating is all about plants and variety. "By plant-based, I don’t mean vegetarian or vegan, just most of the foods from a plant source. This includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes," Harris said. "A good rule is [to keep] 2/3 or more of your plate [filled with] plant foods and 1/3 or less with healthy animal proteins. And within all of those foods, it is important to have variety. This could mean fish one night, tofu the next, grass fed beef the next."

Davenport follows a similar rule. "Choose colorful, natural, unprocessed foods, and eat until you're 80 percent full," she said. "The colors in food are visual representations for the many antioxidants they contain."

More importantly, consumers should know that superfoods don't equally benefit each person. It may be rich in nutrients, but it doesn't mean it's safe for everyone to eat, namely those with allergies and intolerances, on current medications or diagnosed with certain medical conditions.

"Kale can help fight heart disease and cancer, but people with thyroid problems or taking blood thinners need to be careful about intake," Harris said. "Bring on the fiber we say, [but] maybe not if you are having an active diverticulitis flair up. Bottom line: there is no one size fits all, so listen to your body and choose what is best for you."

What's the best way to remember any of this? Martin offered this advice: "Write out a meal plan, create a grocery list, spend some time prepping some items and cook as many meals from scratch as possible."