Suddenly it seems like “superfoods” are everywhere, from The Dr. Oz Show (a search on the site yields over four thousand results) to bookshelves (over 1,600 titles show up on Amazon) to the aisles of health food stores. According to the website Science-Based Medicine as well as the European Food Information Council among others, the term “superfood” does not have an established definition and was dreamed up by food marketers to tout foods or ingredients that are nutrient-rich and are thought, and only in some cases proven, to be beneficial to our health and wellbeing. David Wolfe, raw foods expert and the author of Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future, defines them as “foods that have a dozen or more unique properties, not just one or two.” He says they are “both a food and a medicine—a class of the most potent, super-concentrated, and nutrient-rich foods on the planet—nourishing us at the deepest level possible.”
Despite the broadness of the term and in many cases the lack of scientific research backing up the claims, the drive to find the next magic potion continues to intensify. Lately it seems that the more far-flung the source, the better. But does more exotic necessarily mean more magical?
Maca, a current superfood darling from the mountains of Central Peru, with celebrity fans Miranda Kerr and Stacy Keibler who mix it into smoothies, supposedly helps with anemia, chronic fatigue, menstrual problems, hormonal imbalance, depression, osteoporosis, cancer, leukemia and even to arouse sexual desire and improve both male and female sexual function, just to name a few. However, according to Keri Gans, RD and the author of The Small Change Diet and substantiated by medical sources such as NYU Langone Medical Center, there is nothing to back them up. “On a purely nutritional level, if you look at maca, which is a root related to the radish and is most often used in a powder form, in comparison to chia or flax seeds,” Gans says, “then the seeds win hands down for fiber and protein content. If you believe maca does everything it says it does, then there’s no harm in using it because ultimately, it’s a vegetable.”
Teff, a tiny whole grain from Ethiopia, is new on the superfood scene, even though Ethiopians have been using it for thousands of years. More recent fans reportedly include Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham. Teff is popular, in part, because it’s gluten-free. As with all whole grains, Gans says, teff may lower cholesterol levels and prevent heart disease. Claims by teff manufacturers and distributors that it can help manage and even prevent diabetes as well as manage celiac disease are still so far unproven. In a superfood smackdown, Gans prefers teff to maca because it has more nutritional benefits and is high in fiber and calcium. However, it’s a little trickier to use than maca; it’s usually ground into flour to bake into breads, cookies or pancakes as opposed to sprinkled on or into something. So to incorporate it into your diet, you might need to have more than a glancing relationship with your kitchen.
In actuality, you don’t have to look farther than your fridge to find more readily available but perhaps less sexy superfoods that, depending on the season, have probably been grown not too far from your own backyard. Blueberries, walnuts, avocados and potatoes not only pack a nutritional punch, but are also a whole lot healthier for your wallet. What could be more super than that?