Which foods really are superfoods?

Goji berry pic

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a…goji berry? Some foods can certainly seem super in what they can offer us, but sadly there are no true superfoods. For starters, this is because there is no scientific definition to say which foods are or aren’t ‘super’.

‘Superfood’ is a recently popularised term in the mainstream media, but is blandly defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “nutrient-rich food” that is “beneficial for health and well-being”. Many health professionals think the term ‘superfood’ is just a gimmick. Cancer Research UK describes the term as a “marketing tool, with little scientific basis to it”. Indeed, elevating blueberries to ‘super’ status saw their sales increase 132% between 2005 and 2007 (BBC News). The European Union decided to call time on the flippant use of the term in 2007, saying that products marketed as ‘superfoods’ should be accompanied with a “specific authorised health claim” (BBC News).

The foods that apparently make the ‘super’ status include broccoli and spinach, both excellent sources* of vitamin C (which keeps our skin and bones in shape) and vitamin K (which helps to our blood to clot properly)±.

Some foods have more weighty claims to keeping us healthy. Isoflavenoids, for example, have been linked to a reduction in the risk of breast cancer, among other health benefits. These compounds naturally occur in soy products, leading some to claim that a high soy diet is the key to dodging breast cancer. However, when researchers tested it, they found only a “small reduction” in risk after analysing studies over a 26-year period.

You needn’t travel far for healthy foods, and you needn’t opt for something ‘super’. Tucking into a steak will provide a source of vitamin B12, zinc and iron, and eggs are a great source of high quality protein. Even the humble potato is one of the most well-rounded of foods (pun intended) when it comes to the nutrients it offers, providing an excellent source of fibre, magnesium, and vitamins C and B6**. More exotic ‘superfoods’ such as the goji berry tend to be pricey, and the NHS recommends sticking to your 5-a-day rather than “spending money on this one item with no proven health benefits”. So don’t rely on one or two “superfoods’ to save the day. Variety is the spice of life!


* An “excellent source” is defined as providing over 20% of your daily values on a 2000 calorie diet.

± Based on the nutritional information of a 100 g serving.

** Based on a large (369 g) potato.


By Michael McKenna


Trock, B. et al (2006) Meta-Analysis of Soy Intake and Breast Cancer Risk. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 98 (7): 459-471

Cancer Research UK. (October 2014). ‘Superfoods’ and Cancer. Cancer Research UK [web site]. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/healthyliving/cancercontroversies/superfoods/. (Accessed 6 February 2015).

BBC News. (October 2008). Common fibre a ‘true superfood’. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7663962.stm. (Accessed 6 February 2015).

BBC News. (June 2007). Superfood ‘ban’ comes into effect. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6252390.stm. (Accessed 6 February 2015)

Bingham, S. A. et al, (1997). Phyto-oestrogens: where are we now? British Journal of Nutrition, 79: 393-406

NHS. (June 2013). Do goji berries deserve their A-list status? NHS [web site]. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/superfoods/Pages/are-goji-berries-a-superfood.aspx. (Accessed 11 February 2015).

Photo Credit: MeganElizabethMorris via Compfight cc

Article by Michael Mckenna

February 11, 2015

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

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2 thoughts on “Which foods really are superfoods?”

  1. Perhaps, but you aren’t factoring in the inestimable health benefits of the smugness I feel when ordering a “superfood” salad. And afterwards I can reward myself with a steak high in B12. Win-win!

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