For instance, phytonutrients like anthocyanins, found in blue-purple foods like blackberries, blueberries, acai berries, and red cabbage are thought to protect against heart disease and diabetes. Carotenoids, found in red and orange foods like tomatoes and carrots, may reduce the risk of certain cancers and protect skin from the sun’s UV rays.
The thing is, there are no official qualifications or cut-offs for what counts as a superfood versus, well, any generally nutritious food—no minimum amount of antioxidants they must contain (or any other nutrient, for that matter). Unlike other feel-good food claims such as “healthy,” “excellent source of,” and “organic,” the term “superfood” is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means that companies or manufacturers can declare anything a superfood, Noah Quezada, RD, owner of Noah’s Nutrition, tells SELF.
That can definitely lead to some confusion at the supermarket. (Is this kale-infused cereal a superfood?) On the other hand, a broad definition means that lots of the foods you eat on the regular could probably count as superfoods.
In fact, when you squint hard enough, almost any generally nutritious food—think fruits and veggies, healthy high-fat foods like salmon, eggs, beans, yogurt, and whole grains—can fit under that gigantic umbrella. (There’s no official superfoods list, people!) When you look at it that way, “There really isn’t anything that sets a superfood apart from other healthy foods,” Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, owner of Peace and Nutrition, tells SELF.
How does a food become a superfood, anyway?
Since there’s no formal criteria for what counts as a superfood, the coveted status is achieved mainly through marketing. Basically, if a brand or manufacturer wants to rebrand a food as “super,” they’ve got free reign to do it, Quezada says.
Whether or not a food ultimately catches on as a superfood really depends on whether the rest of us agree. “Foods become superfoods essentially by popularity in the media,” Jaramillo explains. So once a food that has some eye-catching nutrition stats gets a good ad campaign and enough momentum behind it, boom. “If we can notice a large quantity of vitamins and minerals in the nutrient label…that food has a good chance of becoming a superfood,” Jaramillo says.
This often happens with foods that have been around for pretty much ever and have always been healthy, but that people weren’t really interested in—think kale or Brussels sprouts. Which is great, because both of those foods are really nutritious and yummy! But there’s a downside, since the trend can cause consumers to think of more commonplace healthy foods (like spinach, oats, beans, or apples) as less nutritionally valuable—or even inferior—despite that not being the case, Kansas City-based dietitian and wellness nutritionist Dianna Sinni, RD, LD, tells SELF.
What’s the #1 superfood?
Considering that “superfood” doesn’t even have an official definition, it’s impossible to crown one single food the super-est of all. That said, many experts see plant-based foods as more likely to be worthy of the title compared to most animal-based foods, simply because they give you more nutritional bang for your buck, especially in terms of those aforementioned phytonutrients and antioxidants.