It’s a Bird; It’s a Plum; It’s a … Superfood!

Some claim they have special powers. They supposedly can help save people's lives. Many even have sidekicks that reportedly assist with their heroic efforts.
It’s a Bird; It’s a Plum; It’s a Superfood!

But can they really? Or is there more hype and hoopla over these superfoods than actual heroic and holistic value?

What makes them so super?
Nutrition-wise, 25 natural items — ranging from avocados and walnuts to dark chocolate — body slam everything else in the pantry or supermarket. The doctor who literally wrote the book on superfoods, Dr. Steven G. Pratt, MD, says their nutritional value comes from being "nutrient-dense and calorie-sparse." The ophthalmologist from the San Diego Scripps Memorial Hospital lauds them for being loaded with stuff that is thought to be health-promoting: omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and calcium, etc. Pratt first wrote about 14 of them in his 2004 best-selling book, SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life (Harper). He introduced 11 more in SuperFoods Lifestyle in 2006.

They also have their own Boy Wonders. These sidekicks are similar types of foods that allegedly offer comparable nutrition. "We're really talking well over 100 foods that have health benefits," claims Pratt, who was dubbed the "Food Dude" by Oprah Winfrey. Superfoods advocates contend that the nutritionally power-packed foods — such as beans, berries and oats — can do amazing things for your body: better well-being, increased lifespan, possible improved resistance to disease, higher energy levels and weight loss.

Superfood or pseudo science?
Other experts insist these super claims might not be as epic as advertised. Count Weight Watchers International's Chief Scientific Officer, Karen Miller-Kovach, among the skeptics who agree the foods are nutritious but raise eyebrows about miraculous medical claims.

"It's not to say those foods on that list are bad and you should avoid them. Absolutely not," says Miller-Kovach, MS, RD. "But they don't rise to deity status."

In fact, they don't rise to superfoods status anymore — not officially in Europe, at least. During the summer of 2007, the European Union passed legislation banning use of the term "superfood" for a food unless it has enough scientific evidence to prove the claims. And according to Miller-Kovach, "most of these foods don't."

Still, Pratt stands by his claim that superfoods are considered "best of class" of the hundreds of natural health foods. Along with the claimed health benefits, his superfood requirements include: (1) be widely available to the public; (2) be foods people have heard about; (3) have several medical peer reviews published detailing and verifying that they "have the ability to alter one's lifestyle in a positive way;" (4) be affordable so most people can work them into their diet and budget.

Pratt praises superfoods for their weight-loss powers, too. They fill you up without fattening you up because many are high in fiber but low in calories and unhealthy fat, he says.

Just the facts
Like the European Union, Miller-Kovach demands more hard scientific evidence before she'll consider a food superior. The problem, she says, is that superfoods supporters are taking super-sounding theories and presenting them as super facts, leading people to make food choices that might not be able to deliver on the professed benefits.

That's why the Weight Watchers take on superfoods is that "this isn't all it's cracked up to be," Miller-Kovach says. "Essentially, Doctor Pratt's books and several others like them are treating food like medicine and they're doing it often without a lot of scientific substantiation behind it."

Pratt's three all-star superfoods — spinach, wild salmon and blueberries — allegedly offer some of the best bang for the bite. According to, his Web site, Popeye was on to something with spinach. He claims it to be pound-for-pound the most nutritious food out there. It's supposed to battle cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Other superfoods claims: wild salmon has loads of omega-3 fatty acids and can help your eyes, heart and brain, and blueberries have oodles of phytonutrients that provide cancer-thwarting antioxidants.

To which Miller-Kovach asks: "Where's the evidence? I'm not going to say blueberries are yucky or spinach is a crummy food. But to say you should be eating blueberries over strawberries is not within the philosophy that Weight Watchers has.

Superfood side-effects
One example for Miller-Kovach's scientific skepticism involves antioxidants. For years, their virtues were extolled and still often are. Recent clinical studies, however, have shown that they might not deliver all the health benefits once commonly accepted as fact, she says. They could even have some negative effects in certain situations.

Furthermore, Miller-Kovach points out that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are "great." But the mercury you'll swallow with the salmon? "Not so great." And if you have a propensity for kidney stones, she says spinach, beans and tea can make matters worse because their high levels of oxalic acid can contribute to the formation of the painful pebbles. Smokers who digest beta carotene might be more prone to get lung cancer. And soy could heighten the recurrence of breast cancer.

This doesn't mean you should dump all that food from your fridge. Miller-Kovach says she's not about to make an argument against eating fruits and vegetables. Quite the opposite. She just doesn't want people to make food choices based on "premature info" or have a false hope of heroic healing.

Any kryptonite to superfoods?
Pratt warns against trans fats, saying they're "toxic even in small amounts." His suggestion: "If you see 'partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil' on the label, dump it." Why? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, trans fats, found in shortenings and some snack foods, are similar to saturated fat and dietary cholesterol in that they raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase risk of coronary heart disease.

But Pratt prefers pointing out what good options are available instead of going on about what not to eat. He even suggests giving in to a doughnut "once in a great while," but advises limiting treats to 100 calories a day. "Here's the way I look at it: Crowd out the bad habits by taking up the good habits," he says. "I don't think people respond well to 'Don't, don't, don't, don't.'"

Variety is life's spice for a reason
"Make wise food choices and a variety of them," Miller-Kovach suggests. She relates it to vitamins. Similar to how it's better to take a multi-vitamin than an individual-specific nutrient, picking an assortment from every food group is the safest and most healthy way to go, she says. "Eating more of the better-for-you choices is always smart."

Zoe "The Food Guru" Firth, a United Kingdom-based registered nutritionist, worries that some people might think they can negate junk food's after-effects by adding some superfoods to their diets. A blueberry a day won't necessarily keep the doctor away, she believes. "It is important to have a healthy balanced diet that is as varied as possible, so fixating with one particular item that may have been named a 'superfood' could skew that balance," she says. "You need to look at the diet as a whole. If you obsess with just one aspect then that could detract you from the bigger picture."

Firth would prefer for people to concentrate on getting at least five fruits and veggies a day more than worrying about whether they're a superfood or not. "In my opinion all fruit and vegetables are super," she says. "The majority of people do not eat enough fruit and vegetables and therefore may be putting themselves at risk of ill-health."

Pairing powers, activate!
Like his skeptics, Pratt concurs that superfoods alone can't save you from all health issues. He recommends adding a side dish of exercise to chomping on superfoods. That balance will boost your overall well-being, claims Ross, who adds: "People doing these together can transform lives and bodies and their whole health status."

Free Newsletter Get it now