Five hundred years ago, Ponce de Leon searched in vain for the Fountain of Youth and immortality (in Florida, no less). Had old Ponce been a 21st-century man, he might have gone to his local supermarket and searched the aisles for humanity’s latest health and longevity obsession, superfood. Virtually every newspaper, magazine and broadcast outlet, major or minor, has extolled the miracles of superfoods, often more than once. Superfoods are minimally processed foods that are so nutrient-packed they promise to protect your body against all manner of illness and add years to your life, all the while supercharging your sex life and growing hair on your head, never mind perking up your brain and freshening your breath. They’re the veritable Fountain of Youth…or at least that's what they say. Let’s examine eight of the major superfoods, their purported super powers and the facts behind the hype machine.
1. Green Tea
The Story: Green tea has been popularized in the past several years as a health tonic extraordinaire. While commonly consumed in Japan, it only recently has caught on in America. Green tea, unlike regular black teas, is made from unfermented tea leaves (black tea uses the same leaf but it is fermented). This minimally processed tealeaf contains higher concentrations of antioxidants (specifically one called EGCG) which enthusiasts claim slows cellular growth and can prevent cancer. Green tea is also supposedly helpful in lowering cholesterol and battling Alzheimer’s disease.
The Reality: Green tea is good for you. Two or three cups a day, no argument there. Especially in lieu of sugary beverages or coffee with half-and-half. But studies have shown mixed results in lowering cholesterol (it lowered total cholesterol but the bad stuff—LDL and triglyceride—remained unchanged), and other studies have suggested it may block the effects of some anti-cancer medications. Additionally, drinking it piping hot may increase the chance of contracting esophageal cancer, especially among smokers and alcohol drinkers. Alzheimer’s? There have been no human trials to back up lab tests (which have shown some helpful benefit of green tea in combatting the disease).
The Story: Who doesn’t love garlic? So how convenient that it is also good for you. Super good, say proponents. The major health ingredient in garlic is allicin, and it is contained in all forms of garlic, even that powdered stuff you sprinkle on your slice. Garlic will lower your cholesterol, your blood pressure, prevent heart disease, and battle cancer to boot, treat yeast infections, and shrink the old prostate. And leave your breath minty fresh. No wait…not that last one.
The Reality: Eat your garlic. It’s delicious. But studies suggest that garlic’s super powers are a bit stinky. They show a limited association with health benefits, but not a definitive cause-and-effect. Plus most of the studies of garlic are centered on a study of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is high in garlic content, but also high in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain breads, monosaturated fats, red wine, and other healthy stuff. The health benefit may be with the diet as a whole, primarily from just eating a balanced low-processed diet. And beware, garlic appears to have some interaction with some HIV drugs. "Current evidence does not support the use of garlic supplements to improve health,” says Alison Hornby, dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
3. Dark Chocolate
The Story: Undoubtedly, there were celebrations galore when publications started touting the health benefits of eating dark chocolate. We knew it all along! Tastes good and good for you! And it’s true, sort of. Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants called flavonoids, which help lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, battle diabetes, perk up the brain function, and lower the stress level. Not so fast, though….
The Reality: The studies on dark chocolate make associations but do not present conclusive evidence. While there is some evidence that it lowers blood pressure, there is no evidence that dark chocolate prevents heart disease. And chocolate products are generally packed with sugar and (in the case of milk chocolate) whole milk, which present other health questions. So by all means treat yourself to a small chunk of dark chocolate a day. Stick to dark chocolate high in cacao content (70% or more), or sprinkle some cacao nibs into your morning cereal. Just don’t think they will be selling M&Ms in the health food store anytime soon.
The Story: Flaxseeds have been touted as a superfood able to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. The high-fiber content also makes it a go-to solution for constipation. Flaxseeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids (the stuff that makes fish so healthy), and another compound in them, lignans, is linked to cancer prevention.
The Reality: Well, first of all, avoid flaxseed oil if you are looking for maximum health benefits. The healthy lignans are processed out of flaxseed oil. And while studies have shown lowered cholesterol results from flaxseed consumption, the effects have been mostly temporary if daily use stops. Go ahead and toss a few whole-grain flaxseeds into your blender with your morning smoothie, but you’ll have to keep on doing it.
5. Pomegranate Juice
The Story: Pomegranate juice seems ever-present in juice blends these days. It is held up as a wonder juice that will lower your cholesterol, fight heart disease, and prevent prostate problems, even impotence, among its other miracles. Pomegranate juice instead of Viagra! Pomegranates are high in vitamin C, vitamin B5, and most important, powerful antioxidants called ellagitannins.
The Reality: As with all these superfoods, studies have linked pomegranates with healthful results, but are not conclusive that they are the agent of all those vaunted results. Pom, the leading company producing pomegranate products, was ordered by a judge to stop promoting pomegranate juice as a cure-all for heart disease, prostate problems and impotence. “The greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony demonstrates that there is insufficient competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate claims that the Pom products treat, prevent or reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction or that they are clinically proven to do so,” D. Michael Chappell wrote in his decision. He made similar decisions pertaining to heart disease and prostate cancer. Long story short, enjoy a glass of pomegranate juice because it tastes good and is better for you than a Coke.
6. Chia Seeds
The Story: Hailing from Central America and a member of the mint family, chia seeds were used as a staple in the Aztec diet. Chia seed admirers tout the seeds as cholesterol, blood pressure and heart disease fighters. High in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, the little seeds are crunchy when eaten raw, but take on a gelatinous texture when mixed with liquids or yogurt.
The Reality: These little Aztec wonders may be exacting Montezuma’s revenge. While they may be effective in battling constipation (due to their high fiber content), there are few substantiated studies that back up the heart-healthy powers of the chia seed.
7. Goji Berries
The Story: Native to China and the Himalayas, the goji berry is sold in juiced and dried forms. Marketing touts this little miracle fruit as a super tonic, an aid to support overall immune system health. Goji berries have long been used in Chinese medicine, lending them the air of ancient wisdom, and are high in carotenoid, which has been linked to lowering the risk of macular degeneration.
Reality: There have been no acceptable scientific studies to back up the claims of goji berry enthusiasts. Some studies have even found that the goji berry might have adverse effects on the liver’s ability to break down some medications. If you are on meds, check with your doctor before deciding to goji up.
The Story: Tart, sweet and yummy, blueberries are one of summer’s (and increasingly, year-round) treats. Blueberry fans ascribe superpowers to the delicious berry. High in vitamin K, vitamin C, manganese, and an important antioxidant, anthocyanin, blueberries are supposed to fight heart disease and cancer and perk up your memory to boot.
The Reality: Weak links again. Studies have shown lower heart attack rates among blueberry eaters but no definitive cause-and-effect. While some lab studies have shown cancer-fighting abilities for the blueberry, there is no evidence it works in humans the same way it does in a petri dish. As for memory improvement, no large-scale studies have been done (small-scale studies indicate a correlation, but are too small to draw any conclusions). Have yourself a bowl of blueberries, but don’t expect miracles to follow.
The takeaway to all of this is to swallow the hype with a grain of salt. Superfoods are more mild-mannered Clark Kent then they are Superman. They are good for you but they can’t leap tall buildings with a single bound. A balanced diet, lots of different kinds of fruits and veggies, a low to moderate meat intake (less red), easy on the sugar. That’s the ticket to optimal health. Alison Hornby of the BDA again: "As these products tend to be relatively costly, it makes sense to stick to eating a range of fruits and vegetables rather than spending your money on this one item with no proven health benefits."