What makes a superfood super?

Superfoods don’t always have to hail from faraway lands says nutritionist Rick Hay. In fact, many everyday fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are also in the super league.

The marketing hype around superfoods and their medicinal properties has led to a great deal of confusion. People are always asking me whether superfoods really exist and, if so, what makes a superfood super.

Properties

Superfoods are foods that are nutrient dense and have strong antioxidant properties. A true superfood has a high Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) score, and the higher the ORAC score the stronger the food’s antioxidant ability. This means that most true superfoods will have a positive effect on immune function.

Superfoods aren’t always exotic

Most people seem to think that superfoods hail from far flung destinations – perhaps something from the Amazon or Asian Rainforests, like chia seeds, maca, acia, goji berries or cacao. These rainforest foods are indeed superfoods, but the good news is that many everyday foods, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, are also in the superfood league. Many are probably in your fridge or kitchen cupboard right now.

Even things like bitter salad leaves (chicory, endive and rocket) come under my superfood category, because their bitter quality stimulates liver and gall bladder function which in turn has a positive effect on digestion and fat metabolism.

Colour me super!

Common colourful fruits and vegetables like raspberries, blackberries, beetroot, blueberries and english spinach fall into the superfood category. They all have high ORAC scores and as a result are all good immune boosters in their own right, with beetroot powder or juice being the current standout in terms of enhancing sports performance.

When looking at everyday fruits and vegetables, those that are brightly coloured are most likely to be considered a superfood. I always recommend that my clients eat as many brightly coloured foods as they can on a daily basis – the more colourful and varied your diet is, the more likely you are to be consuming superfoods. A healthy diet is not just one that includes the recommended five a day: it’s all about colour, variety and eating as close to nature as you can.

Herbs and spices

A lot of research is currently being undertaken to identify the medicinal properties of common culinary herbs and spices. The results for turmeric, cinnamon and oregano, for example, are positive. Turmeric has strong anti-inflammatory properties, while cinnamon is a great blood sugar regulator. Oregano’s antimicrobial and antibacterial properties also show promise.

Pulses

I would even include some pulses in the superfood category: chickpeas, lentils and beans all are high in fibre and rich in nutrients. They are great foods to include in the diet to provide plant-based protein, and a diet that is high in plant-based protein is generally the healthiest. Foods that are high in fibre also assist with sustainable weight management, satiety and healthy digestive function.

Teas and tinctures

Herbal teas such as licorice, spearmint, raspberry, lemon balm and fennel, and peppermint all have the properties of a true superfood. These teas can assist with digestion, blood sugar regulation and immune function. Like any true superfood, they are powerful antioxidants that help the body in the fight against oxidative stress and free radical damage. While teas can indeed be super, herbal tinctures are like a turbo charged version. Traditional medicine options such as globe artichoke, olive leaf, St John’s Wort, vervain and licorice have been used successfully to assist in the treatment of a wide range of health conditions.

Supplements and powders

Of course, there are many superfood powders and supplements on the market. While many do what they say on the box, you should exercise caution with those that promise the earth or a miracle cure. We all know that just taking raspberry ketones is not the simple answer to obesity.

I am a fan of using the supergreen powders like spirulina, chlorella, wheatgrass and barley grass to assist with alkalisation and cleansing. I also recommend baobab, lucuma, beetroot and maca to help with energy production and sports performance. Turmeric and olive leaf extract are two of my favourites when it comes to boosting immune function and fighting bacteria, viruses and microbes.

Algae oil or fish oil are also a great addition to a healthy diet, as they boost cognition and mental performance. Chia seeds are great to help with satiety and to increase the protein content of a smoothie, and they are also high in essential fatty acids which help with healthy skin, hair and nails.

While some of these superfoods are exotic, many of them are everyday foods, so it’s not hard to get some super into your diet. The good thing about the superfood trend is that it’s getting people to increase the variety of foods in their diet and sparking a debate about nutrition and health – and as far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing.


Rick Hay is a nutritionist with over twenty years’ experience. Since relocating to the UK from Australia in 2010, Rick has made a name for himself on television. The resident health and fitness expert for Ideal World TV, he has written for Natural Health and Your Fitness magazines and is the author of Nutritional Blast (available for order from good bookstores), and The Anti-Ageing Food and Fitness Plan available on Amazon. Follow Rick on Twitter @nutritionalphys and on Facebook. rickhay.co.uk