When I hear the word superfood there are a few things that jump to mind in terms of the qualities that I would expect a food to have; something that has some nutritional ‘value’ that is in exceptional quantities compared to other foods, contains certain health promoting compounds that are not typically found in the more common foods we eat or a food that is packed full of combination of different nutrients making them effectively a one-stop high quality source of nutrition.
Superfoods also tend to be branded as quite exotic in nature, this is partly think because we believe that there is something magical and special about foods that we don’t normally see or are associated with ancient cultures who perhaps knew something we didn’t about health.
Whether you believe that or not it has certainly given rise to countless Superfood products from around the globe that are becoming increasingly common, such as Chia Seeds, Spirulina, Maca Powder… not to mention supplements that combine all manner of ‘greens’ and ‘fruits’ that are supposed to offer health promoting benefits.
But what’s the truth? What happens when we actually look beyond the name (or label), do these things hold up to scrutiny? Is there anything truly ‘super’ about them or is it all just a big marketing ploy to get you to part with your hard earned cash when you could be getting the exact same nutrients, for much cheaper, in the more humble foods that make up your typical diet?
So let’s start with one of the most popular superfoods, Chia Seeds, which in their native form originate from southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. One thing that is certainly super about Chia seeds, especially if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, is that they are only one of a few sources of plant protein that contain all the essential amino acids that the body needs.
Chia seeds are fairly rich in protein with around 15g of protein per 100g, with 43g of carbs and 31g of fat. In terms of the carb content this is mostly fibre, with a huge 38g of fibre per 100g. This would be easily over your daily suggested fibre requirements; even a ‘standard’ 30g serving would provide nearly 1/2 of your daily fibre needs. The fats in Chia Seeds are mostly from ‘healthy’ unsaturated fat sources and especially important is the high omega 3 content as this is often missing in the diet, particularly in those who do not consume oily fish.
Chia Seeds do however also contain some ‘hidden extras’ in terms of nutrition; they are rich in calcium (again important for those who do not consume much dairy) and other essential minerals, including manganese, zinc and phosphorus. However, much of this can be gotten from a balanced diet without too much consideration if we are eating a decent variety of foods and protein sources1.
Chia seeds are rich in antioxidant, which seems to be a main criterion to belong in the superfood category, and certainly consuming enough antioxidants in the diet is important, but again does this offer additional benefit for those consuming plenty of antioxidant rich foods like fruits and vegetables? Probably not.
All in all then, Chia Seeds are something I would consider a superfood for specific populations, especially those who are living a mostly plant based eating lifestyle and those who want to boost their fibre intake efficiently. However, can we get these nutrients from other foods in a normal diet? Well, of course there is nothing particularly special in this regard from a nutritional perspective and a balanced diet full of fibrous whole grains, fruits and vegetables could hit the mark just as effectively.
Maca Powder is an increasingly popular supplement often stated as having some pretty amazing health benefits and yet again hails from South America. In its natural form it is found as a root and initially gathered interest as a potential libido, mood and energy booster, with some promising research in support of these ideas2.
From a nutrition perspective Maca Powder contains around 14g of protein per 100g with 72g of carbohydrate and 4g of fat, but unlike Chia, Maca does not contain a complete amino acid profile and is missing key essential amino acids. Maca does contain several vitamins and minerals in large amounts including iron and vitamin C and it has decent amount of fibre, with 7g per 100g of powder… it also contains antioxidant compounds, but again these are found in other commonly eaten fruits and greens.
Next we move onto spirulina. Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae and was again used as a food source historically in areas of South America. In more recent times it has been touted as a superfood and is found in a powdered form, usually to be consumed in drinks or smoothies.
Spirulina is high in protein and importantly contains all the essential amino acids, with 100g (dry weight) containing a huge 57g of protein. This again makes it a suitable replacement for other quality protein sources and actually has large amounts of the essential amino acid leucine, which is important for fully maximising muscle protein synthesis.
On top of this spirulina also contains around 8g of fat per 100g and this is mostly from unsaturated fat sources. Most impressively, it contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids in the most effective physiological forms; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
The nutrition profile of spirulina also includes 24g of carbohydrate with 3g of fibre per 100g and decent amounts of a majority of our essential vitamins and minerals. Its nutritional value combined with the rates at which it can be produced, has meant that it has been touted as the perfect nutrition source for dealing with food crisis, famine and even as a primary food for future attempts at long distance space travel.
Spirulina then, if we consider it pretty much a one stop nutrition shop, falls definitely in the ball park of my definition of a superfood, however yet again we need to consider if this would add anything extra into a normal balanced diet? Or is it just a useful supplement for those who maybe who have restricted the intake of animal protein and need to make sure they keep on top of their essential amino acid intake?
Take Home Message
There are several ‘superfood supplements’ that can often contain the above ingredients, plus several more foods (usually fruits and greens) to provide a convenient way to ensure that a diet contains sufficient sources of micronutrients. These can be useful if you struggle to eat, are a bit lazy (like me) or don’t like eating a variety of fruit or greens.
In this situation then greens and fruit powders take the hard work out of the process of consuming enough of the ‘stuff’ that is going to provide us with our required essential micronutrients and fibre. Many people do struggle to eat not only enough of these kinds of foods, but also the right variety of fruits, vegetables and greens to truly optimise their micronutrient intakes.
Of course we should always aim to get all our essential nutrients from whole foods, but sometimes this is not practical or cost effective and in these situations these supplements can effectively do a job. I think this is true of everything we’ve discussed in this article; these foods may not be extraordinary in the context of a nutritionally complete diet from more commonly eaten foods, but in the right context they can step in and do the job effectively when maybe our nutrition might be missing ‘something’ important.
1: Weber et al., (1991) The nutritional and chemical evaluation of Chia seeds.
2: Wang et al., (2007) Maca: An Andean crop with multi-pharmacological functions.
3: Khan et al., (2007) Nutritional and therapeutic potential of Spirulina.