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The term superfood describes foods that are nutrient-rich and considered especially beneficial toward health and well-being. Superfoods are usually whole foods that have not been fortified or enriched. Fruits and vegetables make up the majority of superfoods, but some fish and dairy products also qualify. Superfoods have higher levels of vitamins and minerals than other foods. Many purported superfoods contain components such as flavonoids, antioxidants, and fatty acids that health enthusiasts assert prevent and treat chronic illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. The word superfood is mainly a marketing tool, however, and few health professionals use the word to describe nutritional foods. Superfood language emphasizes the specific nutrients found within a certain food. Though nutritionists agree that many of these foods are good for you, many consider the term misleading and stress the importance of viewing food as a whole unit rather focusing on its individual nutrients. Several institutions have undertaken scientific studies dedicated to better understanding the nutritional components of foods labeled superfoods. Government institutions have also taken part in regulating false advertising and unsubstantiated health claims within the superfoods industry.

Overview: Superfoods Throughout History

The concept of superfoods has existed since the days of Ancient Egypt. Inscriptions on the Pyramids of Giza detail garlic's use as a physical strengthener. Soldiers and athletes of Ancient Greece also believed in garlic's strengthening properties and often ate it before battle and competition. Ancient Chinese medicine prescribed garlic for digestive and respiratory ailments as well as a treatment for depression. Quinoa, a high-protein grain-like seed, also had an impressive reputation more than five-thousand years ago. The Incans referred to quinoa as the "mother grain" and considered the crop sacred. Incan armies relied on quinoa to sustain them during long marches. Many other civilizations including Rome, Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and India have believed in the healing and strengthening powers of certain foods for centuries.

Superfood Components and Claims

Modern usage of the term superfood refers to foods containing high amounts of natural chemicals that have demonstrated positive health effects in laboratory studies. Though the list of superfoods is extensive, several foods have moved to the forefront of consumer awareness in recent years. These foods include blueberries, beans, nuts, seeds, kale, sweet potatoes, fatty fish, pomegranates, and acai berries. These foods are touted for containing large quantities of disease-fighting vitamins and minerals such as phytochemicals like antioxidants and carotenoids, fatty acids, and fiber.

Phytochemicals are found in plant foods. Several phytochemicals have shown to reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, and metabolic syndromes. Thousands of different phytochemicals are in plant foods, but few have been studied closely. Two phytochemicals that are popular superfood components are antioxidants and carotenoids. Antioxidants are molecules found in food that defend against cell-damaging molecules called free radicals. Free radicals damage cells to the point that they are susceptible to diseases such as cancer. Studies have shown that antioxidants are capable of killing and stopping the growth of cancer cells. Foods that are high in antioxidants are usually considered superfoods. They include blueberries, broccoli, garlic, cabbage, and pomegranates. Superfood devotees also hail carotenoids such as beta carotene, an organic compound known for its cancer-fighting properties. Beta carotene acts as an antioxidant and helps kill free radicals within the body. This phytochemical is often found in orange and red vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. It is also present in dark leafy greens.

Many superfoods are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids—found in foods such as salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, and walnuts—can lower the risk of heart disease and help arthritis. Some studies also show a decreased risk of memory loss and Alzheimer's among people who eat the recommended serving of foods with omega-3s. Foods high in omega-3s are usually also high in monosaturated fats, which studies show can lower cholesterol.

Dietary fiber is an important component of nutrition and provides several digestive benefits. Soluble fiber slows down the passage of food through the digestive tract and helps stave off hunger, which can help with weight loss. Insoluble fiber does the opposite of soluble fiber and promotes speedy digestion. Both types of fiber can stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive system. Fibrous superfoods usually contain high amounts of one or both types of fiber. High-fiber superfoods include whole grains, beans, quinoa, blueberries, and sweet potatoes. Superfood proponents praise high-fiber foods for their ability to ease digestive problems and maintain blood glucose levels, which can help prevent diabetes.

Criticisms

Many dieticians and nutritionists caution consumers against the cult of superfoods. Though many foods listed as superfoods are high in nutrients and can have a positive effect on health, health professionals note that these effects vary among individuals. Some superfoods can be harmful to health if overused. Scientists also point out that many superfood health claims are not supported by scientific evidence. In 2007, the European Union enacted a law banning the term superfood on packaging unless scientific evidence backed the claim. Europe used the term "functional foods" when referring to nutritionally beneficial foods. This term described both whole and enriched foods with health advantages. The US government has taken similar action against false health claims in recent years. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning letter to marketers of green tea in 2010 that threatened legal action if they did not remove illegal health claims from their products marketing language. FDA regulation of superfood health claims ensured that consumers were aware of the limited research behind such claims.

Bibliography

BBC News. "Superfood 'Ban' Comes Into Effect." BBC News. BBC. 29 June 2007. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6252390.stm>

Cancer Research UK. "'Superfoods' and Cancer." Cancer Research UK. Cancer Research UK. Web. 22 Aug. 2014. <http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/healthyliving/cancercontroversies/superfoods/>

European Commission. "Functional Foods." European Commission. European Union. 2010. Web. 22 Aug. 2014. <ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/fp7/kbbe/docs/functional-foods_en.pdf>

Harvard Heart Letter. "Sizing Up 'Superfoods' for Heart Health." Harvard Heart Letter. Harvard University. March 2014. Web. 22 Aug. 2014. <http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Heart_Letter/2014/March/sizing-up-superfoods-for-heart-health>

BBC News. "Forget Superfoods, You Can't Beat an Apple a Day." Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/may/13/health.healthandwellbeing1>

Schneeman, Barbara O. "Letter Updating the Green Tea and Risk of Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer Health Claim April 17, 2012." U.S. Food and Drug Administration. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Web. 22 Aug. 2014. <http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm301644.htm>

Schumm, Laura. "The Ancient Origins of Superfoods." History Channel. A&E Television Networks, LLC. 13 March 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/the-ancient-origins-of-superfoods>

Wanjek, Christopher. "What Are Superfoods?" Live Science. Purch. 24 May 2013. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://www.livescience.com/34693-superfoods.html>