woman blending greens in a mixer

What are superfoods?

By Michelle Katz, MS, RD, CDCES Mar 30, 2023 • 7 min

It seems like the term “superfoods” is everywhere. It’s a popular topic among influencers on social media, magazines, cable news, advertisements, and even coworkers, friends and family members. The fact is that few people actually know what superfoods are. While no single food can do it all, some foods are healthier than others. Understanding what the term “superfood” means can help you make better food choices when planning your meals. 

What foods qualify as superfood?

Part of the reason why superfoods can be confusing is that there is no specific criteria a food must meet in order to be considered a superfood. However, the term is typically defined as a natural food that is nutrient-dense and provides a wealth of beneficial vitamins, minerals and substances called phytonutrients. 

Phytonutrients include antioxidants, which are substances that may help reduce cellular damage. Oxidative damage helps drive the aging process and has been shown to contribute to inflammation and play a role in a number of chronic conditions including heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases.

What are some superfoods?

Use of the term superfood can be traced back to marketing for the United Fruit Company’s bananas in the early 20th century. Some foods that people consider to be "super" include:

  • Barley
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Legumes such as chickpeas
  • Fatty fish like salmon 
  • Ginger
  • Leafy greens such as kale and spinach
  • Nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts and chia seeds 
  • Oats 
  • Olive oil
  • Eggs
  • Seaweed
  • Tomatoes
  • Yogurt 

What is an organic superfood? 

While there are no regulations regarding what can be called a superfood, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does have a certification program for organic foods. True organic superfoods are nutrient-dense foods that meet the standards for “organic,” which are established by the USDA. To qualify, foods must be grown without the use of certain chemical pesticides and herbicides and must not undergo certain processes, like genetic engineering and ionizing radiation.

What are superfood supplements? 

Many people struggle to eat well-balanced meals and use supplements to bridge the dietary gap. Superfood supplements are products that contain extracts from one or more power foods. These supplements come in a variety of forms, such as superfood tablets that you swallow with water or green superfood powder that you mix with water or another liquid and consume in a beverage such as a shake or smoothie. The specific ingredients and the amount of various nutrients per serving varies widely from product to product. Be sure to read labels carefully and always consult with your healthcare provider before taking any kind of supplement.

Tips for eating more superfoods 

If you want to include more superfoods in your daily meals and snacks, here are some of suggestions:

Try a superfood salad

Make a nutrient-packed salad. Start with greens and superfoods that you love. Toss them in a bowl, and add vegetables in a variety of colors. Sprinkle in seeds or nuts for crunch. Don’t limit yourself to just veggies. Fruits like strawberries and blueberries are also tasty in salads. To top off your superfood salad, prepare a homemade dressing with three parts olive oil, one part vinegar and freshly chopped herbs or shallots. Skip the store-bought stuff, which often contains added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.

Mix up a superfood smoothie

Enjoy your superfoods on the go in the form of a tasty smoothie. Combine fruits and vegetables in a blender, and add a base like Greek yogurt, low-fat milk, or a plant-based milk like oat or almond milk. You can also drop in chia seeds, flax seeds, or nuts before you blend. Pour it into a travel mug, and sip your superfood smoothie wherever you are.

Be mindful when you prepare and enjoy power foods

Use olive oil or another healthy fat like avocado oil for sauteing and roasting. Enhance the flavor of food with fresh herbs and spices rather than salt or butter. Keep recommended serving sizes in mind when eating superfoods like nuts and seeds. While these provide a wealth of nutrients, they are also high in calories. One serving is a small handful of whole nuts or seeds, or 2 tablespoons of natural nut butters.

Use superfoods with MyPlate for a balanced diet

A healthy diet is one that contains a wide variety of foods. Limiting your diet to one or two superfoods usually isn’t the best approach to meal planning. Instead, follow the MyPlate method. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth with grains and one-fourth with lean protein. 

Eat fruits and veggies in a rainbow of colors, varying the grains and protein you eat on a daily basis. Incorporate superfoods you love into the MyPlate method to treat your body to a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients.

Your healthcare provider can give you advice about what foods are best for your healthy diet and can even refer you to a registered dietitian who can develop a custom eating plan for you. Before taking any superfood supplement, check with your provider to be sure that the product is right for you based on your needs and health history.

Published March 2023.

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