Browse Instagram these days, and you’ll see superfood-laden smoothie bowls or bags of superfood powders. The companies that make them are expert marketers that claim their products can skyrocket your energy, heal your hormones or trim your belly. Yet, is the hefty price tag worth the potential benefits?
There is no official definition of what a superfood is, but it’s often described as a nutrient-dense food rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients that may offer health benefits beyond other foods.
This buzzword is applied to a wide array of foods, especially exotic fruits or roots such as acai berries and maca powder. Although there may be some research to support the health claims of these superfoods, often the benefits are shown when taking high doses (think: high price) regularly. Additionally, many of these products are sold in supplemental pill form. Given the unregulated nature of the supplement industry, you may not be taking what you think you are taking.
Let’s look at five popular superfoods to see whether the benefits outweigh the cost.
Acai berries are noted to have high levels of antioxidants, but there is limited research to support recommending them over other berries. Acai smoothie bowls are quite popular but cost $10-plus at a smoothie bar, and about half that at home. While you can get frozen acai berries shipped from Brazil, you can also opt for nutrient-rich fresh berries like blueberries or blackberries for a cheaper price. If you choose acai, buy the frozen whole berries and skip the supplemental forms for the greatest antioxidant power.
There’s been a rise in the popularity of ancient grains such as quinoa and freekah in the past few years. It’s great to see whole grains featured beyond whole wheat and brown rice products. These ancient grains can be excellent sources of fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals. Some, including amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat, are naturally gluten-free and are good choices for those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. These grains are pricier than rice but won’t break the bank. Given the science-backed health benefits of including whole grains in your diet, they are worth it. Check out the bulk bins at your grocery store to give these a try.
Chia seeds are rich in fiber and protein. They are often touted for their omega-3 fatty acids, but they are an inferior source compared with fatty fish. They cost $10 to $11 for one pound, but you will only use about one tablespoon at a time (keep them in the fridge or freezer to prevent the fatty acids from going rancid). Chia seeds can certainly be a nutrient-rich and affordable addition to a balanced diet, but you can also get similar benefits from other nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flax seeds or hemp hearts. All can be easy additions to smoothies or oatmeal.
Spirulina is a blue-green algae taken in pill or powdered form, with hundreds of health claims listed on the Internet. It’s often recommended as a vegan source of protein and Vitamin B12. An average dose of spirulina is about 2000 mg, which amounts to only 1 gram of protein. The form of Vitamin B12 in spirulina isn’t recognized by the body as an active, absorbable form. If you eat a plant-based diet, it’s important to get fortified or supplemental sources of Vitamin B12 rather than relying on spirulina. Although spirulina is rich in copper, iron and other nutrients, it can cost up to $50 a pound for few proven health benefits.
Coconut water has had its moment of fame, and now other “super waters” such as maple, birch and cactus are popping up. Although they may taste refreshing after a hot yoga class, a glass of water and a banana can provide hydration and electrolytes at a smaller cost. In an average balanced diet, you will get enough electrolytes from naturally occurring sources such as fruits and vegetables. Yet, if you are an endurance athlete, completing high-intensity workouts or working out in warmer temperatures where you are losing a lot of sodium through sweating, you may need additional electrolytes. In these cases, coconut water can be a natural alternative to electrolyte-rich beverages such as Gatorade.
Don’t fall for marketing hype. Eating a wide array of whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, plant or animal sources of protein, healthy fats and whole grains remains the best way to ensure a balanced, nutrient-rich diet for good health. The average American diet is low in fruit and vegetable intake, and increasing your general produce intake is likely to have a better health benefit than eating any one superfood.
If you have the disposable income to spend on superfoods, choose the whole-food option over a supplement. While they can offer nutrient-rich additions on top of a balanced diet, you can get all the nutrition you need from less costly foods.
Lauren Fowler is a registered dietitian nutritionist and yoga teacher specializing in nutrition therapy for disordered eating.