There’s no such thing as a superfood.
Sorry. That’s a stone-cold opener, right up there with a denunciation of the Easter bunny. But they’re roughly equivalent: Mythical.
There are many foods with terrific nutritional profiles: rich in valuable nutrients, free from nutritional liabilities, and either low in calories or notably satiating. Even a short list would overwhelm superfood claimants: spinach, hundreds of foods among beans and lentils; broccoli and most brassicas; chard, kale, collards and most dark greens; most berries, not just blueberries; almonds, walnuts, and most nuts; oranges, cherries, arugula, cabbage, and so on. Consider all fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains: It’s pretty much that simple.
Being “super” becomes super tough when you’ve got so much company. Accordingly, superfoods are pitched to us under a mystique of exoticism. The super nutrition of grocery cart mainstays is never mentioned because that would dilute the mystique. A line from The Incredibles comes to mind: No one’s special when everybody is.
Superfood claimants generally have two key characteristics: They are, for the most part, genuinely nutritious foods; and, they come from far away so that, ideally, you’ve not heard of them before: acai, or noni, or goji. As a result, whether or not they are hard to get, they are often a niche or new market, and so someone stands to make a lot of money off of them; they’re very profitable. Which, unless you’re the one selling them, should leave you cold.
But these characteristics do not create super qualities when it comes to nutrition. we’ll repeat: There are no superfoods, exotic or otherwise. The reasons are all but self-evident.
If your dietary pattern, overall, is poor, then no single food, or a few in combination, will exonerate it or immunize you. The effects of diet on health are, overwhelmingly, just that: the effects of diet on health. The most robust dietary measure of total chronic disease risk is the quality of your overall dietary pattern, not a couple of individual foods.
An optimal dietary pattern — and to be clear that’s not one, prescriptive diet, but rather any reasonable variant on the theme of wholesome, whole, minimally processed foods, mostly plants, in sensible, balanced, and often time-honored combinations will nurture you, and defend your health as no single food can. That remains true even if that diet is populated by nothing more exotic than green beans and bulgur wheat. It also remains true if you drink an occasional soda or eat an occasional candy bar: These won’t kill you on the spot any more than an acai berry will cure what ails you.
Nowhere in the mix is there even any hint of evidence that all will be well if your otherwise dreadful diet is augmented by a pinch of goji or dash of pomegranate juice.
The net effect of any exposure — to nutrients, or toxins, or heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and so on — relates to intensity and duration. Clearly, there is an enormous difference between the transient hint of hunger between lunch and dinner and the hunger of famine. Less obvious is that dietary patterns cultivate variations in the metabolic controls from epigenetics to the microbiome. Isolated exposures can matter (especially to radiation, or to arsenic, or to lightning, but not really to a slice of toast or a berry), but the whole pattern of circumstance is far more influential than the sum of widely dispersed parts.
We’ve said little above that the well-read don’t already know, with the possible exception of the opening sentence. And yet as a population, our dietary adulations display a singular nincompoopery. The idea that the profound influence of diet on every aspect of health can be decocted down to one exotic silver bullet (or, alternatively, a scapegoat) would be rather analogous to counting on tiny, super fragments of our favorite super heroes- a Black Widow eyelash hair, or a clipping from Thor’s left middle toenail — to save the day. No, one isolated fragment cannot substitute for the whole.
This is obvious to anyone with sense, until the next superfood claimant turns up.
You know the truth about superfoods. You would know if you wanted to know, that your overall dietary pattern is what translates into massive differentials in health. And even in our puerile indulgences in the super antics of super heroes, we know that for a toenail clipping to save the universe from calamity, it will need to be attached to the whole hero.
To recap: The active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli. The active ingredient in a healthful diet is the whole magilla, from simple soup to nonexotic nuts. Claims for superfoods are superficial, supercilious, and superfluous. Only spend extra on a superfood when you can carry it home in the saddlebag of your sparkly unicorn.
Dr. David L. Katz is the director of The Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, the founder/president of True Health Initiative, and the founder/CEO of DietID. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidKatz.
Mark Bittman has written about food and cooking for nearly 40 years, and has published 30 books, including the How to Cook Everything series and VB6.