Not All Superfoods Are Actually Healthy, But These 11 Live Up to the Hype
The term 'superfood' is on the level of the word 'foodie,' which is to say that using it comes with a side of justified eye roll. It's a noun that's as cringe-y as it is vague—so let's shed some light on the truth, shall we?
While there isn't an official (read: scientific) definition of a superfood, it's generally accepted that superfoods have high levels of nutrients, particularly vitamins and minerals. They are also often a good source of antioxidants, which help prevent disease and shield our bodies from cell damage. While there are a number of common foods that we know provide these nutrients (kale, salmon, quinoa, and so on), there's no shortage of exotic, much-hyped ingredients flooding your Instagram feed at any given time.
That's why we tapped some registered dietitians to cut through the fat by sharing which top trending superfoods are actually good for you. Their recommendations—from modern takes on mushrooms to unexpected protein sources (watermelon seeds?!)—are a tasty new way to infuse your meals with disease-battling phytonutrients and other plant chemicals, stacking the odds of better health in your favor.
Kimchi has been around forever, but many are just beginning to learn about its health benefits. This traditional Korean food is made of fermented cabbage and often includes other vegetables like radishes, red peppers, and onions. "Kimchi is a low-calorie powerhouse full of important nutrients," explains Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, and member of the Jenny Craig Science Advisory Board. It boasts high amounts of vitamins A, B, and C, but it really shines for its probiotic qualities. Probiotics are crucial healthy bacteria that aid with digestion and overall gut health. Expect to see a lot more kimchi in 2020.
According to Gellman, pumpkins are extremely rich in fiber and protein, helping you to feel full and satisfied. Their vibrant orange hue comes from beta-carotene, an antioxidant that your body turns into vitamin A. "Not only is vitamin A beneficial for eye health, but it helps your body ward off harmful infections, potentially boosting your immune system," she adds. And the benefits don't end with the pumpkin itself. Pumpkin seeds are packed with nutrients, like amino acids, protein, magnesium, zinc. Who doesn't love a multitasker?
"This superfood has been getting its moment in the spotlight for the past couple of years and that will continue into 2020," says Gellman. Cauliflower is rich in nutrients such as vitamin C, which is a necessity for healthy immune systems, as well as riboflavin and thiamin, B vitamins that help convert food into energy. One of the best parts? Cauliflower is incredibly versatile and, with the right preparation, can transform to mimic the texture of many popular foods that aren't super nutritious.
Indeed, we haven't seen the last of these superfruits. "These little powerhouses have always been much-loved, and it's for good reason," Gellman says. Avocados are very nutrient-dense, meaning each calorie packs a punch of benefits with heart-healthy monosaturated fats and antioxidants. They also pair well with many popular foods, such as a topping for toast, adding slices to a salad or even adding some to a smoothie to make it extra creamy without adding unhealthy sorbets or ice cream.
This versatile leafy green deserves a spot in any balanced diet. Rich in iron, vitamin K, and vitamin C, spinach is great for restoring energy and even helping you get stronger. "Popeye wasn't lying: spinach contains trace amounts of amounts of a hormone called ecdysterone that can help people gain muscle," Gellman says.
Plant-based "meat" is trendy, but it's generally ultra-processed—the ingredients have gone through so many changes that they may have lost some of their nutrients. Mushrooms, on the other hand, "have a naturally meaty texture and savory umami flavor, but they contain very few calories and none of the saturated fat or cholesterol of beef," says Lara Field, RDN, founder of Feed Nutrition Consulting in Chicago.
Mushrooms boast antioxidants plus impressive amounts of immune-boosting vitamin D and selenium, says Megan Meyer, PhD, director of science communication for the International Food Information Council. Selenium, she says, "can help detoxify some cancer-causing compounds in the body." And a 2019 study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that seniors who eat more than two servings of mushrooms a week may have a 50 percent reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment.
The name conjures images of a bouncing newborn cauliflower, but caulilini is a different variety of the cruciferous veggie. And it has taken the plant-based world by storm. With an edible green stem that explodes into sprays of tiny blond florets, it tastes milder and a bit sweeter than cauliflower but offers the same nutritional benefits, says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, coauthor of The SuperFoodsRx Diet ($8, amazon.com) and Eat Clean, Stay Lean ($15, amazon.com; $21, bookshop.org). "It has fiber, vitamin B6 for energy, and vitamin K for bone health and blood clotting. And one cup has nearly 75 percent of your daily vitamin C, for immune functioning and skin health."
Like other members of the Brassica family, caulilini contains phytochemicals called glucosinolates, "anti-inflammatory power nutrients that may help reduce certain types of cancers and improve heart health," Bazilian says. Cruciferous veggies are also high in sulforaphanes, phytochemicals that have been shown to help interrupt the progression of cancer cells.
And unlike the giant head of cauliflower currently occupying your produce drawer, this tender veggie requires no chopping, meaning less prep work.
Beans have been infiltrating snack foods for a while (see: Beanitos chips, Hippeas chickpea puffs). Now a new generation of healthy snacks features beans in their original form—think roasted fava beans and marinated lupin beans. That's good news for people looking to inject energy into their day or to quiet their grumbling stomachs.
"We tend to eat beans in the evening, with dinner, but snacking beans are a great way to spread protein throughout the day, which allows our body to use it more efficiently while helping with satiety between meals," says Leslie Bonci, RD, MPH, owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh.
Beans have been tied to a reduced risk of everything from heart disease to diabetes in multiple studies, and they're a dietary staple in regions of the world where people live the longest. That makes sense: Across the board, beans and legumes are generous sources of protein, fiber, complex carbs, and phytonutrients, compounds that may help protect against the effects of aging.
Roman Empire soldiers reportedly relied on these big, hearty yellow beans for sustained energy during battle. With a buttery, savory taste and a meaty texture, lupins have twice as much fiber as edamame, almost 50 percent more protein than chickpeas, and 80 percent fewer calories than almonds.
Fava beans (broad beans)
These lima bean doppelgängers are excellent sources of folate. Pregnant women need this vitamin to reduce the risk of certain birth defects, and everyone needs it for optimal blood circulation.
As more Americans experiment with plant-based eating, the demand for meatless protein sources is rising. (Sixty percent of U.S. adults are trying to squeeze in more protein, according to the market research firm NPD.) Seeds are a smart swap, Field says.
"Seeds carry the ingredients needed to create a new plant, so they tend to be incredibly nutrient-dense," Field explains. "They offer a nice dose of protein—about eight grams per ounce, on par with one egg—plus fiber and antioxidants." Thanks to the appetite-satiating protein and fiber (and the portable size), seeds are ideal for snacking. They also pack a lot of key minerals into their tiny package, most containing brain-protective omega-3 fatty acids. And they can be a safe alternative for folks with nut allergies, Field says. (They're also gluten-free, vegan, and Paleo, if any of those diets are your jam.)
Mom warned you not to swallow them as a kid, but watermelon seeds are a stellar source of magnesium (good for blood pressure), have more protein per serving than peanuts or almonds, and are loaded with fiber (14 grams per ounce—that's about the amount in 25 prunes, so go easy!).
Sacha inchi seeds
With a roasted soybean flavor, sacha inchis (hailing from South America) are loaded with brain-supporting alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 similar to the type found in salmon.
Dried plums have a reputation for speeding things along your gastrointestinal tract—and with 12 grams of fiber per cup, they certainly can do just that. But prunes are currently in vogue for a totally different reason: bone health.
"Prunes contain micronutrients, including potassium, boron, and vitamin K, that work together to protect bones," Bonci says. Combined with compounds called polyphenols, "these nutrients help inhibit the bone breakdown that occurs with age." Eating six prunes a day was enough to slow bone-cell turnover in postmenopausal women, according to a small but promising study in the Journal of Medicinal Food. Researchers are currently looking at whether the bone-strengthening benefits extend to younger women. Prunes are even being studied as a way to prevent bone-mass loss among astronauts in space.
Foods Fortified With Choline
According to Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutrition and wellness expert and author of Eating in Color ($9; amazon.com), health experts have been paying increasing attention to brain health, and 2020 will be the year that consumers take note and begin looking for specific brain health nutrients. "One nutrient in particular—choline—will be added to several food products," Largeman-Roth says. While choline is still unfamiliar to many consumers, it's an important brain nutrient that impacts pregnant and breastfeeding moms, kids, and adults. And omega-3 DHA, which is required for normal brain development, as well as heart health, is another nutrient we'll begin to see added to more foods.
Choline is a nutrient that is similar to B vitamins. "It's essential for preventing neural tube defects during a baby's development and plays a role in the development of the hippocampus, which is the memory center of the brain," explains Largeman-Roth. This nutrient is also responsible for delivering omega-3 DHA throughout the body.
Choline is found in egg yolks, chicken liver, wheat germ, soybeans, cauliflower, broccoli, and pork chops. Omega-3 DHA is primarily found in fatty fish such as salmon and herring, as well as algae. "On average, kids are only getting 20 percent of the recommended amount of DHA per day and only two-thirds of the amount of choline they need." Since the foods that are rich in these nutrients aren't necessarily kid-friendly foods, it makes sense to add choline and omega-3 DHA to foods that kids do like, which is what we'll be seeing in 2020.