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Superfoods—Or Supergimmicks?
How to Tell the Difference

Photo of foodsSome food products claim to have magical traits, but don’t be fooled: the science isn’t there. There are, however, some foods that can give your health a boost. Read on to find out which foods to add to your plate—and which ones to pass on.

Insurance may not cover a weekly trip to the farmers market. Your doctor won’t write you a prescription for pistachios. But increasingly, scientists are recognizing that some foods have real health-promoting powers.

Call them superfoods, functional foods, or nutritional powerhouses. No matter what term you use, adding them to a healthy diet can offer additional protection against heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases and their complications.

Of course, food marketers have jumped onto the superfood bandwagon. These days, you’ll find packages labeled all-natural, cholesterol-lowering, and heart- healthy. While some assertions they make hold up to researchers’ scrutiny, others seem designed to lead you astray. Here’s your guide to what’s real—and what doesn’t live up to the hype.

Foods That Deserve a Health Halo

Science suggests these foods can lay legitimate claim to preventing or treating common ailments.

  • Nuts. Healthy fats, protein, and fiber in nuts fill you up, helping control your weight and your blood glucose. Magnesium-rich cashews and almonds can lower blood pressure. Research shows that walnuts, pecans, and almonds reduce cholesterol. Serve nuts instead of chips as a snack—try pistachios, which have shells that slow you down and keep your portions in check. Or use them in place of bread to coat meat or fish.
  • Fish. Fatty fish like tuna, salmon, and sardines are so good for your cardiovascular system that the American Heart Association recommends at least two servings per week. And their reputation as brain food is well-earned: One recent study showed women who eat more fish are less likely to develop depression. Bake or grill, rather than fry, seafood dishes to avoid excess fat and calories.
  • Tea. Compounds in tea called flavonoids lower LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, widen blood vessels, and prevent dangerous clots from forming. Some evidence even links tea to a lower risk for cancer. Brew a cup of green or black—both have health benefits.
  • Cruciferous vegetables. Kale, cauliflower, broccoli, and their cousins contain special chemicals called glucosinolates. Your body breaks them down into potentially cancer-fighting substances. Scientists have found them promising against prostate, colon, lung, and breast cancer. Cook kale into omelets or stews, snack on raw cauliflower, or top your pizza with broccoli.
  • Flaxseed. Rich in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, these small seeds pack a big punch. In one recent study, overweight people with prediabetes added flaxseed to their daily diets. After 12 weeks, they reduced their blood sugar and improved their body’s ability to use insulin. Stir ground flaxseed into breakfast cereal, yogurt, breads, or muffins.
  • Cranberries. Components in these tart fruits may prevent bacteria from clinging to the urinary tract, warding off infections. Some evidence suggests they can help prevent stomach ulcers. And laboratory studies show antioxidants from cranberries can fight plaque on your teeth, reducing your risk for gum disease. Drink a glass of cranberry juice to quench your thirst and take advantage of these perks.
  • Ginger. Modern science now supports ancient Asian beliefs about this tropical plant. Thanks to compounds such as 6-gingerol, ginger relieves nausea during pregnancy, after surgery, and due to motion sickness, as well as easing symptoms of vertigo. Use fresh or powdered ginger to add spice to sweet or savory dishes.
  • Garlic. Pungent and flavorful, this edible bulb can boost heart health. Phytochemicals inside keep arteries clear, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and may even ward off some cancers. Eat garlic raw or cooked in salads, sauces, stews, and stir-fries.

Health Claims with Sketchy Connections

With all those evidence-backed edibles, who needs food fakes? Beware these broken food promises:

  • Gluten-free foods, for most people. For the 3 million Americans with celiac disease, avoiding gluten—a protein in wheat, barley, and rye—is essential for good health. Many others have gluten intolerance and experience digestive distress when exposed to these grains. However, avoiding gluten has no known health benefits for people without these conditions.
  • Acai. Juices, powders, tablets, and capsules from this fruit are said to halt aging and speed weight loss. Trouble is, no research supports these declarations. Like other berries, acai may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, but not enough to serve as any miracle cure.
  • Coconut oil. There’s no reason you can’t use this oil for cooking on occasion, provided you choose virgin coconut oil and skip products labeled “partially hydrogenated” (that means it’s full of harmful trans fats). But don’t expect it to result in weight loss or prevent Alzheimer’s disease; there’s no evidence to back these claims.
  • Coconut water. Contrary to popular belief, this light beverage isn’t a good stand-in for sports drinks. It doesn’t have enough sugar or electrolytes to replenish you after a truly hard workout, and for short or light workouts, water works just as well. What’s more, any antiaging assurances are pure bunk.
  • Cactus juice. Haven’t heard of prickly pear beverages for pain, respiratory, or skin problems? Good for you. The company who marketed them ended up paying $3.5 million in refunds to consumers who bought into these unsupported claims.

The Best Medicine? A Healthy Diet

Even research-tested, doctor-approved superfoods don’t work in isolation. For best results, combine them all into a healthy, nutrient-rich diet. Load your plate with foods from these groups, and you’ll stand the best chance at a long, healthy life:

  • Vegetables—the more colors and types, the better
  • Brightly colored fruits and 100 percent fruit juice
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, including milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds

Always talk with your doctor or a dietitian if you have specific concerns about food and your health. And tell your health care team if you’re trying to use food to manage a medical issue. Together you can combine nutritional and other treatments to nourish and protect your body.

By Cindy Kuzma, feature writer for Vitality. For help on how to eat a balanced diet, visit Check out the website for recipes including many of the superfoods, too.


The government mandates that food advertisements and labels tell the truth. Still, some food marketing slogans have no formal definition. These terms don’t truly indicate how healthy a food is:

  • Natural. Generally speaking, this means a food has no artificial colors or flavors and hasn’t undergone much processing. But the term is so unclear that the label must also explain what manufacturers mean when they use it. For instance, it must also say “no added coloring” or “no artificial ingredients.”
  • Processed and unprocessed. Federal law dictates that processed foods have undergone a “change of character.” Many processed foods contain less-than-nutritious ingredients. But even healthy foods, such as roasted nuts or prewashed bagged spinach, are technically processed.
  • Whole. Regulators haven’t defined this term. And many foods that you’d think of as whole—such as fruits and veggies—don’t even have labels.

For the most accurate information about what a food contains, look at the Nutrition Facts label. There you’ll find a list of ingredients and hard numbers on serving sizes, fat, calories, sodium, vitamins, and minerals, among others.