Are These Superfoods Really ‘Super’?

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The term ‘superfood’ is so frequently tossed around, exclaimed on food packaging and touted on social media influencers’ posts. Every couple of months, a new ‘ancient’ superfood is re-discovered. In our highly-connected society this often causes a domino effect; we see the latest superfood spreading through health-food stores, supermarkets, cafes and eventually to our pantries where they are allotted to the back-shelf until inspiration strikes or the newest superfood takes its place. So do we really need the latest superfood to have a super diet?

What exactly are superfoods?

Let’s begin with figuring out what superfoods are. Although no conclusive definition exists, superfoods are essentially wholefoods packed with high levels of antioxidants and minerals. The antioxidants and minerals are what gives superfoods their purported anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventing powers. Some superfood trends such as kale, quinoa and salmon have become readily-accessible and accepted into mainstream culinary culture. This is likely due to their versatility. However, other superfood trends such as blue algae, macqui berries and maca powder, didn’t maintain their hype most likely because of their inaccessibility and limited culinary uses. This year we saw many superfood trends, but only time will tell whether their hype will roll-over to the coming years. In the meantime, let’s look at the nutritional value of these superfoods and compare them to their mainstream counterparts.

Hemp Protein Powder vs. Tofu

Protein is essential for the healthy growth and repair of cells, muscles, and tissues. To a lesser extent it is also required for immunity and the transmission of nerve impulses. Since the legalisation of hemp for consumption in 2017, hemp protein powder has gained popularity as a vegetarian and vegan protein source. It has an earthy, nutty flavour and is commonly mixed into baked goods or smoothies. Hemp is marketed as a ‘complete protein’ source, meaning it contains the 9 essential amino acids we must acquire from our diet. Unlike other vegetarian protein sources such as tofu and pea protein powder, it is often unrefined and high in fibre. Hemp protein powder also has a low ratio of omega 6: omega 3 fatty acids (3:1) which supports heart health. It is high in magnesium and iron and has demonstrated 91-98% protein digestibility in several studies. However, the literature on the quality of the amino acids present in hemp requires further research.

Tofu has a similar nutritional profile and has been used around the globe for centuries. As such, its health claims are backed-up by evidence. Being a soyfood, tofu has a high isoflavone content. Isoflavones are a type of phytoestrogen (i.e. dietary estrogen) that mimics the chemical structure of hormonal estrogen, thus binding to estrogen receptors. Individuals with a microbiome that can metabolise isoflavones consequently benefit from tofu’s isoflavone content, and may find, for instance, menopausal or other hormonal symptom relief. Similar to hemp and other vegetarian protein sources, tofu has a high unsaturated fat content. It is also high in calcium and iron, and in the minerals manganese, selenium and phosphorous. Most notably, however, is its PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) of 1.0. The PDCAAS is a measure of the quality and digestibility of the protein source, with 1.0 being the highest score. Most animal protein sources have a PDCAAS of 1.0.

The verdict: Tofu and hemp are both complete protein sources with a similar nutritional profile. One isn’t more ‘super’ than the other and both are great vegetarian protein sources. The use of hemp protein powder, however, is limited to only a few recipes while tofu is so versatile; it can be scrambled for breakfast, tossed into a salad for lunch, or marinated for dinner.

Blueberries vs. Acai Berries

Berries are a wonderful source of antioxidants, which lends them their bright, appealing colours and their anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative and anti-hypertensive effects. They are also typically high in fibre and Vitamin C. Acai berries are a native South American fruit. They have been a medicinal and staple ingredient in South American cuisine, but have only recently grown in popularity across the Western World. Their alluring colour and tangy taste has established the renowned ‘acai bowl’ in every trendy café. Some murine studies found that acai berries could suppress hunger and improve the lipid profiles of hypercholesterolaemic rats. Since then, acai berries gained nutritional stardom as an exceptional weight loss food. Their relatively high anthocyanin content has also been attributed to exceptional anti-proliferative effects. A literature review, however, has revealed that limited studies on the nutritional benefits of acai berries alone exist. Studies have been mostly in-vitro murine studies that cannot be accurately translated to humans.

Blueberries, however, have decades of solid evidence backing its touted health benefits. They are relatively higher in fibre than acai berries, and also provide proven cardioprotective, anti-inflammatory and immune-promoting health benefits. Studies have also demonstrated that they can improve insulin sensitivity, cognition and working memory which is increasingly important as we age.

The verdict: although both berries can claim the superfood title, the nutritional benefits of acai aren’t as readily accessible for the average person as blueberries are. Blueberries can be found everywhere in fresh, frozen and preserved forms, thus suiting any budget. Acai berries, however, are always frozen or freeze-dried and can’t be easily sourced.

Yogurt vs. Kombucha

Probiotics are live bacteria found in food sources which survive the digestive process into the gut. Regular consumption is believed to improve gut health and subsequently overall health and wellbeing. Probiotic sources are essentially fermented foods. Common sources include yogurt, tempeh, miso, kimchi and perhaps most recently, kombucha. Kombucha is best described as a sparkling drink with an apple-cider taste, which becomes more vinegary as it ages. It is made from a black or green tea base which is fermented with sugar, acetic acid bacteria and a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast). Supermarket varieties now have fruity renditions to this basic base. Kombucha is marketed to have microbial-fighting, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective and insulin-regulating benefits. The reality, however, is that these benefits can be achieved from any good-quality probiotic source. There is limited evidence on the efficacy of kombucha alone as a gut-altering probiotic. Moreover, one study has shown that the free-radical scavenging abilities of kombucha constituents can be altered depending on the tea base used and its storage conditions.

Yogurt, on the other hand, has been found to aid the growth of the beneficial bacteria it hosts. Its widespread accessibility and culinary versatility currently trumps kombucha. Natural yogurt also has the added benefits of calcium, protein and potassium, which is crucial for growing children and more likely to be favourable in taste for them. Commercial kombucha tends to be high in added sugar to offset its naturally sour taste.

The verdict: kombucha isn’t an exceptional probiotic source, especially if it’s a highly-processed and sugary variety. What is important is to regularly consume probiotics you enjoy to reap the benefits of gut health. People with mild lactose intolerance may be able to consume kefir instead of yogurt, while vegetarians or those with a higher dairy intolerance could consume kimchi, sauerkraut, or tempeh in addition to kombucha.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil

The hype surrounding coconut oil hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Its high smoke point has made it ideal for use in paleo bakes and raw desserts, giving it the ‘clean eating’ appeal on social media and in trendy cafes. Proponents of its culinary use allege that coconut oil can improve digestion, aid weight loss and even reduce the risk of CVD and Alzheimer’s disease. These claims, however, have been wrongly misconstrued from some studies which suggested the lauric acid (a type of saturated fatty acid) found in coconut oil behaves differently to other saturated fatty acids which are otherwise unhealthy. The reality, however, is that these studies were inconclusive. Although a recent short-term trial found that coconut oil raises plasma HDL (i.e. ‘good’) cholesterol, many other studies have found that it also appears to raise plasma LDL (i.e. ‘bad’) cholesterol simultaneously. Coconut oil is comprised of a whopping 90% saturated fat content. There is solid literature evidence that high saturated fat intake is linked to poor cardiovascular and metabolic health outcomes.

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), however, comprises of only 15% saturated fat and has an impressive polyunsaturated profile of around 65% of total fat. One tablespoon contains 4 mg of Vitamin E, which is around 50% of the RDI of Vitamin E for women and 40% for men. It is also minimally refined and high in polyphenols, providing the antioxidant health benefits we’ve discussed above. Coconut oil, however, contains negligible amounts of antioxidants and zero Vitamin E.

The verdict: extra virgin olive oil comes out as the star oil in terms of dietary consumption and its associated health benefits. The cholesterol-altering effects of coconut oil remains inconclusive. As such, it is best to heed current dietary guidelines and reduce your saturated fat intake where possible.

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Nadia Mazari

Nadia is a final year Bachelor of Science student, majoring in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Sydney. Her passion for dietetics, health and wellbeing began as a young foodie with a love for helping people in need, and grew into a dream to become a dietitian.

As an aspiring health professional, Nadia’s long-term goal is to complete a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics and gain a wealth of experience in all aspects of dietetics – from fertility and gut disorders to mental health. In the meantime, Nadia can be found brunching with friends, binge-watching chick flicks with her Mum and sisters, soaking up the sun between classes and avidly reading fiction and non-fiction books.