Superfoods: do they really have superpowers?

They are beneficial for our health, they make us live longer and they improve our mental abilities. What are we talking about?  Superfoods, of course. They are foods that, due to the high concentration of this or that element, are considered the best allies to tackle problems of different nature and let us live a happy and healthy life. 

While some actually bring some benefits, others seem to be just trendy products, with unremarkable nutritional properties and attributed qualities that are not supported by any scientific study. Their success is mainly due to misleading marketing campaigns, which were also targeted by the European Union which banned the use of the word “superfood” on packagings. 

Among the most popular products in recent years there are especially berries and seeds. Goji berries, for example, have had an enormous success because they are said to be rich in antioxidants, reduce free radicals and promote cholesterol reduction. They have long belonged to the Chinese tradition that gives them the power to strengthen the immune system and increase libido. It is true that berries contain high levels of zeaxanthin, a carotenoid that can have positive effects on ocular tissue degeneration. It is equally true, however, that a much less fashionable food, such as spinach, contains even higher levels of it. 

Chia seeds, on the other hand, are appreciated for their high concentration of omega-3s. 100 grams of seeds contain an amount of omega-3 eight times greater than that contained in 100 grams of salmon. What is often omitted, however, is that the omega-3s contained in the seeds are different from those found in fish, which means that they are assimilated differently and less efficiently. This does not mean that those who follow a vegetarian diet cannot use this seed as a source of omega-3.

Another food that we find more and more often in diets is avocado. It is a fruit native to countries with tropical climates. It is believed that it lowers cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart attack and helps losing weight. Scientific studies confirm the benefits deriving from the presence of mono-unsaturated fats, which however we find in abundance in other more “familiar” foods such as nuts and olive oil. It is also very caloric, which contrasts with the idea that it makes you lose weight.

Another false myth concerns coconut water, considered by many health-concious athletes as an excellent substitute for isotonic drinks. Its high potassium concentration is thought to promote water absorption. Nonetheless, several studies have shown that coconut has no special qualities and that plain water remains the best ally for our hydration.

In short, are they good? Yes. Are they “super” foods? Not really.

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