What is a superfood?

Posted: November 15, 2013 in What is ... ?
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© www.foodandhealth.com - used with permission

Photo © foodandhealth.com – used with permission

By Shelly Najjar

Superfoods are talked about a lot in the news and online (Google searches for the term “superfood” have increased over the past two years).

But what are they? What do they do in our bodies?

The word superfood has no medical definition, but it is used commonly in the press to mean a food that is reported to provide health benefits like reducing risk of diseases, prolonging life, or healing illness. They usually have many vitamins and minerals, and contain antioxidants. (Source: MedicineNet, a WebMD network site)

So what is the correct term?

Instead of superfood, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and many other organizations support the use of the term “functional food.” This term has slightly different meaning depending on the organization, but the basic meaning is a whole food (not pill or supplement) that has some benefit beyond basic nutrition required for survival. (A comparison table of these definitions can be found in the position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.)

However, “functional food” is still not a federally legal term, which means there’s no regulation for that term or for “superfood.” On the other hand, there are many foods that have a statement from one of three groups of health claims that are approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use on some food labels. These statements are called health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims.

A health claim is a statement that says a food or part of a food (like a nutrient) is related to a disease or health condition. Within the health claims, there are three more categories, sorted by the scientific evidence for the claim:

  • Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) Authorized Health Claims (the nutrient-disease relationship is well-established in scientific literature)
  • Health Claims Based on Authoritative Statements (an “authoritative statement” from a scientific body like a branch of the US government or the National Academy of Sciences has been issued)
  • Qualified Health Claims (there is emerging evidence for this nutrient-disease relationship, but it is not yet well-established in scientific literature)

Different from a health claim, “Nutrient content claims describe the level of a nutrient or dietary substance in the product, using terms such as free, high, and low, or they compare the level of a nutrient in a food to that of another food, using terms such as more, reduced, and lite” (Source: FDA).

Lastly, a structure/function claim is a statement about a nutrient and a normal function or structure of the body, such as “fiber maintains bowel regularity.” They are also allowed to include information about the nutrient deficiency disease resulting from insufficient amounts of that nutrient, as long as they make it relevant by saying how many people actually have the disease in the USA.

Click here to read more about each of these types of labeling claims.

What foods are functional foods or have the health claims?

There are many foods considered to be functional foods. Here are some examples:

  • fruits and vegetables (blackberries, blueberries, apples, grapefruit, cranberries, broccoli, kale, sweet potatoes, soy, garlic, ginger, pumpkin)
  • nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sesame)
  • beans and legumes
  • oils (fish oil, olive oil)
  • yogurt
  • wine
  • whole grains
  • bran
  • chocolate

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Shelly Najjar, MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and editor of Nutrition Nuts and Bolts. You can find her on Twitter (@ShellyNajjar), LinkedIn, and at shellynajjar.com.

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Comments
  1. […] like to introduce you to a superfood that is rich in nutrients such as high-quality protein, fiber, calcium, zinc and iron, yet low in […]

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