Whether it’s goji berries harvested in Asia, chia seeds from South America or chlorella algae: Superfoods are popular and literally on everyone’s lips. The exotic foods are said to have a particularly high proportion of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. We explain how healthy the superfood actually is.
Acai berries, chia seeds, matcha powder: Some fruits and seeds are known as “superfoods”.
Superfood is not a protected term, but describes foods with particularly valuable ingredients.
We explain how healthy the berries and seeds are and why you don’t necessarily need exotic superfoods in your diet.
Losing weight with acai berries, better cholesterol levels with coconut oil or an increased ability to concentrate with matcha: “superfoods” promise to make us slimmer, healthier and more efficient. But is that true – is superfood really that healthy?
Superfood: what is it exactly?
Superfood or Superfoods is not a precisely defined or protected term, but rather a marketing promise. Superfoods are foods that are said to have particular health benefits thanks to their allegedly high density of coveted vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or phytochemicals.
The idea behind it is clear: the more healthy ingredients, the better for health and well-being. On the one hand, that’s correct, but on the other hand it’s not, according to the Hamburg nutritionist Matthias Riedl. In his opinion, nutrition should be understood as a “concert of many different foods that provide us with important nutrients”.
The board member of the Federal Association of German Nutritionists considers it problematic to place individual foods and their ingredients in the foreground, as is the case with the trend towards superfoods. Because vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are best absorbed together: “It’s the mixture that counts, not the individual elements.”
If you regularly eat fresh fruit and vegetables, you are already doing something right when it comes to healthy eating. And that’s better than, for example, a muesli bar with dried goji berries or a chia seed topping on the ready-to-eat muesli.
Superfood: Is fresh or dried fruit better?
Harald Seitz from the aid information service for nutrition, agriculture and consumer protection also considers freshness to be a decisive factor. Fresh acai berries from the Amazon region contain important vegetable proteins, antioxidants, calcium and vitamins. With the dried version, which is available in this country, things are quite different.
The same goes for goji berries and matcha tea, which are mostly sold and consumed dried or in powdered form. “On the one hand, the water-soluble vitamins are lost, on the other hand, substances are added so that the whole thing doesn’t stick and clumps and keeps it better – the result is something completely different than the original fruit.”
The nutritionist therefore opposes the myth, which is often spread in advertising, of the super-healthy berries, roots or seeds that grow in exotic countries and bring us youth, beauty and health: eat a variety of foods and as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible.
That’s how healthy superfoods are in detail
The fruits of the cabbage palm or acai are almost black when ripe, about 1 to 1.5 cm in size and come mainly from different regions of the Amazon region. The berries are rich in vegetable proteins, antioxidants, calcium and vitamins.
Evaluation: The acai berry is a high-quality food. However, the fact that it keeps people slim and young in Hollywood (where the berries are all the hype) can be dismissed as a rumor. By the way: The local blueberry is in no way inferior to the exotic acai berry.
Hemp seeds are the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant. Unlike the Indian hemp Cannabis indica (better known as marijuana), Cannabis sativa contains very little to no THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Hemp seeds are rich in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, plant-based amino acids, protein, vitamin E, various minerals and fiber.
Rating: Due to the high proportion of omega-3 fatty acids, hemp seeds have a positive effect on cholesterol levels and also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Unpeeled hemp seeds promote digestion because of their high fiber content. It has not yet been scientifically proven that they lower blood pressure, as is sometimes claimed. However, since hemp seeds have no effect on blood sugar levels, they at least do not increase blood sugar, explains nutritionist Matthias Riedl. Finally, their high vitamin E content stimulates the immune system.
Superfood chia seeds?
The seeds contain more calcium than milk, have a high content of antioxidants and fiber and provide the body with valuable omega-3 fatty acids.
Evaluation: In their South and Central American countries of origin, chia seeds are also considered “fillers” because of their high fiber content. The ingredients are very healthy overall, but very similar to those of domestic linseed. In Germany, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has classified chia seeds as a “novel food” and recommends consuming no more than 15 grams of unprocessed chia seeds per day. According to EU regulation (2013/50/EU), the proportion of chia seeds in baked goods, muesli mixtures, etc. must not exceed ten percent. This puts the high levels of healthy ingredients into perspective: a portion of salmon, for example, contains more omega-3 fatty acids than the recommended daily maximum amount of chia seeds.
Matcha (Japanese for “ground tea”) is an extract from fresh tea leaves and contains antioxidants, calcium, iron, potassium, B vitamins, vitamins A and K, among other things.
Rating: Matcha is an extract from fresh tea leaves and therefore contains more health-promoting ingredients than an infusion. Depending on the quality, however, this also has its price: 20 to 50 euros for 30 grams of powder are usual on the market. Matcha has an invigorating effect. With one and a half teaspoons of the powder, you consume an amount of caffeine that is comparable to that of a cup of espresso, explains nutritionist Harald Seitz. The Buddhist monks use the tea in order to be able to meditate longer and more intensively, “and that’s probably what the advertisers are hooked on,” says Seitz. Because the ground tea is said to slow down stress and alleviate depression and anxiety.
Coconut oil is obtained from the flesh of the coconut and contains a large number of saturated and very few unsaturated fatty acids. It’s also rich in lauric acid, which the body converts to monolaurin – a natural fatty acid that destroys the outer covering of unwanted bacteria.
Evaluation: The assumption that lauric acid from coconut oil has an antibacterial effect in the body and has a positive effect on the cardiovascular system has not (yet) been sufficiently scientifically proven. Coconut fat is often used in weight loss diets because it is high in medium-chain fatty acids (MCT fats). Compared to long-chain fatty acids (LCT fats), they have a lower energy content, and they also increase energy consumption more than the usual dietary fats. A key benefit of the saturated fat in coconut oil is that it can be heated to high temperatures.
Super food avocado
The fruit of the avocado tree is rich in potassium, calcium, iron and other minerals and various vitamins. Above all, however, it provides easily digestible, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, above all oleic acid.
Rating: The avocado is the highest-fat variant in the fruit heaven and accordingly provides a relatively large number of calories. Nevertheless, she is not a “fat maker”. Rather the opposite is the case, because the oleic acid even lowers the cholesterol level. The fat is therefore of very high quality and the other ingredients are also impressive. A piece of fruit, for example, already covers a third of the daily fiber requirement and the potassium it contains has a draining effect.
Chlorella is one of the freshwater algae. So-called microalgae (this includes the common species Spirulina) provide various minerals in addition to vitamin B12, especially iodine, but also zinc, iron, selenium, potassium and calcium. They are also very high in protein.
Evaluation: The content of micronutrients depends crucially on the quality of the water in which the algae grow. Chlorella is particularly important as a vitamin B12 supplier for vegans who have to take this substance. However, it is controversial to what extent the vitamin is available to the body through chlorella and can be effective. In addition, the microalgae are almost exclusively available as food supplements, i.e. in tablet or powder form. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) classifies the fact that the algae bind unwanted substances such as pesticides, fungicides and heavy metals as questionable. In general, dietary supplements do not replace a healthy diet.
Beetroot is low in calories and contains plenty of vitamins A, C and B, potassium, magnesium, iron, folic and oxalic acid. The secondary plant substance betanin is responsible for the rich red color.
Evaluation: The red color of the beetroot is due to the high content of betacyanins. These nitrogenous compounds are mainly responsible for the diverse healing properties of beetroot. However, scientific studies on this are scarce. Beetroot is one of the vegetables rich in oxalic acid. Therefore, people who tend to form kidney stones should only consume the tuber in small amounts. However, an intake of 100 to 200 g of raw beetroot per week is not a problem for healthy people.
The fruit of the wolfberry (Lycium barbarum) contains some vitamins, especially vitamin C and some antioxidants. It is offered fresh, as juice or as dried fruit.
Review: Dried goji berries are often touted as an anti-aging sensation. The European Food Safety Authority EFSA has determined that there is no causal link between the claims and the ingestion of goji berries. And the always touted high vitamin C content is put into perspective when you look closer: The dried berries contain 29 to 148 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C per 100 g, explains Harald Seitz. “If you compare that with blackcurrants (177 mg) and at the same time the energy content – about 300 kilocalories for goji – compared to 40 kilocalories for blackcurrants – you can hardly speak of a ‘superfood’.”
The pure cocoa bean contains about 54 percent fat, protein, minerals, especially a lot of iron, tannins and bitter substances and 300 other ingredients. In addition, there are about as many aroma-giving individual substances.
Review: Cocoa is a good source of polyphenols, which have anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventing properties, among other things. It is often advertised that the calcium content of the beans is higher than that of milk (125 mg in 100 ml milk, 160 mg in 100 g raw cocoa). However, a small glass of milk is drunk much faster than a pile of cocoa beans eaten. So the comparison is wrong. The contained theobromine has a stimulating effect, similar to caffeine. It stimulates the central nervous system, dilates blood vessels and increases concentration. The contained serotonin is also said to have a stimulating effect. Whether an edible quantity of cocoa beans is enough to lighten the mood is a matter of opinion between the natural and social sciences.
Wheatgrass mainly contains vitamins C, E, K, some minerals and is rich in protein and chlorophyll. Wheatgrass has been proven to be a good source of lutein.
Evaluation: Lutein is a phytonutrient found in wheatgrass, closely related to beta-carotene, the well-known pigment in carrots. Lutein protects against free radicals and, it is assumed today, has an important protective function for the eye and vision. However, lutein is also found in other plants, such as nettle. It is often read about wheatgrass that it has 60 times more vitamin C than oranges, 50 times more vitamin E than spinach and 30 times more vitamin B1 than cow’s milk. This is a clever advertising move, as the information refers to 100 grams of wheatgrass and you would have to press it out first – it is not edible raw. And anyone who has tasted the juice pure knows that it is difficult to get down 100 grams.
Local superfood: kale
Kale is very low in calories and contains many vitamins and minerals. The vitamin C content, for example, is sometimes so high that the daily requirement can be covered with just one portion. In addition, it also contains significant amounts of folic acid, calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Review: Nutritionally, kale, like any other collard greens, is near-perfect. In addition to the ingredients mentioned, it also provides secondary plant substances that have an antioxidant effect. Its anti-inflammatory and cancer risk-reducing effects are scientifically proven.
Conclusion: Superfood is not everything
Fruits like avocados and berries like goji, acai and blueberries are undoubtedly healthy and support a healthy diet. However, exotic seeds and fruits have a long transport route behind them and pose problems for local agriculture due to high water consumption. Therefore, boldly reach for organic products, so you support ecological cultivation.
In addition, the following applies: Local fruit and vegetables may not be quite as trendy, but they are no less healthy than exotic superfoods and are easier to find fresh on our plates.
What you should not forget in the whole discussion about superfoods: exercise is essential. Exercising regularly and relaxing or being stress-free are just as important for health as good nutrition.