The Nutritional Myth Of Superfoods: What Is Behind It?

Superfoods are foods that are said to have particularly health-promoting properties compared to “conventional” ingredients. But how can you prove that such advantages are really being used? Is it just a marketing ploy or is there some truth to the claims? How do you incorporate superfoods into your own diet?

Health Claims in Food: Legal Side

Health promises are a promotional message that lures customers into believing that they are doing something good for their bodies and health by purchasing certain goods. Before the EC regulation 1924/2006 came into force, there was a veritable proliferation of such “health claims”. Consumer advocates have criticized this practice for a long time and saw many promises as deception of consumers since these claims were often only insufficiently backed up by scientific studies. At the same time, it was a dubious method from a health policy point of view, because customers should primarily choose food for nutritional reasons and leave the treatment of health problems to professionally trained experts.

A claim that was particularly critical in this respect was the ability to contribute to the prevention of cancer, but a so-called “strengthening of the immune system” was also often observed as a claim. Both fields are highly complex medical issues that certainly could not be significantly influenced by the selection of certain foods.

Today, the European Food Safety Authority monitors the type and formulation of the health promises that may be made with scientifically verifiable evidence. This protects consumers from being misled by corporations who want to upgrade their goods with exaggerated promises. About 250 claims are currently approved.

For example, when vitamin C is added, it is permissible to indicate that the substance contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system. However, consumer advocates point out that the general public does not suffer from a lack of most of the advertised substances, but that the supply is covered by a balanced diet.

Nonetheless, current regulations give manufacturers a great deal of leeway to accommodate health claims. Consumer protection criticizes the alibi function of added nutrients in order to place claims on foods for which no beneficial effect can be proven.

Nutrition science is hard bread

The desire to consume particularly high-quality and healthy food is deeply rooted in the population. From an early age, we learn that there is a connection between our diet and physical health. But some people have a distorted notion that if I eat enough healthy food, then I’ll be healthy no matter what else I eat. That’s not true, of course, but it’s an excellent way to advertise products.

The food industry is a huge industry with huge sales and fiercest competition. You fight for every advantage over the competition and use advertising tricks of all kinds. The health claims mentioned above are an important factor here. But how are nutritional studies carried out and how easily can experiments from the laboratory be transferred to the population? Scientific standards for the publication of new findings are very high and yet studies can be found for almost every claim that seems to represent the exact opposite.

Science is not a vehicle for disseminating opinions. Instead, the scientific method is the best-known technique for generating insights and working critically with them. It is precisely the fact that a published study does not stand as absolute truth, but can always be examined anew, checked in experiments and, if necessary, also disproved, that makes this method so powerful. Nutrition issues are no exception. This does not mean that one study is wrong and the other right, but that a unified consensus has not yet been found.

The complexity of nutrition: Difficult for scientists, positive for humans

We all eat differently and have personal preferences and tastes of our own, but there are still some basic principles that apply to what our body needs in terms of nutrients and energy supply. The fact that people prefer different foods is also related to the fact that everyone is genetically and environmental influences such. B. the composition of the intestinal flora is able to use the ingredients of the food in a different way. For this reason, nutritional studies require large numbers of test subjects in order to then be able to make significant statements about statistical investigations.

Significance means that an observed effect cannot be explained by random statistical fluctuations. After a certain probability (usually 95%) it can then be related to the research question. This 5% uncertainty sounds like very little, but if you increase the number of studies and examined values, the reliability can quickly fluctuate: 5% uncertainty also means that in one out of 20 cases you are hit with a statistical fluctuation effect. This can be exploited for scientifically dubious purposes. For example, you examine whether dark chocolate is “healthy” and measure 30 different blood values. From a purely statistical point of view, there is a high probability of discovering a value that just happens to have positive effects on chocolate eaters.

For this reason alone, a connection often has to be examined several times and documented very well so that it can be considered reliable in nutritional science. Windy journals that don’t adequately review studies before publication further compound the problem.

What are superfoods

Superfoods are foods that have a particularly high content of certain ingredients. These substances are said to have health-promoting effects. These include above all vitamins (particularly frequently vitamin B and C), trace elements (e.g. selenium, vanadium), minerals, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants such as flavonoids or anthocyanins. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that: the body needs a large number of different substances for the normal function of our metabolism and immune system. The life-sustaining function of certain vitamins was discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries primarily through the investigation of deficiency diseases. These are real effects due to the undersupply of vital substances, mainly due to an unbalanced diet or malnutrition. So no one doubts that, on average, our food needs to have a certain level of these nutrients in order to keep us healthy.
Superfoods are often exotic or particularly expensive foods, the price of which is justified, among other things, by the high concentration of desired ingredients. This is a marketing term. Such superlatives have no place in nutritional science. Here are a few prominent examples:


The popular and well-known blueberries can not only be collected in the forest but also grown commercially on a large scale. In the eyes of marketers, the fruit is particularly valuable due to its high anthocyanin content (blue pigment), which can develop an antioxidant effect. In this context, numerous benefits were promised, e.g. B. Prevention of cancer in the colon. The claim that blueberries can slow down or even reverse memory loss and other aging processes has also been made several times and also examined in studies.

Goji berries

The common boxthorn and the Chinese boxthorn are shrubs that reach a height of about 2 to 4 meters. They produce orange-red ovate berries 5 to 20 mm long. Originally probably native to a broad region from Southern Europe to China, the plants have spread to Western Europe and Africa, North America, and Australia through cultivation and introduction. The berries are traditionally used in cooking but also in Chinese folk medicine. The most interesting ingredients are vitamin C and the coloring agents zeaxanthin and lutein. These are said to have an antioxidant effect.

Acai berries:

This is the fruit of the so-called “cabbage palm”, a plant up to 25 m high with numerous infructescences. It contains increased concentrations of vitamins C and A, as well as a relatively large amount of calcium and iron as well as antioxidants. The latter is in turn the hook for marketing as a “superfood”, for example in energy drinks. These drinks, which usually have very high sugar content, are the exact opposite of superfoods among nutrition experts and are considered more of a nutritional hazard, regardless of which substances are added that appear particularly beneficial.


In addition to the high content of vitamin C, papaya also offers a proteolytic enzyme, papain. Similar to other proteases (e.g. bromelain from pineapple and actinidain from kiwis and mangoes), it is claimed that this enzyme is absorbed in the intestine to produce particularly beneficial properties in the blood, e.g. B. in supporting the immune system or when losing weight. However, as a molecule, the substance is clearly too large to be absorbed into the bloodstream. In addition, the human stomach acid already inactivates a large part of the enzyme.


The cocoa bean contains many flavonoids and the xanthine alkaloid theobromine and is because of its bitter taste and the numerous possible combinations e.g. B. very popular as a dessert. Theobromine is a mild stimulant in humans, but is probably more of a toxin meant to protect the plant’s seeds from predators – humans are an exception with a surprisingly high tolerance for the substance. The flavonoids – you already suspected it – have an antioxidant effect and can therefore be used for numerous promises. In order to absorb them in useful amounts, however, a lot of cocoa would have to be consumed. Not a good idea in the usual form as a dessert with a high fat and sugar content.

You can clearly see the trend here to declare particularly exotic ingredients as superfoods. They do not make up a large part of the usual Central European dietary composition and seem to offer advantages in terms of integration. But many foods that we consider “every day” could also be described as local superfoods due to their ingredients.

Superfood under the magnifying glass: turmeric

Turmeric, also known as yellow ginger or saffron root, is a spice plant from South Asia that is now cultivated in almost all tropical regions of the world. It forms strong cylindrical rhizomes that grow like roots below the leaves. The interior of these elongated tubers is a bright orange-yellow in color. Freshly grated or in dried powder form, the aromatic rhizome is suitable for seasoning and coloring dishes and is often used in Indian, but also Arabic, and African cuisine. It is mainly used in savory but also sweet dishes. It is significantly cheaper than the saffron powder also used for coloring.
In addition to carbohydrates and proteins (rhizomes have a storage function for the plant), the ingredients of the powder are above all essential oils (e.g. turmerone, germacrene, attention, and zingiberene) and the yellow-orange coloring agent curcumin with the related substances demethoxycurcurmine and bisdemethoxycurcumine.

Curcumin is also the substance to which the effectiveness of turmeric is mainly attributed. Turmeric already receives a lot of attention in Indian folk medicine Ayurveda and is used for numerous ailments. Today, science mainly considers an antioxidant effect, anti-inflammatory effect, and a slight pain-relieving effect, especially for joint problems (arthrosis). The main problem is the transferability of effects in cell experiments or in vitro studies to the human organism.

Curcumin is absorbed by the body rather slowly and is subject to a strong first-pass effect: This means that a large part of the substance that is transported from the intestine via the portal vein to the liver is modified by degradation enzymes and thus prepared for excretion. This effect can be slowed down by the simultaneous intake of piperine (the main component of black pepper essential oil). However, this also means that, for example, active ingredients from medicines are metabolized more slowly and their active dose in the body changes as a result. For this reason, high-dose dietary supplements with curcumin and piperine should only be taken in consultation with a doctor or pharmacist. Consumers should stick to the recommended dosage and discontinue the substance if side effects such as nausea, vomiting, or allergic reactions occur.

The best-documented effect of turmeric then also takes place in the gastrointestinal area: the spice can mainly be used to prevent indigestion from heavy and fatty foods.

Conclusion: Do we need superfoods

Even if this article deals critically with the phenomenon of superfoods, it should not dissuade anyone from using these products in their diet. It is almost always valuable food that can be consumed in reasonable quantities without side effects. What is more questionable is the advertising that some providers use with dietary supplements, overpriced superfoods, and the like. The distorted representation of the current state of science contributes to a misperception in the population that food can be used to treat diseases like medicines. Although this applies to certain forms of diet, medically indicated diets almost always involve the omission of foods that lead to problems with metabolic diseases or intolerances.

First and foremost, a balanced diet is important, which in its entirety can cover the entire human need for vitamins and minerals with many fresh ingredients and little artificial sugar.

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Written by John Myers

Professional Chef with 25 years of industry experience at the highest levels. Restaurant owner. Beverage Director with experience creating world-class nationally recognized cocktail programs. Food writer with a distinctive Chef-driven voice and point of view.

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