There’s so much hype that goes on in the health space that we should really all be asking ourselves important questions, like “Hey, what are superfoods, anyway - are they just bs from people trying to sell stuff or should I actually care?!”
If you, like us, want to make healthy eating as simple as possible for your family, it makes sense to focus your diet around the foods that will have the best impact on your health.
We set out to develop a practical and sustainable healthy way of eating for our family, but quickly became frustrated trying to determine which foods actually were truly "super" because of the wide variance of conflicting information.
In this article:
What is an actual superfood definition - no hype
How superfoods can simplify weightloss
Superfoods breakdown with actual ratings for why they are the best superfoods and what makes them stand out
Downloadable superfood list with at-a-glance ratings
(in future articles we'll be putting together recipes and menu plans to simplify further)
“Superfood” is meant to describe nutrient-dense foods that contain antioxidants and have a good pH balance, however, the term has been diluted by people trying to make money in one way or another as the next big thing.
Many foods are touted as superfoods merely because they’re exceptionally high in this or that nutrient, or maybe even due to their supposed antioxidant content.
The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be a conclusive or consistent way of rating the antioxidant quality of foods, and it’s not practical for the average person to be in a constant juggling match with a bunch of different foods to ensure they have a healthy, well-balanced diet.
In our opinion, it’s not worth considering something a “superfood” if it’s only high in one component and possibly even negative in other aspects.
With that in mind, we compared all sorts of charts, lists, and ratings in an attempt to put together a more comprehensive and balanced collection of what qualifies as “superfoods” for our family.
Nutrient density is the “ratio of nutrients per calorie, based on vitamins and minerals”.
Although the USDA coined the term, Dr. Joel Furhman – an MD focused on disease prevention through nutrition, created a system to take into account the full spectrum of nutrients – including micronutrients, antioxidants and phytonutrients. This is called the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index system (ANDI).
ANDI is used as a guide for Nutritarians, a term coined by Dr. Furhman as “a diet style which provides a high ratio of micronutrients per calorie and a high level of micronutrient variety“.
Nutrient density is probably most relevant on a practical level, since most of us want to be healthy but aren’t trying to gain weight.
[Critics are quick to point out that you can’t only consume the most nutrient dense foods because they wouldn’t provide enough energy, but somehow I really don’t think that’s ever going to be the average person’s problem ;)]
While a focus on nutrient density is what we’re aiming at for our personal diet, we decided not to rely solely on the ANDI system to determine this list of superfoods because it seems to be weighted more heavily in favor of fewer calories than overall nutrient balance. Additionally, there’s such a huge gap between several foods at the highest ranking and the majority of foods which fall much lower on the scale, that it’s difficult to determine what should really be considered a good rating.
The CDC cites a study ranking “powerhouse” fruits and vegetables, which I guess could be considered similar to “superfood” because they’re those foods most associated with reduced risk of chronic disease.
That study ranked the nutrient density of foods based on 17 important nutrients but SELF Nutrition Data has a much larger database, rating foods over even more (23) essential nutrients (fiber, protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K).
Ultimately, it seemed to make the most sense to utilize SELF’s database.
The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) system was developed by the USDA to measure the ability of a substsance to subdue free radicals (unstable molecules that cause cell damage) in a test tube. (Basically, it determined the antioxidant quality.) The system was later discontinued and removed because it turned out to be inconsistent, as well as abused by the food industry. There’s still plenty of old information floating around the web on it, though.
The reality is that it may not have been a very accurate test, anyway, considering the way things work in a human body versus a test tube may be quite different.
Regardless of how accurate the actual ratings of foods’ abilities to break down free radicals in our bodies are, they can at least give us a general idea of relative benefit of some foods over others.
For example, according to Superfoodly, “On average, plant-based foods have 64% more antioxidant content than meats.“
Like Dr. Fuhrman says, “One thing we do know about natural foods is that the foods that contain the highest amount of known nutrients are the same foods that contain the most unknown nutrients.” In other words, we won’t go wrong by at least focusing on those foods we already know are more healthy.
Your body’s ideal pH is 7.35-7.45 (neutral is 7).
“The body is alkaline by design, but acidic by function.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
In theory, you don’t want to be too alkaline, but overall you want to stay slightly more alkaline to ward off disease and aging.
The variation in ideal pH seems really negligible at face-value, but pH is actually an exponential scale.
“Every unit change in pH equals a 10-fold increase or decrease in acidity. Dropping from pH 7 to 6 is a 10-fold increase in acidity, while dropping further to pH 5 is another 10-fold increase, or a 100-fold increase (10 x 10 = 100) in acidity from pH 7. For this reason, even minor deviations in pH around the more extreme values constitute much greater changes in acidity (or basicity) than seemingly major changes around the neutral mark. For example, merely dropping from pH 3.1 to 3.0 equals an increase in acidity more than 238 times greater than dropping from pH 7 to 6.” – essense of life (slight paraphrase)
The Acid-Alkaline Food Guide compares a variance in body pH to a variance in body temperature – one degree doesn’t seem like much, but it definitely makes a difference!
It seems pretty unlikely becoming too alkaline will be your problem, however, because worry, stress, and other negative emotions have an acidic effect on your body, not to mention the 99.999% (approximate 😉 ) probability that your diet is acidogenic. One main thing to be careful of, however, is frequent use of antacids, which can mess up your balance.
So how did we determine this list of superfoods?
Basically, we took the combined factors above into account for what we feel is a pretty well-rounded and objective outcome. It’s the information we’re using to make decisions for our own family’s diet.
As always, please remember that we’re not health experts, just people putting in the time to research issues that we want resolved for ourselves and sharing our conclusions. Also keep in mind that this can only be as conclusive as the information that’s available allows. Not all essential nutrients have yet been identified, for example.
1. Each of these foods has a nutrient balance of 75+ (scored from 0-100 over 23 essential nutrients). The nutrient balance variance on some foods is mainly due to their cooked vs raw rating – raw being better in most cases.
2. We compared ANDI, ORAC, and this more comprehensive list to try to get the best overall picture of the relative antioxidant content of these foods, but please keep in mind that it’s still a rather ambiguous measurement.
3. Each of these foods is alkalizing (pH of 7+) unless otherwise noted. “+”, “++”, and “+++” = low, medium, and high alkaline, while “-” = low acidic.
We have a ginormous spreadsheet which we’ll share in an upcoming post that lays out all this information over a wide variety of foods.
While all of these foods are really good for you, providing a wide variety of nutrients and health benefits (which you can read more about by clicking on any of their links), we wanted to highlight some of the more standout characteristics of each.
The Romans held this to be a “powerful“ aphrodisiac. Antioxidant, detoxifying, and a good source of fiber, Arugula is especially high in vitamin K, delivering 90% of your daily needs in only 100g.
One of the healthiest greens, beet greens are higher in iron than spinach and are the finest source of ß-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Note: Although the books used to determine the antioxidant and alkaline ratings of foods didn't contain beet greens, we know they have antioxidants and are most likely also alkaline. We just don't know how highly they're rated.
The phytochemical sulforaphane in broccoli may enhance your body's ability to detoxify, and the sulfur compounds also have anti-inflammatory benefits. Broccoli also provides all three types of antioxidants.
Note: Broccoli sprouts, while not as commonly consumed as other sprouts, are a concentrated source of antioxidants.
A secret of "eternal youthfulness"? Some say cabbage has more medicinal value than any other natural food, one of which is helping cure stomach ulcers. Apparently, compounds in cabbage also strengthen stomach muscles to help resist acid attacks.
Note: While green cabbage is a great choice, red cabbage has higher antioxidants and added nutrient benefits.
Many people assume cauliflower is not as good for you as green cruciferous vegetables, but it's just as rich in phytonutrients and even better than broccoli for decreasing risk of some cancers.
Another of the highly beneficial cruciferous vegetables, bok choy helps with reducing inflammation. Its diverse lineup of antioxidants is also uniquely valuable.
Note: Napa and bok choy are both Chinese cabbage, but bok choy seems to be the better, more nutrient dense one, while the more commonly seen one seems to be napa. Myself and most people I know confused napa for bok choy all my life.
After cabbage, collard greens are the least expensive cruciferous vegetables in the US. Collards beat out other cruciferous veggies in lowering cholesterol and stand out in their cancer prevention abilities.
Probably the richest herbal source of vitamin-K, these greens can also have laxative and diuretic functions, as well as lower blood sugar.
Kale is well-studied for its cancer preventative benefits and is unrivaled among leafy greens for its anti-inflammatory capabilities. It also tops the list for lutein, which is known for supporting eye health. Kale is also an excellent source of healthy omega-fatty acids.
As a citrus fruit, lemons are excellent for the anti-carcinogen, limonin, which lasts much longer than other natural anti-carcinogens. They are also very low in sugar and more nutrient-rich than other citrus fruits.
Not to be overlooked as a good nutrient source, lettuce provides 247% of your daily intake of vitamin A and 107% of your vitamin K. It's also a good source of vitamin C, as well as an important source of Zea-Xanthin, which is absorbed into your retina where it helps filter UV rays.
Mustard greens are a top choice for supporting cell detox processes. They also inhibit the absorption of cholesterol, helping to keep it under control.
Just all around good, this leafy green is jam packed with nutrients for every part of your body. Spinach is a top source of magnesium and iron.
Note: Information about acid/alkaline forming is conflicting. Some sources cite spinach as very alkaline, while this book says it's low acid-forming.
Another must-eat, swiss chard is super high in vitamin K (700%!) and vitamin A (200%), and offers standout bone support. It also helps regulate blood sugar.
Note: Swiss chard is a fun green, with stalks ranging in rainbow of colors. Like spinach, it the acid/alkaline forming information is conflicting, but at the least it would be very low acid-forming.
"Turnip greens are one of the finest sources of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can offer protection from the vitamin-A deficiency, osteoporosis, iron-deficiency anemia, and believed to protect from cardiovascular diseases and possibly from colon cancers."
An extremely low-calorie green, watercress is labeled the most nutrient-dense food - more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, more vitamin C than oranges.
Note: Watercress should be washed thoroughly and soaked in hydrogen peroxide to remove any impurities.
These are still very noteworthy foods, many exceptionally high in antioxidants and/or alkalizing, but aren't quite as balanced overall as those in the category above.
Berries may be among the most potent cancer-fighting fruits. They also have potential health benefits against inflammation, neurological diseases, and aging, including including cognitive function.
Note: Strawberries lower risk of cardiovascular disease and their seeds even contain omega-3 fatty acid. Raspberries may increase fat cell metabolism (aka improve obesity management) and reduce fat absorption.
Orange and yellow foods, and carrots in particular, lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Note: Carrots are actually slightly more nutritious cooked, and baby carrots are a little more nutritious than the regular size. Supposedly, organic carrots are alkaline, while non-organic are acid-forming.
Cucumbers contain unique antioxidants as well as silica, which promotes nail health.
Note: Cucumbers are highly sensitive to the hormone, ethylene, which initiates ripening. So store them away from bananas, melons, and tomatoes, which naturally emit it.
Surprisingly, green beans provide nutrients generally thought to come from other colors of foods like tomatoes and carrots, so it's a hard-hitting vegetable.
Note: The thing to remember with green beans is that those with formed beans are acid-forming, while those without are alkaline.
Mushrooms contain nutrients usually found in produce, meat, and grains. They're also super high in ergothionine, which is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
Note: Crimini mushrooms may be at the top of the mushroom list for regulation of inflammation, while shiitake are heralded as very beneficial for the immune system.
The heat in peppers lowers risk of tumors, has antioxidant, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, and can clear congestion and help with weight loss.
Note: Black pepper apparently blocks formation of new fat cells and increases the bioavailability of almost all foods. In the right combination, it may also burn as many calories as a 20-min walk.
You can't be sure the soil commercial vegetables are grown in has good mineral content, but the sea is still a potent source of minerals, giving seaweed and sea vegetables a unique mineral content.
Sweet potatoes have the highest antioxidant value of any root vegetable. They provide 769% DV of vitamin A, which is more than any food other than beef liver!
Note: Sweet potatoes and yams are indeed different foods, despite their names being used somewhat interchangeably. Yams are potentially much larger than sweet potatoes, less nutritious, and are less common in the US.
A primary source of carotenes, winter squash also come out among the top sources for several carotenoid antioxidants. Although the squash is high in starch, not all starches are created equal and in this case, include key health benefits. They also contains anti-inflammatory omega-3s, and one of the highest amounts of vitamin A of any vegetable.
Note: Some of the more common winter squash include butternut and acorn.
Worth a Look
Acai has been paraded as a super special superfood, but in reality they may not have much more antioxidant capabilities than an orange. Basically, the reports are very conflicting, so you don't need to feel like a second-class citizen using more common fruits and vegetables.
Nutrient Balance: N/A
Cacao is another food commonly touted as having amazing benefits, but as you can see, the nutrient balance is certainly nothing special. The information about antioxidant content is also rather conflicting, but chocolate does raise serotonin levels, which means it's a good natural option for a mood lift.
Note: See this article about the difference between raw cacao vs cocoa.
Green tea is most beneficial because it is the least processed of the teas. It provides a more stable energy than coffee, and works well to improve brain function. It may also boost metabolic rate and increase fat burning.
Note: Make sure your tea is from a good source that doesn't contain excessive fluoride, lead, and aluminum.
Nutrient Balance: N/A
Sorghum is one of the best foods for dietary fiber, with a single serving providing 48% DV.
Note: Certain types of sorghum rate exceptionally high on the ORAC scale, so it's potentially a better option than other grains, relatively speaking, but there doesn't seem to be conclusive evidence on the other superfood aspects.
Stevia plant can help lower blood pressure, as well as blood sugar levels.
Note: Do be aware that stevia is low acid-forming.
Nutrient Balance: N/A
Tomatoes supply a great variety of nutrients, but are a particularly concentrated source of lycopene, a potent anti-cancer compound not naturally produced in your body.
Note: Tomatoes are one of those rare foods that are actually better for you cooked - antioxidant levels are increased by up to 62%. It's also best not to refrigerate them. Do be aware that tomatoes are low acid-forming.
Download an at-a-glance list of foods with their ratings.
Are there other foods you feel we missed?
Stay tuned for more in-depth ways to simplify your health!
A Smarter Healthy™ Series
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