Do These 7 So-Called Superfoods Live Up to the Hype?

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Modern living has its perks, but the sedentary all-you-can-eat lifestyle (and its health consequences) isn’t one of them. It’s no wonder we’re attracted to healing foods from thoroughly unmodern plants and even ancient traditions. From bulletproof coffee to bone broth, many of today’s hottest cure-alls come with a rich history, while others are essentially novel takes on familiar foods. What they all have in common: your attention. Indeed, it’s exciting to discover a food’s healing potential, but don’t mistake fervor for credibility. To help you look before you leap, nutrition experts from across the country weigh in on 7 of today’s trendiest “health” foods.

1. Bulletproof Coffee Also known as butter coffee, bulletproof coffee combines black coffee with one to two tablespoons each of unsalted butter from grass-fed cows and medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. While it may be new to you, “it’s enjoyed around the world and is a staple for Tibetans, where traditional butter tea (similar in concept to butter coffee) is an essential source of energy, helping them survive the harsh Himalayan climate where very little food grows,” shares Marisa Moore, RDN, owner of Marisa Moore Nutrition. 

Proponents claim it provides lasting energy, a brain boost and weight-loss benefits. Moore says, “I’m not aware of any research to support the purported benefits, but sipping a little butter-spiked coffee from time to time is not a crime.” Consider this: A mug can run about 400 calories without contributing protein, fiber or a significant range of vitamins and minerals the way a solid meal should. The final word from Moore: “Replacing a whole and nutritious breakfast with this high-fat, low-nutrient beverage can make it difficult to meet your daily nutrition needs. It’s not worth the hype.”

Related: Can’t Lose Weight? Your Thyroid Could Be the Culprit

2. Oil Pulling Oil pulling refers to a traditional Indian folk remedy for dental health that involves swishing with oil to be rid of bad breath and tooth decay. “Some claim that it pulls toxins out so that when you spit out the oil, it is all brown and black with gunk,” says Ginger Hultin, registered dietitian at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment. “Biochemically speaking, if you look at how the body processes toxins, this is not the way,” explains Hultin. What some small studies do suggest is that oil pulling with sesame oil for about 10 to 15 minutes may kill just as much of the bacteria that cause bad breath and gingivitis as a chemical mouthwash (chlorhexidine). The final word: It may be a cost-effective mouthwash if you’re willing to commit the time needed, but don’t neglect regular brushing and flossing, too.

3. Activated Charcoal Please don’t go huffing your barbecue briquettes — activated charcoal is a little different: It’s nontoxic and has been treated to create more surface area with a complex internal pore structure. Clinicians know that a short-term regimen of activated charcoal can be helpful for immediate poisoning treatment. Charcoal binds unabsorbed drugs in the gut and helps clear them from the body faster. In a hospital setting, it often comes in capsule form, but trend watchers are seeing it show up on menus at juice and cocktail bars, mostly as a detoxifying potion, but some even mix tonic with cure. 

However, it doesn’t bind well to alcohol (so much for the hangover cure), and alcohol actually prevents it from working well. Additional cautions: activated charcoal makes it harder for the body to absorb micronutrients, and Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD warns, “Because of its absorptive properties, it can cause constipation in some.” The final word: Let activated charcoal do its work in your Brita pitcher, not your gut. As for detoxing after a night out, your liver (and plenty of water from said Brita pitcher) has that covered.

4. Kombucha Kombucha is a kind of yeast, though some mistake it for a mushroom. The tea is made by fermenting tea with sugar and a culture of bacteria and yeast. It’s been consumed in China, Japan and Russia for at least the past 100 years as a health tonic, though it has only gained wide popularity in the U.S. in the past decade. It’s used as medicine for a laundry list of ailments, including memory loss, PMS, aging, AIDS, cancer, high blood pressure, immunity, metabolism, constipation, arthritis and hair regrowth. 

But science does not back up any of these claims. In fact, there are many documented side effects, including stomachaches, vomiting, nausea and headache. As a fermented food, it may stimulate digestion and provide probiotics, says Mary Purdy, RDN. The final word: If you want to try it, a safe choice is a pasteurized product from a brand you trust (but then you’ll miss out on the probiotics). For similar nutrients, get antioxidants from regular tea and probiotics from yogurt, kimchi or other fermented foods. The documented risks outweigh the potential benefits for those who are very young, very old, pregnant or whose immune systems are weakened.

Related: Is Taking a Multivitamin Worth the Risks?

5. Aloe Vera Juice The aloe vera juice you’ll find in stores is most likely made from the clear gel inside an aloe plant, but if it’s made with the whole leaf or aloe latex, watch out for laxative effects and cramping. You may see words like “inner fillet,” which is the skin-soothing clear gel; or “latex,” which is the yellow layer between the clear inner gel and tough outer skin that contains laxative chemicals (aloin, anthraquinones). “Aloe is known to coat and soothe the GI,” says Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD. 

However, she warns that “too much aloe can cause diarrhea and because it coats the GI tract, can also interact with some medications or supplements, reducing absorption.” As a food, aloe gel contributes complex and simple sugars, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, tannins and sterols. People use it for weight loss, digestion, immunity boosting, reducing inflammation, detoxing and overall wellness. There is some evidence the latex can help with constipation and preliminary evidence that the gel could help lower high cholesterol. However, the science is not strong enough to definitively support the health claims. The final word: The aloe vera gel-based beverage is probably safe to try if you’re curious about it, but there just isn’t enough evidence that you’ll actually reap the advertised benefits.

6. Bee Pollen A mixture of flower pollen, nectar and bee saliva that collects on the legs and bodies of worker bees, bee pollen varies as much as the plants the bees visit. Bee pollen is not honey, venom nor royal jelly: It is made of complex sugars, simple sugars, fats, protein, vitamin C and carotenoids. The buzz is about the enzymes in the pollen, a supposed solution to a long list of concerns: PMS, allergies, eczema, bruising, hangovers, premature aging, constipation, diarrhea, poor appetite and much more. 

The buzzkill is that there is no reliable evidence for any of the benefits. In addition, any enzymes are likely broken down in the stomach and digested in the gut before they could act as medicines. “Bee pollen is used as an energy tonic in Chinese medicine,” says Robin Foroutan, M.S., RD, who uses it for clients with seasonal allergies. She notes that there’s emerging research in mice for cancer and immunity benefits and that “there may be components we don’t yet fully understand within bee pollen that make it work.” She warns that people with pollen allergies could have severe reactions to it. The final word: People without the allergy concern seem to tolerate bee pollen fine, so you’re pretty safe trying it out if you’d like to, there’s just not a lot of science to back up the health claims.

7. Bone Broth Essentially soup stock made with a higher ratio of bones to meat, bone broth is having a moment. The idea is to unlock nutrients like collagen, anti-inflammatory fats, amino acids and minerals from animal bones in order to help a range of ailments, including achy joints, leaky gut, dull skin and the common cold. “I recommend bone broth for the digestive healing properties of collagen,” says Robin Foroutan, M.S., RD, integrative dietitian and holistic health counselor. 

However, the research on both risks and benefits is limited and includes a positive study on chicken soup for congestion and an alarming one on organic chicken broth that found that it’s not just nutrients that are getting pulled from the bones. Lead levels in the chicken broth were elevated (up to 9.5 micrograms per liter) compared with the water it was made in (0.89 micrograms per liter), but it was still under EPA limits for drinking water (15 micrograms per liter). As long as you’re not having it morning, noon and night, and the sodium content is not sky-high, bone broth can add some positive nutrients to the diet and is especially good for you if it’s replacing less nutritious foods. The final word: If you’re curious about it, try a warming cup of what is basically soup, but don’t go replacing all your fluids with broth just yet.

The original article “Do These So-Called Superfoods Live Up to the Hype?" appeared on LIVESTRONG.COM.

By Maggie Moon, MS, RD

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