Sure, they're healthy--but not as much as you'd think
By Julie Upton, RD, Prevention
Are these buzzed-about foods worth it?
Google "superfoods" and you'll be bombarded with more than 4 million links to websites, blogs, and books all touting the magical health properties of "super" foods, beverages, powders, and pills. Marketers of superfoods claim that their products can do everything from increasing your lifespan and preventing cancer to boosting your libido and fighting wrinkles more effectively than a face-lift.
But if it sounds too good to be true, well, you know how it goes. Nutrition experts believe that placing too much emphasis on single foods detracts from what really improves health, which is your overall diet--adding a few "superfoods" here and there isn't going to make up for your serious fast-food habit, for example. Oh, and about the whole "superfood" term in the first place? Yeah, it's not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, meaning marketers can essentially use the word as they wish.
While the following 7 "superfoods" do offer health benefits, they're not quite worthy of their health halo. Before you hit the checkout line, see if you've been duped by these overhyped, overpriced "superfoods."
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Açaí literally means "fruit that cries," but you'll be the one shedding a few tears if you waste your money on açaí berry products, says Joan Salge-Blake, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. "There are no human studies to support the use of açaí berries to help you shed excess pounds, fight aging, or for any health issue, for that matter," he says. All berries are rich in beneficial antioxidants, but there's no reason that these natives of Central and South America deserve top billing.
Better bet: Enjoy locally-grown berries whenever they're in season and opt for frozen (with no sugar added) when they're not.
The tiny black and white seeds from the Salvia hispanica plant are grown primarily in Mexico and South America. They're often promoted as a natural diet aid, but there's not much to back that up. When it comes to weight loss, one short-term human study did not find any weight loss benefits of chia seeds, says Salge-Blake.
Chia seeds do contain antioxidants and ALA, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid; an ounce (2 Tbsp) of chia seeds has 140 calories, 10 grams fiber, 5 grams protein, 9 grams fat, and 180 mg calcium. So, chia seeds are a healthy, fiber-rich addition to your diet, but beyond providing good nutrition, they don't offer additional benefits.
Better bet: Opt for nuts and seeds of all types, which are naturally rich in antioxidants, protein, and fiber. (Even better? Make your own nut butter with these 5 ridiculously easy recipes.)
Coconut oil is the latest cure-all that supposedly can improve immune function and reduce the risk of thyroid disease, heart disease, dementia, obesity, and cancer. However, virtually all of the research is still considered preliminary, because studies are primarily conducted with rodents or based on limited data. One proven fact about coconut oil: 87% of its fat is saturated. That means you get 13.5 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon of coconut oil along with 120 calories. To put that into perspective, the American Heart Association recommends limiting your daily saturated fat intake to about 14 grams total.
Better bet: Stick with vegetable oils that are low in saturated fat, like canola and olive oil, both of which have been proven to help lower harmful LDL-cholesterol levels in numerous of human clinical studies. Canola has more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than coconut oil, and olive oil is one of the richest sources of monounsaturated fat.
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Hollywood A-listers and CrossFitters may be cuckoo for coconut water, but this latest craze may not be all it's cracked up to be. Marketed as being a superior hydrator, diet aid, acne fighter, and hangover helper, the only thing that's been proven about coconut water is that an 8-ounce serving comes with 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar and at least 50 calories.
Better bet: "Plain water is more than adequate to stay hydrated, even after a workout," says Salge-Blake. Bonus: good old tap water's calorie-free and costs nothing. (Bored with water? Shake things up with these 25 slimming Sassy Water Recipes.)
Goji berries come from the Lycium barbarum plant that's grown throughout Asia. Marketers claim the berries have anti-cancer and anti-aging properties, improve vision and fertility, and temper inflammation. And while several preliminary laboratory and animal studies suggest goji berries may provide health properties (and one human study actually reported that subjects receiving goji juice reported higher levels of subjective feelings of well-being), the jury's still out as to whether these berries are deserving of a "super" status.
Better bet: "Goji berries, açaí berries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and all other berries are powerful packages of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients," says Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "But no scientific evidence shows that any one of them provides health benefits that are significantly better than the other-so enjoy them all." Strawberries, for example, pack a similar nutritional punch as gogi berries, and they're available fresh year-round at a fraction of the price. (Never let another strawberry go to waste with these 20 stellar strawberry recipes.)
Kombucha tea is a black tea that's fermented with kombucha (which is actually a yeast), bacteria, and sugar. Many claim that the tea helps detoxify the body, bolsters the immune system, and provides PMS relief, among other benefits. But there's little proof in all the hype. "Kombucha tea has been touted to increase energy and improve digestion, among other things, but no human trial has ever been conducted to support these claims," explains Toby Amidor, author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen.
To improve the somewhat vinegary taste, the teas often come with high sugar counts. Kombucha tea may become contaminated with fungus and bacteria, making it potentially dangerous for those with a weakened immune system such as older adults, pregnant women, and children. And, because the fermentation processes creates a small amount of alcohol, anyone with a drinking problem should avoid it.
Better bet: Drink regular tea--whether it's black, green, or oolong. Hundreds of published, peer-reviewed studies show that drinking tea can help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, and may provide a mild lift to your metabolic rate. For beneficial bacteria, opt for yogurt and kefir.
Ever since Dr. Oz called these "fat burners in a bottle," sales of raspberry ketone supplements have exploded. Problem is, the only published scientific health research on raspberry ketones--which are the naturally occurring phenolic compounds that give red raspberries their aroma--are considered preliminary because they're either animal model or laboratory studies. Unlike food, dietary supplements are more loosely regulated, so it's not uncommon to find unsubstantiated claims on packages.
Better bet: Go with the whole raspberry, which contains hundreds of beneficial bioactive compounds, including ketones. Berries also contain fiber, which can help you feel fuller longer.
This sprouted grain is used as an ingredient in many high-priced juices and smoothies, and it does contain several important nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, and E, iron, magnesium, and calcium. Proponents emphasize the high level of chlorophyll in wheatgrass, which is true, but chlorophyll has no real nutritional value, says Amidor. "Oftentimes wheatgrass juice is consumed in order to cleanse the liver, but your liver does not need help to detoxify--it does it on its own." And while wheatgrass is nutritious, there are no human clinical studies showing that it has any special health benefits.
Better bet: Include dark green veggies in your diet, such as broccoli, kale, chard and a variety of lettuces.
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