Are Superfoods Really Better For You Than ‘Regular’ Foods?

Are superfoods really what they’re promised to be? Will we be unhealthy if we don’t consume them? Herbal medicine expert and Naturopath, Reece Carter, unpacks the claims that superfoods are more nutritionally dense than some of our more regular fruit and veg.

From maca to mesquite, and acai to acerola, it seems there is a new so-called ‘superfood’ being discovered every few months. These often difficult-to-pronounce ingredients promise everything from better sex to a longer lifespan, but is there a way to reap the benefits without the fancy names and price tags?

Society has an incessant desire for a quick-fix, for a cure-all – and it’s enough to make you resent your regular foods. Marketing leads you to believe your standard fruit and veg have clearly been letting you down in the nutrition stakes all these years. Is it possible the Amazonian rainforest and the Peruvian Andes have all the good stuff, while we plebs have been left with regular ‘un-superfoods’?

Or is it simply that exotic-sounding ingredients from far-flung lands provide a better springboard from which to develop a marketing strategy to sell you this season’s must-have elixir of life?

Who decides whether something is ‘super’?

Australia’s top spa chef Samantha Gowing published her research on the topic earlier this year, and found that overwhelmingly, it is a manufacturer or marketer that is responsible for labelling a food as ‘super’.

So if the term ‘superfood’ doesn’t actually equate to ‘magical ingredient for good health’, what are they then? Simply put, they are foods. Yes, they tend to have a dense nutritional composition, but so too do a huge number of the less fashionable occupants of the vegetable crisper – those that sit to spoil while we load our smoothies with the hottest freeze-dried powders of the moment.

So how can we swap our superfoods for alternatives that don’t carry the hefty price tag, and the food miles to match?

Swap: acai for blueberries 

“But what about the ORAC score?” I hear you cry, referring to the oxygen radical absorbance capacity that has been a measure for a food’s antioxidant prowess for years. Acai has long been lauded as one of the most powerful antioxidants, but trouble struck in 2012 when ORAC tables were discredited for not being an accurate representation of how an antioxidant works in the body. Simply put, ORAC is a wildly unmonitored test tube analysis that does not reflect how the human body uses a food.

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But we do know that dietary antioxidants play an important role in human health, so much so that it’s not impossible that we may have a recommended daily intake (RDI) of anthocyanins – that’s the active compound in both blueberry and acai – in the not too distant future.

In the mean time, skip the powdered acai and enjoy locally-grown blueberries instead. They deliver the same health benefits, and taste better too.

Swap: spirulina for spinach 

Spirulina comes from seaweed and is one of the many green powders available that offers to take the place of actually eating vegetables. It’s a concentrated source of protein, iron, and vitamin A. The catch is that unless you’re eating whole meal-sized portions of spirulina, the concentration of nutrients isn’t all that relevant: a three-gram serve of spirulina is hardly going to get you close to your daily requirements of anything.

You would get more of all of the above by blending a single cup of fresh spinach through your morning protein shake.

Swap: goji berries for pomegranate

Most of us at some stage have sprinkled a salad or smoothie bowl with salty-tasting goji berries, certain that anything that tastes that strange must be good for us. In reality though, we can substitute in fresh pomegranate in its place for comparable antioxidant benefits, and with a fraction of the sugar.


Swap: camu camu for Kakadu plum

Vitamin C is the name of the game for these two superfood opponents. Camu camu is from Peru, and Kakadu plum – also called Gubinge – comes from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. On one hand, you could import your vitamin C from across the globe; on the other, you could pour your money behind the cultivation of an indigenous Australian food.

And what’s even better? The Aussie ingredient actually contains more vitamin C than Camu camu anyway. Kakadu Plum for the win.

The shift back to our back yard

It’s clear that the superfood phenomenon isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but what we are starting to see in Australia is a shift back towards local, sustainable produce, and with it an understanding of just how good for us these recognisable ingredients can be.

There’s certainly no harm in enjoying superfoods—and let’s face it, there is a certain degree of smugness to be enjoyed when ordering yourself an acai bowl with extra cacao nibs and bee pollen – but for all their grand health claims, you might be able to find something closer to home that is just as good.

Reece Carter is a qualified Naturopath, herbal medicine expert and Australia’s very own ‘Garden Pharmacist’. From the planter box to the pantry and with a lifelong passion for all things green, this self-professed herb nerd has the answers.