Superfoods – safer than supplements?

A new book is warning that vitamins might not be as healthy as we think: they could even be causing us harm.  Dr Paul Offit, author of Killing Us Softly (Fourth Estate) claims that vitamin supplements can actually increase our risk of heart disease and cancer.

While that may come as a shock to most of us, many naturopaths and, in particular, raw food advocates, are not so surprised.  They have been saying for years that the best way to supercharge our diet is not with manufactured supplements but with foods dense in natural nutrients – the so-called ‘superfoods’. In fact, many nutritional experts are now eschewing supplements altogether, claiming that foods like acai, maca and chia are better, healthier and much safer than synthetic vitamins and nutritional supplements.

‘Superfoods are holistic health supplements that contain more nutrients per calorie than most other foods,’ says naturopath Veronika  Poola from Kaliyoga Retreats in Spain.   ‘They are especially high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes. Unlike synthetic supplements, they are foods and therefore come in a form that is recognised and more readily absorbed by the body.’

Pharmacist Shabir Daya of online pharmacy Victoria Health agrees.  ‘They offer great benefits,’ he says.  ‘Providing not only vitamins and minerals but phytonutrients which have many beneficial properties.’ He points out that superfoods are also much safer than synthetic supplements.  ‘Superfoods do not offer mega doses – mega doses of any nutrient can have a detrimental effect.’

However he is swift to point out that they aren’t necessarily a magic bullet and that you should take some of their miraculous claims with a pinch of salt. ‘Most foods that are touted as superfoods often do have very potent antioxidant properties,’ he says.  ‘However they may not have a complete profile of nutrients which is why I recommend a balanced, varied diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, alongside superfoods such as goji berries, acai and so forth.’

Certainly there is a lot of hype around and some foods, such as bee pollen (supposedly ‘nature’s perfect food’), have very little by way of research to back up the claims made by their advocates.  Many ‘green’ supplements, such as chlorella, spirulina and barley grass have also come under scrutiny from scientists who point out that the enzymes they contain are aimed at plants, not humans and that, while they don’t do any harm, they equally don’t do much good.

But, equally, research shows that many of these foods do have powerful health benefits.  If you’re relying on supplements to boost your diet, now could be the time to investigate the superfoods.

Expect many more to follow.  ‘There are probably more than 100 foods that are currently being considered superfoods,’ says Veronika Poola.  ‘Watch out for moringa and reishi next.’  It seems this is just the tip of the superfood iceberg.

The Ten Top Superfoods

The following comprise the ten most highly regarded superfoods – from acai to ashwaganda, from chia to cacao.  We look at their claims to fame, the proof behind the claims and how to use them in your daily diet.

Acai – the anti-ager and weight-reducer

The claims: Exceedingly high in antioxidants, acai is said to help prevent premature ageing. Its amino acid profile gives a sustained energy boost and its high essential fatty acid content helps regulate blood sugar levels.

Are they justified?  Acaí berries contain very high amounts of essential fatty acids & omegas which are proven to lower LDL & HDL cholesterol levels.  Plus they do contain a remarkable concentration of antioxidants (twice the amount in blueberries) which may help combat premature aging. In particular Acaí Berry is a dense source of anthocyanins (10-30 more than a glass of red wine).

How to superboost it in your diet: Add half a teaspoon to juices and smoothies. Make sure it’s freeze-dried and not pasteurised.  It’s expensive but you only need a little every day.

Ashwagandha – the stress-reducer

The claims:  This ayurvedic tonic is an adaptogen that helps counteract the effects of stress and burnout. Can relieve nervous tension and restore sexual vitality. May help fertility.

Are they justified? An impressive amount of research indicates that ashwagandha does have a host of benefits, including boosting immune function and enhancing brain chemistry (improving memory, soothing depression and easing stress).  Its anti-inflammatory effect has been shown to be comparable to a dose of hydrocortisone and patients with osteoarthritis found it significantly reduced pain and disability. 

How to superboost it in your diet: Add a teaspoon to food or have it as a tea, 1-3 cups per day

Cacao – Nature’s Prozac

The claims: Pure raw cacao (the raw ingredient of chocolate) can reduce stress and anxiety and increase feelings of wellbeing. It is exceedingly high in antioxidants and in magnesium.

Are they justified? The American Heart Association’s journal Circulation says, ‘Recent research demonstrates a beneficial effect on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and vascular and platelet function.’

How to superboost it in your diet: Add a desert-spoon of the nibs to porridge, cereal or smoothies.

Note: don’t take late at night – it could affect your sleep. Make sure you buy the actual nibs, rather than refined, sweetened cacao.

Chia seed – the appetite suppresser

The claims: Chia was apparently used by the Aztecs and Mayans for endurance and energy.  It’s a gelatinous seed that adds bulk to food, making it an excellent weight loss aid. It contains the highest vegetarian source of EFAs (essential fatty acids) and is exceedingly high in calcium and iron.

Are they justified? The American Society for Nutrition cites a study published in The Journal of Nutrition which showed chia could help reduce serum triglyceride levels and inflammation.  However the Journal warns that more research needs to be carried out to verify other claims. Most research so far has been on lab animals, not humans.

How to superboost it in your diet: Soak for ten minutes (1 part chia to 7 parts water) as a breakfast base, or add to smoothies or soups or rice (add when meal is cooked).

Goji berries – the life extender

The claims: nicknamed the longevity fruit, these small berries have potent anti-ageing and immune-enhancing properties.  Said to increase stamina, strength, longevity and sexual energy.

Are they justified?  A study reported in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that, daily consumption of Goji berries for 14 days ‘increases subjective feelings of general well-being, and improves neurologic/psychological performance and gastrointestinal functions.’

How to superboost it in your diet: 28g a day is the ideal dose – sprinkle on porridge, cereal, yoghurt or add to tomato and red pepper dishes.

Hemp seeds – the hormone balancer and beauty booster

The claims: a superb vegetarian protein (a much better choice than soya or whey protein for athletes) with the ideal ratio of essential fatty acids.  Hemp can encourage weight loss and a healthy immune system.  It also helps promote glossy hair, healthy skin and nails, and may balance hormones and reduce inflammation.  Can also help battle depression and soothe eczema.

Are they justified? A study in Nutrition & Metabolism concluded that ‘Hempseed has the potential to beneficially influence heart disease. Cardiovascular patients may not be the only subjects who benefit from this research. Only time will tell if other diseases that have an immunological, dermatological, neurodegenerative basis may also benefit from this new nutritional intervention.’

How to superboost it in your diet: Blend one or two tablespoons into smoothies or add to soups at the end of the cook time.

Maca – the libido raiser

The claims: Another powerful adaptogen, used originally by the Peruvians for energy and sexual prowess.   Maca is said to help reduce anxiety, stress and depression and enhances libido and fertility.

Are they justified? The US National Institutes of Health says that ‘Randomized clinical trials have shown that maca has favorable effects on energy and mood, may decrease anxiety and improve sexual desire. Maca has also been shown to improve sperm production, sperm motility, and semen volume.’

How to superboost it in your diet: Start with a teaspoon and gradually work up to a tablespoon per day on cereal or in soups and hot drinks (it works well with cacao).

Dragon fruit (Pitaya) – the super antioxidant

The claims: Dragonfruit was used traditionally by the Mayans. It is high in antioxidants and believed to help prevent diabetes and cancer; neutralize toxic metals and reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure. It is also supposed to have wound-healing properties and to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Are they justified?  A study reported in Pharmacognosy Research suggests that dragonfruit could help prevent complications from diabetes, could lower the risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure.

How to superboost it in your diet:  Add to smoothies and salads. 

Turmeric:  the disease fighter

The claims:  Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antioxidant (it is 5-8 times more potent in its immune-boosting effect than vitamins C and E).  It helps protect cells and inhibits the replication of damaged cells.  It appears to help arthritis, lowers cholesterol and protects the heart.  It’s also a powerful brain food and may even help in weight loss, acne, and strengthen bones.

Are they justified?  The National Institutes of Health in the USA have funded at least eight studies on turmeric, probing its potential to treat a broad range of disease, from cancer and cystic fibrosis to Alzheimer’s and arthritis.  An Italian study found it caused a 58 percent decrease in arthritic pain.

How to superboost it in your diet: Add to curries, stews and soups.

Spirulina:  “Nature’s green magic”

The claims: Supposedly one of the most nutrient-rich foods, and the highest source of protein and iron (while being low in calories). Said to curb appetite and help stabilise blood sugar levels, making it a good weight loss aid. Can apparently help overcome nutritional deficiencies and improve assimilation.

Are they justified? Animal studies have shown spirulina helpful in chemotherapy-induced heart damage, stroke recovery, age-related decline in memory, diabetes and hay fever. However the US National Institutes of Health says there is insufficient evidence to recommend spirulina and that more research is needed.

How to superboost it in your diet: Add a tablespoon to citrus juices or add to salad dressings.

Caution: if you have any medical condition, are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor before supplementing your diet.

Victoria Health – stocks most of the superfoods mentioned.

Veronika Poola practices at Kaliyoga ( a retreat centre in Spain which runs regular superfood retreats.


This feature first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail.  (c) Jane Alexander

Photo by Vicky Ng on Unsplash


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