What are Superfoods?

What are Superfoods?

What exactly puts the super in ‘superfood’?

At SaladPower, we carefully scrutinize the ingredients we use, and we believe the same level of care should be employed in approaching your entire diet. That is why when words like ‘superfood’ are used freely and without a clear definition, we like to slow down and analyze the facts.

In this article, we will break down the current definition of ‘superfood,’ trace the evolution of the word, and offer some of the challenges in analyzing whether a food belongs in superfood status.

It’s a bird; it’s a plane; no, it’s a superfood!

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a superfood is “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person's health.”[1] The Oxford English Dictionary offers a slightly more ambiguous meaning, calling a superfood “a food considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being.”[2]

Scientific papers often take a more cautious approach, clarifying that ‘superfood’ is essentially a word invented by clever marketing strategists to sell more food.[3] [4] Nevertheless, there does seem to be a consensus that the term denotes “foods with high levels of either nutrient or bioactive phytochemicals with human health benefits.”[5]

The term ‘superfood,’ then, appears to describe a food with two particular traits: 1) nutritious (often exceptionally so); and 2) promoting good health.

‘Superfood’ Etymology

The earliest known use of ‘superfood’ was in 1915, when the oldest English-language newspaper in the Western hemisphere, the Daily Gleaner, first used the term.[6] [7]

The word then went largely unused for three quarters of a century before re-emerging in the 1990s and gaining mainstream popularity due to a string of marketing campaigns touting the nutritional value and health benefits of certain foods.[8] Notably, the terms appears to have been used ubiquitously to describe any food known to have a dense set of nutritional characteristics, such as high levels of antioxidants relative to other foods of similar densities. The tie to specific health benefits seems to be a more recent connection, as evidenced by the fact that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary did not add the clause “beneficial to a person’s health” until recently.

Throughout the 1990s, superfood marketing campaigns were markedly successful in driving sales, contributing to the exponential increase in the use of the term into the 21st century on until present day.

Now, a Google search of ‘superfood’ yields millions of results. Though there are certain foods that make frequent appearances in superfood content, including the SaladPower staples of kale, spinach, and broccoli, there are also a number of dubious claims as to a food’s “super” status. Hence our impetus for writing this article: to inform the SaladPower community on what you are actually being sold when buying a superfood.

A Word of Caution

One of our chief concerns with the use of the term ‘superfood’ is that it can mislead (indeed, has misled) many people into believing that they can enhance their diets and prevent disease and other health issues by boosting intake of a small subset of foods labeled ‘superfoods.’ That is not necessarily true, as the quality of a diet is particular to each individual, and each person should tailor their diet based on their personal situation.[9]

After assessing one’s dietary deficiencies, it is then important to drill down on the evidence of a food’s nutritional value and health benefits. This can be tricky for a host of reasons. For one, many studies are conducted on laboratory animals, not humans, so while the evidence is helpful, there is still much to learn as to how the human body will interact with the food.

Even when humans are used in the studies, there are an endless number of variables that are hard to control, such as what else the subjects are eating, their other habits and lifestyle decisions, the duration of the experiment, and so on.[10] The findings, then, are far from dispositive as to the nutritional and health profile of the food.

This level of scrutiny can be daunting and simply too onerous when you’re just trying to grab a bite to eat. We would argue that the research is worth it in many cases. Plus, once you perform the research, you can apply the knowledge for the rest of your life.

An alternative to doing the research on your own is to develop a trusted set of reliable resources that do it for you. At SaladPower, we thrive on doing this type of work, and we dig each and every day to make sure we are providing you with the finest organic ingredients in the world. We love to share our knowledge, too, which is why we write articles such as this. We hope you find it helpful, and if so, we would love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment or send us a note to hello@saladpower.com!


[1] Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Superfood. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved April 9, 2024, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/superfood

[2] Oxford English Dictionary. (n.d.). Superfood. In oed.com dictionary. Retrieved April 9, 2024, from https://www.oed.com/search/dictionary/?scope=Entries&q=superfood

[3] Cobos, Á., & Díaz, O. (2023). 'Superfoods': Reliability of the Information for Consumers Available on the Web. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 12(3), 546. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods12030546

[4] Liu, H., Meng-Lewis, Y., Ibrahim, F., & Zhu, X. (2021). Superfoods, super healthy: Myth or reality? Examining consumers’ repurchase and WOM intention regarding superfoods: A theory of consumption values perspective. Journal of Business Research, 137, 69–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2021.08.018

[5] Taulavuori, K., Julkunen-Tiitto, R., Hyöky, V., & Taulavuori, E. (2013). Blue Mood for Superfood. Natural Product Communications, 8(6), 1934578X1300800. https://doi.org/10.1177/1934578x1300800627

[6] "Media and Identity in the Caribbean ." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved March 18, 2024 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/media-and-identity-caribbean

[7] superfood, n. meanings, etymology and more | Oxford English Dictionary. (2024). Oed.com. https://doi.org/10.1093//OED//9820379363

[8] The science behind superfoods: are they really super?: (EUFIC). (2012). Eufic.org. https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/the-science-behind-superfoods-are-they-really-super

[9] United States Department of Agriculture. (2020). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 -2025 . USDA. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf

[10]Cobos, Á., & Díaz, O. (2023). 'Superfoods': Reliability of the Information for Consumers Available on the Web. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 12(3), 546. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods12030546

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