What Does ‘Superfood’ Even Mean, Anyway?

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Like “literally” or “LOL” (or, if you are Bachelor host Chris Harrison, “most dramatic season ever”), “superfood” has been thrown around so much that it’s become effectively meaningless. You’re not literally dying from that puppy video, or whatever. You’re not really sitting there belly-laughing at a Slack comment that was mildly witty at best. To be honest, Chris Harrison, this season actually kind of sucked. And the very definition of “super” means that not every healthy food can be a superfood. Some of them, unfortunately, have to be regular old healthy foods.

So which ones are actually deserving of the superfood label? None, technically, because the label never really had a definition to begin with. “Superfoods are marketing gimmicks,” Duane Mellor, a nutrition scientist at the University of Canberra in Australia, told New Scientist earlier this week. “Superfood,” in other words, isn’t an indicator that the food in question has crossed some nutritional threshold — it’s just a buzzword created to make you think it has.

“Despite thousands of websites and lifestyle articles devoted to superfoods, there is hardly any published research in peer-reviewed scientific journals,” the magazine noted in a separate column. “What is out there is, more often than not, industry-funded, published in alternative health journals and too eager to jump to scientifically questionable conclusions.” In 2007, New Scientist reported, the European Union forbade food companies from using the term on food labels unless they could use an approved piece of research to back up a particular health claim. The U.S. has no such regulations, but we do have headlines like this and this and this touting any number of nutritious ingredients as “super.”

Look, no one’s denying that kale and acai and chia seeds have their benefits. But the bottom line, as New Scientist put it, is that while “some things marketed as superfoods are nutritionally superior to other, similar foods, many more are not.” Those claims of nutritional superiority are most meaningful when they’re used in moderation — if you can figure out what that even means.

What Does ‘Superfood’ Even Mean, Anyway?