Superfoods, once a niche nutrition trend, have become so mainstream that even those who aren’t interested in health and wellness know what they are. And that’s definitely not a bad thing. “In general, I like the superfoods trend,” says Liz Weinandy, R.D., a registered dietitian in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It really puts the spotlight on healthy foods that contain multiple nutrients known to be important for optimal human health.” Yup, that sounds quite positive to us.
But there is a downside to the superfood trend, according to health professionals. “It is absolutely essential that people remember eating one or two superfoods will not make us super healthy,” Weinandy says. Wait, so you mean we can’t eat pizza all the time and then top it off with a superfood-filled smoothie?! Bummer. “We need to eat a variety of healthy foods on a regular basis for super health,” she explains.
What’s more, trendy superfoods that come from exotic locations or that are lab-manufactured can be pricey. “Superfoods are often more expensive because they are highly processed into a powder or pill form and travel from around the world to get to your plate,” notes Amanda Barnes, R.D.N., a registered dietitian. And sometimes, you can find the same substances that make those superfoods so beneficial at a much lower price—in foods you commonly see in the grocery store.
Plus, there’s the fact that the marketing around superfoods can be somewhat misleading. “While I don’t diss superfoods in general because they may be dense in healthful nutrients, these foods may not be right for everyone because nutrition is not ‘one size fits all,'” points out Arti Lakhani, M.D., and integrative oncologist with AMITA Health Adventist Medical Center Hinsdale. “Superfoods may only deliver on their promises if consumed in the right quantity, prepared properly, and eaten at the right time. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how well nutrients from these foods are absorbed. Everyone is unique in the way they process the foods that they eat.”
With that in mind, here are some popular superfoods that have been overhyped for their health benefits, either because the research behind them is lacking or because you can get the same nutrients from less expensive, easier-to-find foods. While most of these superfoods aren’t bad for you, nutrition pros say you shouldn’t sweat it if you can’t (or don’t want to!) fit them into your diet. (P.S. Here are more O.G. superfoods one nutritionist says you can also skip.)
“These purple berries are native to South America and have high levels of anthocyanin, which is an antioxidant beneficial for helping lower risk of some cancers,” Weinandy says. Plus, they make for some seriously delicious smoothie bowls. “Although açaí is a superfood, it is hard to find in the U.S. and is expensive. Many products may have it, but in extremely small amounts like juices and yogurts. A better bet is blueberries or any other purple berries like blackberries or black raspberries, all of which are grown in the U.S. and contain the same anthocyanins as açaí berries.”
“Activated charcoal is one of the latest health beverage trends, and you’ll probably find it at your local boutique juice bar,” notes Katrina Trisko, R.D., a registered dietitian based in NYC. (Chrissy Teigen is known to be a fan of activated charcoal cleanses.) “Due to its highly absorbent qualities, charcoal is typically used to manage overdoses or accidental consumption of poisonous chemicals. However, there is no research behind its ability to ‘detoxify’ our system on a daily basis,” Trisko says. We’re born with built-in detoxifiers: our liver and kidneys! “So instead of spending the extra money for this trendy beverage, focus on eating more whole, plant-based meals to support a healthy immune and digestive tract for long-term health benefits,” she suggests.
Raw Cow’s Milk
“This increasingly popular alternative to pasteurized cow’s milk is often said to increase good gut bacteria, strengthen the immune system, and lessen the severity or impact of asthma and allergies,” says Anna Mason, R.D.N., a dietitian and wellness communications consultant. And while there is some limited research that supports these claims, the majority of the research on the topic suggests that pasteurized milk is *just* as healthy as raw milk. “It looks like raw milk doesn’t have a real advantage,” Mason says. Plus, it may not be totally safe to drink. “Without the pasteurization process to kill bad bacteria, raw milk is much more likely to cause many different kinds of food-borne illness. Even from very healthy cows in clean conditions, there is still a risk of food poisoning. So what’s the call? Health benefits: maybe a few. Research consensus: not worth the safety risk.” (BTW, read this before you give up dairy.)
Apple Cider Vinegar
There are many purported health benefits to ACV due to its acetic acid content, according to Paul Salter, R.D., C.S.C.S., a sports nutrition consultant for Renaissance Periodization. Supposedly, it can help regulate blood sugar, improve digestion, reduce consistent bloat, improve immune function, boost skin health—and the list goes on. The only problem? “The blood glucose benefits are shown in diabetics, not healthy populations,” Salter points out. That means we don’t really know if ACV has any positive blood sugar effects on non-diabetics. Plus, “the vast majority of the other benefits are anecdotal with no research to support their claims,” Salter says. Studies done in animals show it may have a small effect on the accumulation of abdominal fat, but until this effect is shown in humans, it’s hard to say whether it’s legit. “Apple cider vinegar is not bad by any means, but the benefits seem to be grossly exaggerated,” Salter concludes. (Not to mention, it may be ruining your teeth.)
“Cultivated throughout history, pomegranates have more recently become popular due to marketing from companies like POM Wonderful,” Dr. Lakhani says. There’s some evidence to suggest that pomegranate juice and extract can reduce oxidative stress and free radical formation, which makes it anti-inflammatory and potentially anti-carcinogenic. “However, the fact is this is all in lab and preliminary animal studies. There is no data in humans, and as you can imagine, many things that work on lab animals don’t have the same effect in human beings,” Dr. Lakhani points out. While pomegranates are definitely good for you in general, fruit juice is high in sugar, which is pro-inflammatory, according to Dr. Lakhani. You can also get the same antioxidant benefits from foods like blueberries, raspberries, and red grapes. “Red cabbage and eggplants also contain anthocyanins and are foods that have a lower glycemic index,” she adds.
“Reported to be healing to the GI tract and a leaky gut, bone broth is made by roasting and simmering animal bones and herbs and other vegetables for 24 to 48 hours,” Weinandy says. “Bone broth is similar to regular broth, but the bones are cracked and the minerals and collagen inside become part of the bone broth mixture.” So far so good. “The issue comes when other things stored inside the bones come out with the nutrients, most notably, lead.” While not all bone broth may contain lead, Weinandy feels it’s better to be safe than sorry. “For this reason, I do not recommend people drink bone broth regularly. Use regular broth, which is a lot cheaper, and eat an overall healthy diet.”
Collage is incredibly buzzy right now. Unfortunately, the research on it doesn’t quite merit the overall excitement about it as a supplement. It’s supposed to improve skin elasticity, bone, and joint health, and even benefit digestive health. “While there are no documented negative side effects, the skin elasticity benefits are not enough, in some studies, to be statistically significant,” Barnes points out. Plus, there’s the fact that “this is a supplement you must take every day for an extended period of time to eventually see the benefits to your body,” Barnes says. “It is very expensive, and most people have enough natural collagen in their bodies that they do not need to also supplement with it.” (Related: Should You Be Adding Collagen to Your Diet?)
These include reishi, cordycepts, and chaga, and they are said to help regulate your adrenal system. “These three varieties of mushroom powders are marketed as immune boosting and anti-inflammatory supplements,” Trisko says. “Going for anywhere between $25 and $50, these supplements also carry a pretty hefty price tag. Mushrooms have traditionally been used in Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic practices, but there is not much solid research on their health effects in humans.” Instead, she recommends stocking your fridge with a variety of colorful, fresh, fruits and vegetables for the week and by cooking with anti-inflammatory (and wallet-friendly) spices such as turmeric, garlic, and ginger.
Green Superfood Powders
You’ve probably seen these in the grocery store and thought, “Why not add this to my smoothies?” But more often than not, these powders have very little health benefit. “Of all superfood trends, this is the one that gets my dietitian heart all riled up,” Mason says. “Many green powders may not be inherently bad, but the trouble is that a fruit and veggie powder is more like a multivitamin made from produce extract than it is like the actual fruit or veggie. Sure, they can claim that they added 50 different kinds of produce to the powder. But it’s just not the same as eating that whole vegetable or whole fruit,” she explains. Why is that? “You’re losing the fiber and a lot of the fresh and natural properties of the produce. Typically, our bodies process, absorb, and utilize the whole food vitamins and minerals more efficiently than artificial and supplemental ones,” Mason says. Bottom line? “Green powders are not a replacement for actual fruits and vegetables. At most, they can be a little boost. If you have a limited budget, don’t spend it on a powder. Research backs whole foods.”
Bulletproof Coffee and MCT Oil
You’ve probably heard about putting butter, coconut oil, and even medium-chain-triglycerides (MCT) oil in your coffee for an added boost. This trend is also known as bulletproof coffee, and it’s advertised to provide “clean energy” and boost cognitive function, Trisko says. “However, there is little research to prove that this type of fat has any long-term health benefits. At the end of the day, you are just as well off drinking a regular cup of coffee with a balanced breakfast of lean proteins and healthy fats, like a slice of whole-grain toast with avocado and an egg fried in olive oil,” she explains. “Opting for a balanced meal with healthy fats and proteins will keep your stomach and mind satisfied to get you through your morning.”