Updated 11 July 2016

What are 'superfoods' and am I getting enough nutrients in my diet?

Experts provide clarity on what 'superfoods' are, and how we can ensure we get our recommended daily dose of macro- and micronutrients.


The term "superfood" has become a common concept in our everyday conversations. What makes a super food so super, and do we have to eat these magical foods to stay healthy?

Can we eat a variety of "normal" foods and get similar health benefits? Let's take a closer look to what superfoods are all about, and we'll illustrate that your food doesn’t need to be grown on Peruvian mountain tops to be deemed super. 

All types of food provide our bodies with a variety of nutrients. We classify the nutrients in two groups namely macro- and micronutrients. (1) Macronutrients are nutrients that contribute to the energy value or content of the food and appear in large quantities in foods. (1)

Macro- and micronutrients 

There are 3 macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Micronutrients do not contribute to the energy content of the food and appear in small quantities in foods and are known as vitamins and minerals. Sufficient quantities of macro- and micronutrients are vital for good health. 

Superfoods become super when the food contains so called an abundance of nutrients in large quantities that are deemed good for our health. Let’s compare the popular health claims made for some superfoods and then check how each of these superfoods compares to a "normal" counterpart in relation to their macro and micronutrient composition. 

Health claim:
• Contains more protein than any other grain.
• Good source of magnesium and fibre (more so than other grains). (2)

Quinoa vs Oats (per 100g uncooked) (3)

Conclusion: Per 100g uncooked product, oats beats quinoa in terms of protein and fibre. Oats also contains all 9 essential amino acids in amounts slightly higher than that of quinoa. (3) Quinoa does contain higher amounts of magnesium, but at that price one could rather opt to eat more oats or find an alternative magnesium food source!

Chai seeds
Health claim:
• High in omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFA) (5)

Chia seeds vs Sardines (per 100g dry/ tinned) (3)

Conclusion: Firstly, it is important to note that although we compared chia seeds and sardines by weight, it is unlikely that you will consume 100g of chia seeds but very likely you will eat that amount of sardines (just more than 1 tin).

Read: What’s so 'super' about superfoods?

Omega 3 fats are known as essential fats (meaning your body does not produce it on its own) they comprise of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) found mainly in plant sources like chia seeds. ALA needs to be converted to the active metabolites EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) EPA and DHA are also found in mainly in oily fish, like sardine’s, herring, salmon and mackerel. 

EPA and DHA are widely studied and have been found to be positively linked to improved heart health (especially in those who already suffer from heart disease), brain health, as well as cognitive and visual acuity development in the foetus. While ALA is also an important nutrient, its benefits are not as well known.

ALA is converted to EPA and DHA, but the rate of conversion is low, with only about 5% to 15% of ALA converting to EPA and less than 1% of ALA converting to DHA. Thus, in order to get the proven benefits from omega 3, one should consume sufficient quantities of EPA and DHA which unfortunately is not found in this superfood! (6, 7, 8, 9)

Health claim:
• One of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet (especially high in Vitamins K, C and beta carotene)
• Good source of calcium, magnesium and potassium (10)

Kale vs Spinach (per 100g raw) (3)

Conclusion: Out of all the superfoods in the showdown, it seems like kale lives up to its hype when compared to spinach! It is a great addition to your diet, but unfortunately is not always readily available. Try kale in salads, soups or dried in "chip" form.

It is thus evident by the above comparisons that in order to get the proposed health benefits from food, you can, but do not have to choose foods with the esteemed superfoods title! Good old oats, sardines and spinach are also super foods, just without the hype. If you have any questions ask our dietitians.

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3. USDA food tables: 
4. Prices taken from the Woolworths website on the 18/04/2016: 
6. Vannice G, Rasmussen H. Dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014:114(1):136-153.
7. Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Lancet. 1999:354(9177):447-455.
8. Mozaffarian D. Fish and n-3 fatty acids for the prevention of fatal coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(6):1991S-1996S.
9. Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012:3(1):1-7. 


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