The term “superfood” first came about in the early part of the 20th Century as—believe it or not—a strategy to market bananas. According to the University of California Davis, the United Fruit Company used the term to “promote the practicality of bananas as a daily source of cheap, easily digestible nutrition.”
More than 100 years later, superfoods are known as healthy options that consumers can add to their daily diets. Many are promoted as having specific benefits that may help reduce the risk of disease or promote longevity and vitality.
Here’s a glimpse at how popular they are: Between 2011 and 2015, there was a 202 percent increase in the number of new food and drink products launched around the world with the terms “superfood,” “superfruit,” or “super grain” on the labels. In 2015 alone, the U.S. led the charge by hosting the most “super” food and drink launches.
There is no official definition for the term “superfood,” however. Rather, it remains a marketing term to describe foods that are thought to create unique health benefits because of their exceptional nutrient content.
Below, we examine the many ways that the superfood market has grown and changed over the years, and what you need to know when looking for today’s best options. We’ll discuss:
- What are Superfoods?
- What Are the Different Types of Superfoods?
- Newer Categories of Superfoods Related to Climate Change and Health Concerns
- Superfood Powders You Can Add to Anything!
- Superfoods in Beauty Products
- Superfoods You Can Grow Yourself
- What Has Changed About How We Buy Superfoods?
- The COVID-19 Pandemic Made Us More Immune Conscious
- 10 New and Familiar Superfoods You’re Soon to Hear More About
In the absence of an official definition, superfoods are generally viewed as nutrition powerhouses that offer maximum health benefits, often for minimal calories. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, and phytochemicals that are known to contribute to human health, without the high fat and sugar content of unhealthy foods.
Some common examples of superfoods include berries, tea, leafy greens, salmon, nuts and seeds, avocados, and most all vegetables.
- Vitamins and minerals are essential for a healthy diet and help our bodies and minds work as they should.
- Antioxidants are natural molecules found in foods that help neutralize damaging free radicals in our bodies, protecting us from diseases like heart disease and cancer.
- Phytochemicals are substances found in plant-based foods that give the plants their color, flavor, and aroma. Though we’re still learning more about them, from what we know so far, they can support the immune system, protect cells and DNA from damage, reduce inflammation, help regulate hormones, and in some cases, even slow the growth of some cancer cells. Some examples include carotenoids, flavonoids, anthocyanins, lutein and zeaxanthin, and sulforaphane.
- Healthy fats, which some superfoods contain, can help reduce the risk of heart disease while supporting skin health.
Superfoods can be divided into various categories depending on what sort of health benefits they provide, where and when they’re grown, what type of food they are, and what sort of nutrients they deliver. Some examples of common categories include the following:
Fruits and Vegetables
This is the most common superfood category for good reason—all fruits and vegetables are super healthy for you. They’re packed with nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, and the more you can get into your daily diet, the better.
Some superstars in this group have been found to pack a big punch when it comes to antioxidants. These include mushrooms, berries, dark leafy greens, broccoli, kiwis, and asparagus.
Ancient grains such as quinoa, flaxseed, amaranth, and buckwheat have gained new popularity in the past couple of decades because they are considered superfoods. They are rich in fiber, packed with vitamins, and overflowing with protective antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. They can also help reduce inflammation and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Nuts and Seeds
Rich in healthy fats, fiber, and protein, these have been linked to a reduced risk of disease and even longer life in many studies. Good options include walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds.
Herbs and Spices
Long have herbs and spices been used in traditional medicine to cure all sorts of ailments. Today, we know that ginger, garlic, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, oregano, rosemary, basil, and mint all have anti-inflammatory properties that support overall health.
Tea and Coffee
Both of these are rich in antioxidants and have been found to protect against several diseases, including heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even dementia. Tea is also high in catechins, a type of natural plant chemical that helps prevent cellular damage and protect DNA.
We often focus most on plant-based foods when talking about superfoods, but many animal-based foods have received the coveted label as well. Eggs, for example—which were once thought to increase cholesterol—are now known to be super nutritious and low-calorie options great for any diet.
Many dairy foods—particularly yogurt, kefir, and some cheeses—have also been touted as superfoods, particularly when seeking options to help digestion.
Finally, some meats as well, including liver (because it’s so packed with nutrients) and bone broth have received the superfood label. Bone broth is a source of gelatin, which may help ease joint pain, as well as amino acids that can help digestion and reduce inflammation.
Olive oil is often touted as a superfood because of its healthy fats that have long been linked with improved cardiovascular health. It’s also a good source of vitamins E and K and is known to help reduce inflammation. Other oils that are often considered superfoods include hemp oil, coconut oil, chia seed oil, avocado oil, almond oil, and flaxseed oil.
In addition to the basic categories of superfoods listed above, a few other categories have popped up recently in response to our health concerns and our thoughts about climate change.
As climate change continues to be a hot-button issue, many consumers are shunning the idea of purchasing superfoods that have been flown halfway around the world. Choosing those foods that are grown locally—particularly at neighboring farmers’ markets—is not only better for the planet, but often better for our health too.
Check with your local farmers’ markets to find your local items, or consider the more common items that are grown throughout the country, including blueberries, sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, and broccoli.
Choosing your superfoods according to season can also help save resources and benefit the planet. Whereas out-of-season foods take energy to be stored and shipped, in-season foods are often harvested and eaten locally during the natural growing season.
Apples, for example, are naturally grown and harvested during summer and autumn, and eaten in the fall, typically around September and October. Tomatoes grown outside of their season, on the other hand, are usually grown in heated greenhouses that have higher carbon footprints compared to in-season tomatoes grown outside.
Some top superfoods for summer include the following:
- Red bell peppers
- Lemons & limes
Digestive disease continues to rise among Americans. GI Alliance, the nation’s largest and most reputable team of gastroenterology experts, notes that every year, 62 million Americans are diagnosed with a digestive disorder.
In a 2018 study of over 71,000 Americans, researchers found that nearly two-thirds are burdened by digestive symptoms like heartburn/reflux, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
As consumers become more educated about how a healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, they are also seeking more superfoods that help support the digestive system in the hopes that it will help them better resist infection and disease.
In the interest of both improving digestion and boosting the immune system, popular superfoods in this category include:
- Fermented foods high in probiotics, like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and miso.
- Spices like fennel and ginger that have long been used to improve digestion and prevent nausea.
- Fruits with natural digestive enzymes that help break down foods, like papaya and bananas.
- High-fiber foods that keep digestion moving without causing bloating, like beets, squash, carrots, and leafy greens.
Responding to consumer demand for easier and more convenient ways to enjoy superfood nutrition, manufacturers have created a great variety of superfood powders. These are made from dried fruits and vegetables and are presented as mixable alternatives to whole foods. You can add them to your smoothie, salad, yogurt, or even oatmeal, and get a boost of nutrition without the calories.
Superfood powders are popular because:
- They help people get more fruits and vegetables into their daily diets.
- They’re convenient and easy to use for those who are on the go.
- They are easily absorbed and often easier for those with sensitive digestive systems.
According to Grand View Research, the global superfood powders market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6.4 percent from 2020 to 2027. Some of the key benefits are similar to those for superfoods as a whole—boosting immunity, detoxifying the body, and reducing stress.
Berries, seeds, and exotic algae powders remain popular in this category, while the organic superfood powder segment is expected to register the fastest growth over the next few years. Z Natural, for example, launched its Ultimate 25 Superfood Fusion in January 2020, which is a blend of 25 organic superfoods.
Love Beets, as well, launched an innovative line of powders for fitness and health enthusiasts in February 2020. These are made of organic beets with no sugar or additives.
As consumers understand more about what they’re putting on as well as in their bodies, superfoods are now springing up in beauty and cosmetic products.
This trend started a few years ago, but it continues to pick up speed. The movement for “clean” beauty, in particular, has prompted cosmetic manufacturers to create products that tout natural food ingredients that are deemed safer and more beneficial than chemical-based ones.
Brands such as Youth to the People, Tonymoly, and Aveeno are using ingredients like kombucha, oat milk, cherry juice, ginger, and green tea in their skin care products. First Aid Beauty has jumped on the bandwagon with its hydrating Vital Greens Face mist made with kale and spinach.
Elemis released a broccoli-, cucumber-, and rosehip-seed-oil-infused facial elixir named Superfood Facial Oil, while Valentina’s Naturals Superfood Antioxidant Serum is made with acai and pomegranate-seed oils.
Superfoods contain vitamins and nutrients that the skin needs for optimal function and repair, as well as collagen-building amino acids and antioxidants that can help protect from free radical damage. They also have natural anti-inflammatory ingredients that can help tame redness and prevent infection, along with anti-aging nutrients like vitamins C and E.
Stylight Now, which offers insights into the industry, reported that consumers “seem to be discovering newfound appreciation for a range of edible ingredients you would not traditionally associate with beauty.”
Some of those ingredients? Berries, pumpkin, and even goat milk.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused more people to become interested in growing their own food. According to Reuters, people around the world turned to gardening as a “soothing, family-friendly hobby that also eases concerns over food security as lockdowns slow the harvesting and distribution of some crops.”
The trend is likely to continue, with many focused on growing the best of the best—superfoods. If you’d like to try it, check to see which superfoods are likely to grow best in your area. You can check the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder to learn more about what plants can weather your climate, as well as when it’s best to plant and harvest.
No matter where you are, some of the easiest superfoods to grow yourself include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Sunflower seeds
What we know for sure as we examine superfood trends is that consumer interest continues to grow. According to New Hope Network, COVID-19 didn’t affect all retail sectors equally. Some experienced spikes in interest while others plummeted. Superfoods was one of those that spiked, and sales are expected to reach $5.61 billion by 2024.
Google Trends data showed that “superfood,” “best superfoods,” and “superfoods powder” were some of the top keywords searched related to this topic in 2020, with consumers looking most for an energy boost, improved digestion, a general feeling of being healthier, and good taste.
Search interest for “superfood” from 2004 to present; Screenshot via Google Trends
Indeed, consumers are turning more and more to food as medicine, and superfoods figure largely in satisfying that need. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a group of science, food, and technology professionals, reported recently that between May and October 2020, sales of foods and beverages that help control high blood pressure grew by 11 percent, and those linked with diabetes care rose by 14 percent.
Products touting an immunity or botanical/oil claim rose 12 percent for the year, while one-third of adults were more likely to buy food or drink with multiple health benefits.
When considering supplements, consumers wanted those containing dark green vegetables, fiber, antioxidants, probiotics, healthy fats, and superfruits.
Here’s another trend to watch for: more foods than ever are being labeled as superfoods because manufacturers know how much consumers want them.
According to industry forecasts, the superfoods market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.1 percent between now and 2025. Forecasters expect that North America will lead the way. As the process of sourcing and procuring ingredients has become easier worldwide, companies are expected to continue to create new superfood products to entice consumers.
The COVID-19 pandemic had an interesting impact, according to a survey from Pollock Communications and Today’s Dietician. Concerned about getting sick and wanting to boost their immune systems, consumers became more focused on making healthy food and beverage choices.
The top findings from the survey reveal that we can expect a higher focus on those foods that not only support immunity but provide comfort. The updated top 10 superfoods list indicates a move toward more plant-based foods, with green tea jumping from #10 on the 2020 list to #3 on the 2021 list.
Surprisingly, leafy greens like spinach and kale made their debut on the list in 2021. Though long considered superfoods, it seems it took a huge health scare to urge people to eat these foods more often. Fermented foods that boost gut health and promote a strong immune system have also gained more attention, while old standbys like blueberries that are rich in antioxidants remain stars on the list.
The Top 10 Superfoods for 2021
- Fermented foods, like yogurt & kefir
- Green tea
- Exotic fruits, like acai and golden berries
- Seeds, such as chia and hemp
- Spinach and leafy greens
In addition to the list above, there are also some new superfoods that you’re likely to hear about soon. These include the following:
Also called “vegetable confetti,” these are tiny vegetables that pack a powerful nutritional punch. Simply put, they are “baby” vegetables or seedlings of edible plants, picked earlier than usual when leaves are new. Some are up to nine times higher in nutrients than their full-sized counterparts.
In a 2015 study, researchers compared the mineral profile of microgreens with mature lettuces and found that the tiny greens contained more calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, molybdenum, and manganese than the fully mature plants.
You may have seen these sprinkled atop your meal or used as garnishes. Similar to alfalfa and bean sprouts, they are grown just like their full-sized counterparts, just harvested earlier. Whereas only a few could be found a few years ago—arugula, basil, beets, and kale—now there are over 25 varieties you can experiment with.
This is a plant that produces large, edible seeds rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fiber, vitamin E, and other nutrients. It’s native to Peru and is also unusually high in tryptophan, an amino acid essential to the production of the good-mood neurotransmitter serotonin.
Whereas Greek yogurt has been the big player in the yogurt aisles for a while, that may soon change. Skyr yogurt has long been a staple in Iceland, and is similar to Greek yogurt but contains more protein and less sugar. High in calcium, potassium, and zinc, it’s also a little creamier and less sour.
Of course, in addition to the protein and nutrients, it’s got those immune-boosting probiotics too, which is what people are super interested in right now.
It’s been quietly gaining popularity for the past several years, and now, with the renewed interest in the immune-boosting properties of fermented drinks, it’s ready to explode. Check the labels—the best kinds have only a few natural ingredients.
As laws have changed, these nutritious little seeds have grown in popularity. Rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, they also have a lot of vitamins and minerals. Simply sprinkle them on your yogurt, cereal, or salads.
In addition to the seeds, hemp oil is also likely to become more popular in salad dressings and smoothies.
Get ready for this chocolate substitute to make a big comeback as the popularity of plant-based eating continues to gain ground. It’s high in fiber, antioxidants, protein, and important amino acids, and is also gluten-free and caffeine-free. Naturally sweet and low-carb, it is set to “redefine its role as a collagen supportive ingredient for vegetarians,” according to research firm Spoonshot.
You’ll likely find it in flavored coffee, beverages, baked goods, bars, and powders.
This is a fermented form of garlic. It has a sweeter taste, and because it’s fermented, contains those immune-boosting probiotics that help balance the microbiome. Garlic is also high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and has long been linked to good health.
The fermented form, according to some research, may be more potent than the traditional. In a 2017 study, researchers found that it was more bioactive than fresh garlic, meaning that the body may be better able to take it up and use it.
This superfood has been rising on the popularity scale since the early 2000s, but as Americans have continued to look for plant-based sources of protein, it has started to show up in more grocery stores as well as restaurants across the country.
Flatbreads and crusts made from chickpea flour are also likely to become more plentiful in American frozen food sections, while chickpea flour will become a coveted ingredient for consumers looking for healthy, plant-based homemade recipes.
Yes, it’s been a superfood for a while, but it’s going to continue to grow its popularity due to its high nutrient and antioxidant value, high-protein, and gluten-free property.
This is another one that’s not exactly new, but it’s become more available over the previous years as imports have increased fivefold since 2012. They’re high in fiber and antioxidants, deliver high-quality protein, and are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
As more people aim to lead a healthier lifestyle and consume a healthier, more balanced diet, superfoods remain a popular topic of discussion. Superfoods include a variety of nutrient-dense, wholesome foods that allow anyone to obtain the essential vitamins and minerals their bodies need to thrive—and with such an incredible variety of delicious superfoods to choose from, healthy eating never has to be boring.