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What are superfoods, exactly?

You've heard the term applied to lots of things, but what does it take to get superfood status, and what does that really mean?

Amy Sowder / Chowhound
Jen Wheeler Editor / Chowhound
After 10+ years in customer service, Jen is now an editor at Chowhound and still can't believe she's basically living her childhood dream (of writing for Gourmet magazine). Naturally, she loves to eat, cook, read, and write. Baltimore-born and raised, Pacific NW-matured, she still prefers blue crabs to Dungeness.
Jen Wheeler
10 min read

Some so-called superfoods.

Lisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

If you want to eat healthy, you have options: Paleo, keto, Whole30, vegetarian or vegan. However you go, you might as well do it all the way by loading up on superfoods -- never sacrificing taste, of course. But wait, what are superfoods, exactly?

Try these nutritious, spotlight-loving ingredients: matcha, kava, kudzu, seaweed, quinoa, kombucha, chia seeds, goji berries, cacao, kimchi, açaí, miso, moringa and turmeric. They've all had their moment, but just because they may no longer be the "It" ingredient, that doesn't mean they're not still, well, super.

In addition to being packed with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, many of these ingredients are said (some even proven) to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, improve brain function and help fight memory loss, help you lose weight and provide tons of other health benefits. It's no wonder that there are even meal kit services that specialize in superfoods these days, or at least emphasize their inclusion in certain recipes. Even fast food chains have jumped on the bandwagon, with Chick-fil-A offering a Superfood Side salad.

While food trends come and go -- even in the health-food world -- unless you have an allergy or overdo it (everything in moderation, even kale), the bottom line is that you can never go wrong with whole fruits and vegetables, and their friends nuts, seeds and whole grains.

What defines a superfood?

Here's how to tell if you've got a true superfood on your hands:

A superfood is a whole (read: real, unprocessed, in its original form) food with high nutrient density -- providing more bang for your buck. Usually plant-based, superfoods are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

There's no standard criteria or an approved list of superfoods, according to the American Heart Association. For that reason, among others, many nutritionists avoid using the term to prevent unrealistic expectations of protection from chronic diseases. Bottom line: These are not magic substances, but foods that are especially healthy for you, and there are dozens of them.

The best health foods possess three of these four components, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  1. Good or excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
  2. High in phytonutrients and antioxidant compounds, such as vitamins A and E and beta carotene.
  3. May help reduce risk of heart disease and other health conditions.
  4. Readily available.

Superfoods list

The best superfoods are packed with the aforementioned benefits, although some are easier to find than others. While this is by no means a complete list, some of our favorite superfoods are as follows:


Combine fellow superfood beets with avocado for a nutritious and beautiful plate.

  • Açaí: These dark purple berries (nicknamed "purple gold") are harvested from South American palm trees and often end up in smoothie bowls in the form of açaí powder or puree; they're full of fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and even calcium.
  • Almonds: You know 'em, you love 'em, but in addition to tasting great, they're packed with protein, fiber, magnesium and vitamin E.
  • Apples (with skin): Apples of all varieties contain antioxidants quercetin and catechin, polyphenols and fiber -- no wonder they're supposed to keep the doctor away.
  • Avocado: The alligator pear is full of healthy fats and fiber, and famously contain more potassium than bananas.
  • Blueberries (and other berries): Brightly colored berries are rich in antioxidant anthocyanins and phytochemicals called flavonoids.
  • Broccoli: This cruciferous classic is high in vitamins A, C and K and folic acid. (Its cousin, cabbage, is another nutritional powerhouse.)
  • Beans (especially black beans): These legumes provide fiber, protein, antioxidants and iron.
  • Chia Seeds: These tiny seeds pack a huge nutritional punch; they're a "perfect protein" since they contain all nine amino acids, plus fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. And you can use chia in recipes that definitely don't stop at pudding.
  • chia-pudding-recipe-chowhound

    Chia seeds are the basis for countless breakfast bowls.

  • Coconut Oil: While some sources have turned on coconut oil, it remains a popular vegan option for cooking and baking and is high in healthy saturated fats (or at least considered better for you than butter).
  • Collard Greens: Dark, leafy greens like collards not only offer lots of fiber, but calcium, folate and vitamins as well.
  • Dark Chocolate: Thanks to its high amount of antioxidants, dark chocolate can even be considered a superfood, but be sure to choose a high cacao content (at least 70 percent) to get the health benefits.
  • Eggs: While the majority of superfoods are plant-based, some animal products qualify -- take eggs, which are full of proteins, iron, vitamins and contain all nine essential amino acids you need. (That said, it's important to choose eggs that are sustainably produced -- and not all organic eggs are created equal.)
  • egg-sandwich-recipe-chowhound

    A smoked egg sandwich on seeded bread is healthier than mayo-laden egg salad.

  • Flaxseed: Small but mighty, flaxseeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, fiber and antioxidants, and they're easy to incorporate into your diet; try sprinkling a couple teaspoons into your oatmeal or smoothies, onto salads or mixing them into homemade bread and other baked goods.
  • Garlic: The smell isn't the only powerful thing about garlic -- it's also packed with vitamins, antioxidants and manganese, and studies have shown it can help lower cholesterol and even help fight colds.
  • Green Tea: Matcha and other green teas are loaded with polyphenols, a potent antioxidant, as well as alkaloids and L-theanine.
  • Hemp Hearts: Also known as hemp seeds, these won't make you high, but they will contribute to your health, since they're full of protein, healthy fats, amino acids, vitamin E and minerals. You can use them in the same manner as flaxseeds to boost the nutrition of all sorts of dishes.
  • Kale: Love it or hate it, kale is definitely good for you, with lots of potassium, vitamins A and C and antioxidant phytochemicals.
  • kale-apple-salad-recipe-chowhound

    Kale and apple slaw is full of crunch.

  • Kefir: This tangy fermented dairy drink is packed with gut-friendly probiotics, as well as protein and vitamin K2. If you don't want to down a glass on its own, try it as the base of a salad dressing or soup (scroll down for that recipe).
  • Kiwifruit: The fuzzy fruit with a seedy heart of green is good for getting fiber into your diet, as well as folate, tons of vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals.
  • Mushrooms: A newer addition to the superfood group, mushrooms have always been super healthy, if unassuming. They're not plants, so they don't have the phytonutrients of many other superfoods, but they are loaded with fiber, potassium, iron and B vitamins and virtually free of fat and cholesterol. They're a great all-natural meat alternative, or added to all sorts of other dishes, both raw and cooked.
  • Oats: Whether eaten as oatmeal, baked into bread or made into oat milk, these whole grains are full of fiber, magnesium, potassium and phytonutrients.
  • pomegranate-pancake-recipe-chowhound

    Pomegranate-spiked maple syrup tops off healthy whole wheat oat pancakes.

  • Pomegranate: These leathery red fruits with their ruby-jewel seeds (or arils) make the list thanks to their sky-high amounts of antioxidants, which support heart health. The juice -- as long as it's free of added sugar --  is good for you, but the seeds are even better, since they're also high in fiber.
  • Pumpkin: Along with other types of squash and gourds, pumpkin is packed with fiber and vitamins A and C, while being low in fat.
  • Quinoa: This protein-packed grain is also high in potassium, iron and fiber --  plus antioxidants and all nine essential amino acids.
  • Red Wine: OK, this isn't a food, and in immoderate amounts, it's not considered healthy, but red wine does contains potent antioxidants, so go ahead and have a glass or two to wash down your other superfoods!
  • Salmon: Another non-veggie member of the superfood group, salmon is rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and several B vitamins.
  • teriyaki-salmon-recipe-chowhound

    A teriyaki salmon bowl with veggies is even more nutritious over whole grains or cauliflower rice.

  • Seaweed: While raw kelp is the most nutritious, if you're not into seaweed salad, you can use it in dried form to reap its benefits: fiber, polyphenols, carotenoids (another antioxidant), B vitamins and iodine, which the body can't produce on its own.
  • Spinach: Star of countless salads (and botanically related to fellow superfoods beets and quinoa), spinach is not only rich in iron, but in folate and vitamins A and K as well.
  • Sweet Potatoes: These super spuds boast significant amounts of potassium, fiber, vitamin C and B6, manganese and copper.
  • Tomatoes: The jewel of summer, tomatoes are bursting with the antioxidant lycopene, plus fiber, vitamin C and potassium too.
  • Walnuts: Walnuts may help curb cravings, and they're delicious in their own right, but also high in alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that lowers the risk of heart disease.
  • Watercress: While it may be a bit under the radar compared to other greens, spicy watercress tastes great and is high in vitamin K and A, as well as antioxidants.
  • Wheat Germ: This staple of health food stores (and, nutritionally speaking, the best part of wheat, although it's removed during processing) is full of fiber, folate and other B vitamins, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Use it as you would flaxseed and hemp hearts.
  • yogurt-granola-recipe-chowhound

    Top unsweetened yogurt with homemade granola and a drizzle of maple syrup.

  • Yogurt: Yogurt is a great snack and an integral part of many healthy breakfasts, but we're not talking about heavily sweetened, fruit-on-the-bottom versions or the kind that comes with a little pod of mix-ins. Whole, unsweetened yogurt is a great source of calcium, vitamin D and protein, and many also contain probiotics that promote gut health. You can still top it with honey or maple syrup and a little homemade granola (to which you can mix in all kinds of superfood nuts, seeds and dried fruits, and even use whole grains instead of oats).

What are green superfoods?


Green Superfood powder is one more way to add extra nutrients to your diet.


"Green Superfood" is both a brand name and an umbrella term to describe a couple of different things. Actual green superfoods include your standard leafy green vegetables, plus other veggies like avocados, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, as well as things like spirulina, wheatgrass and algae.

However, green superfood powders are also popular additions to smoothies and juice. These supplements are comprised of various greens, plus other fruits and vegetables, and are an easy way to work more of those ingredients into your diet (although consuming them in their whole form, or as minimally altered as possible, is always preferable).

Amazing Grass Green Superfood powder: The popular Green Superfood brand offers several different blends (like a protein-rich vegan chocolate option, and an antioxidant-rich berry-flavored blend), but this one goes heavy on greens and wheatgrass.

Superfood Recipes

Eating a diet comprised largely of superfoods can help you lose weight if that's what you're after, but they're also just great for your overall health -- and taste fantastic. If you need a little assistance, you can jump on the healthy meal kit delivery train and try Sakara and Daily Harvest, which both name-check superfoods in their descriptions and focus on clean eating.

Or, you can hit up your grocery store, sticking to the produce, meat and seafood departments (and avoiding the packaged foods, although if you can't resist temptation, try picking plant-based snacks!), and make these superfood recipes for yourself:

Açaí bowl


Açaí Bowl.


Start your day off right with a superfood smoothie bowl based on açaí berry purée and fresh fruits, and go as wild as you want with the toppings; it's a great chance to pack in even more superfoods like flax and pomegranate seeds. Get our Açaí Bowl recipe.

Superfood salad with salmon

There are countless versions of superfood salads out there (this Twelve Superfoods Salad packs a dozen superfoods into a single bowl), and you could build infinite variations of your own, but this one is especially striking, and the addition of salmon makes it perfect for dinner too. Get the Superfood Salad with Salmon recipe.

Chilled avocado, cucumber and kefir soup 


Chilled avocado, cucumber and kefir soup.

Lauren Volo.

Creamy, crunchy, light, refreshing, satisfying and super healthy -- oh, and you can make it in less than 10 minutes. Yep, this recipe from The Kefir Cookbook by Julie Smolyansky might be the perfect summer lunch (but it's refreshing in winter too when you need a break from heavy meals). Get the Chilled Avocado, Cucumber and Kefir Soup recipe.

Seeded apple bread with honey and thyme


Seeded Apple Bread with Honey and Thyme

Yuki Sugiura

Oats, Greek yogurt, eggs, apples and flaxseeds all figure into this recipe from the Lagom cookbook by Steffi Knowles-Dellner -- and honey is also considered a superfood by many (at least when you use a raw honey). While you might not be able to say the same for the butter, it's not so bad in concert with all these other healthy ingredients. Get the Seeded Apple Bread with Honey and Thyme recipe.

Easy salmon with lemon and capers


Easy Salmon with Lemon and Capers


Marinate the skin-on salmon fillets for about 15 minutes while you chop the shallot, garlic and capers for this easy treatment that yields a tangy, salty savory main meal that will fill you up with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Get our Easy Salmon with Lemon and Capers recipe.

Almond-whole wheat blueberry muffins


Almond-whole wheat blueberry muffins.


Antioxidant rich blueberries get more punch with the fiber and protein of almonds in this healthier version of the classic blueberry muffin. Leave off the streusel if you're cutting down on sugar, and toss in a spoonful of wheat germ if you have it. Get our Almond-Whole Wheat Blueberry Muffins recipe.

Kale and cannellini bean soup

Three superfoods -- kale, beans and garlic -- packed into one brothy bowl provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein to make you, as well as your tastebuds, feel great. Get our Kale and Cannellini Bean Soup recipe.

Spiced pumpkin-oatmeal cookies


Spiced pumpkin-oatmeal cookies.


You could do a lot worse when making cookies. Rolled oats, pumpkin, ginger and cinnamon not only taste good and are full of filling fiber, they're nutrient-rich. Leave off the powdered-sugar glaze if you're cutting down on sugar. Get our Spiced Pumpkin-Oatmeal Cookies recipe.

Broccoli slaw


Broccoli slaw.


This slaw not only has the superfood broccoli, it has purple and green cabbage, Greek yogurt, cranberries and walnuts. The result is creamy, crunchy, tangy and nutty. Get our Broccoli Slaw recipe.

Read more: 8 ways to make healthier coleslaw

Dark chocolate superfood bark

Antioxidant-rich dark chocolate is even better made into a bark with other tasty (and beautiful) superfoods like almonds, goji berries, matcha and bee pollen. Get the Dark Chocolate Superfood Bark recipe.

This story was written by Amy Sowder, updated by Jen Wheeler and originally posted at Chowhound.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.