The first thing to be said about superfoods is that they don't have an actual scientific definition, and that there aren't any established rules pertaining to how they are classified as such.
In general superfoods are thought of as any foods thought to contain high levels of vitamins, minerals antioxidants and the like without many negative properties such as high sugar or fat content. Using a broad enough definition however nearly all foods could be portrayed a superfoods in the right light, with all fruits and vegetables and most lean meats technically falling into this category.
When most people think of superfoods however they tend not to think of commonly consumed items but rather obscure or previously unheard of foods that have somehow been kept secret from most of the world while providing enormous health benefits to indigenous peoples.
Phytochemicals and Antioxidants
One of the most common claims made about most superfoods is that they contain high amounts of antioxidants and phytochemicals, although most people don't tend to know either what these are or why they are potentially beneficial.
Antioxidants are basically molecules that inhibit the oxidation process, which in its simplest terms is a chemical reaction whereby electrons and or hydrogen atoms are removed from a substance. The left over chemical parts of the substance after this has happened are known as free radicals. Some of these free radicals can then react with DNA potentially causing cell damage and a leading to a wide range of diseases and cancers. Of course this is only an extremely basic overview and not all free radicals are necessarily bad for health.
Phytochemicals is a rather more broad term meaning simply chemical compounds present in plants. While there is a distinct lack of scientific research on most of these compounds, some are thought to inhibit cancers and the like and a few are being used in clinical trials as treatments for a variety of diseases.
Are Superfoods as good as advertised?
Given that the term superfoods is so vague and doesn't have any specific basis in science, are superfoods really all that they're cracked up to be?
Certainly a lot of what is written about superfoods with regards to promoting their supposed effects is spurious at best and is usually always geared towards driving up sales. Also in many cases even the benefits that do exist in these often exotic ingredients can tend to be lost through cooking or buying pre-prepared and preserved versions of these foods anyway.
There is extensive ongoing research into many so called superfoods and undoubtedly many do offer real health benefits if prepared and consumed correctly. For the time being however the jury must remain out on the vast majority of these foods and ingredients, and any marketing associated with them should always be taken with a pinch of salt.
Studies that have shown benefits of any one particular type of superfood, vitamin, mineral or other substance are often contradicted by other studies. Similarly many of these studies are funded by manufacturers of the foods themselves, taking away any credibility of the findings anyway.
Eating a balanced diet should almost be first and foremost before anything else including the inclusion of vast quantities of superfoods, which generally contain much the same nutritional value as other foods generally thought to be healthy for us.