Behind the Curtain of Super Foods

Behind the Curtain of Super Foods

Behind the Curtain of Super Foods

“Super foods” are much like fictional superheroes of comic books or movies and have real identities behind them: phytochemicals and bioactive compounds.

Indeed, there’s much talk about super foods and how they can be good for your health, but in reality, there’s some fiction there. The term super foods are often linked to marketing because experts say you shouldn’t eat the same type of foods all the time, because that may stop you from getting all your needed nutrients.

In other words, super may be a misnomer.

However, many of the foods named super foods are what we know in day-to-day life: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and some fish. Throw in some herbs in the mix. They are especially beneficial to human health and can reduce the risk of some serious health conditions, with bioactive compounds and phytochemicals the underlying reasons why.

Bioactive compounds are widely incorporated into food products to enhance their sensory properties or to develop their nutritional properties.

Included in these bioactive compounds are phytochemicals (pyto means plant in Greek), which aren’t considered essential nutrients like vitamins or minerals, but important bioactive compounds in the diet. Plants produce several phytochemicals that act as protective mechanisms against insects and extreme temperatures. Put more stressors out there, and more phytochemicals are turned out. They also provide the colors to plants and those delicious – and not so delicious – flavors.

There have been various studies that suggest they may help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and have antioxidant activities. They also may have other impacts such as reducing the risk of atherosclerosis and building up fatty deposits in artery walls.

There are more than 5,000 phytochemicals. Many haven’t yet been identified.

They include:

Carotenoids. These are plant pigments responsible for the yellow, orange and red color of many fruits and vegetables, including red peppers, papayas, paprika, tomatoes and watermelon.  Beta-carotene gives carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes their rich orange pigmentation, with strong anti-oxidants. Lycium barbarum is a traditional Chinese herb that includes carotenoids and has been studied for promising impacts on appetite, weight control, and anti-aging properties.

Lignans are known as phytoestrogens, which are chemicals found in soybeans, flax and sesame seeds, legumes, fruits such as apricots and strawberries, and also oat, barley, rye and wheat.   They are best known for antioxidant properties; studies also show are may help reduce mortality in breast cancer and colon cancer patients. So-called cruciferous vegetables, which contain phytochemicals, also have been studied for their healthful impacts, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts. Berries like blueberries and strawberries have high levels of phytochemicals.  One study showed that women who consumed more blueberries and strawberries had a lower risk of heart attack.

Lycopene is a phytochemical found in tomatoes and linked to protective impacts against cardiovascular diseases and cancer involving the lungs, prostate and stomach. Some studies indicate the scientific evidence is inconclusive.

Omega-3 fatty acids are widely popular and deservedly so for their health benefits, particularly when it comes to the heart.  They are found in fish, flaxseed and dietary supplements such as fish oil. Non-plants such as salmon, a fatty-fish that’s low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, can decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats an slow the growth of plaque in arteries. Pacific herring, which is used in Chinese herbal remedies, are also rich in omega 2.  Various Chinese herbs, such as Cong bai, Chai hu, Xuan shen and Sang shen zi are known as rich in linolenic acid, a precursor to omega-3 fatty acids.  Herbs containing linoleic and linolenic are among the fatty acids found in herbs that are known to exert beneficial medicinal effects, studies show.

Flavonoids are the largest and most studied group of phytochemicals, about 6,000 of them identified. Flavonoids are the most common in the human diet, they’re found in apples, apricots, cherry tomatoes and chives and cranberries, leeks, kale pears, onions, and grapes, and broccoli.   Flavonoids were highlighted in an HCPNow

Some Caution

Ingestion of phytochemicals should be done with caution especially related to Western medications. It is best to check with a healthcare professional.


Processing techniques and their effect on fruit and vegetable phytochemicals L. Howard, University of Arkansas, USA. Retrieved from

7 Amazing Super Foods You Need to Know About. Melissa Meyers.

Science Direct.

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What’s So Super About Super Foods? The American Heart Association.

Super Confused About Super Foods? An Educated Consumer is a Healthy Consumer. Food Insight. 2016.

3 Traditional Chinese Medicine Recommended Super Foods. Bess O’Connor. 2015.

Yasmeen, R, Fukagawa, N, et al. Establishing health benefits of bioactive food components: a basic research scientist’s perspective. Current Opinion in Biotechnology. Volume 44. 2017. 109-114. Doi:org/10.1016/j.copbio.2016.11.016.

Gao, Y, Wu, Y, et al. Lycium Barbarum: A traditional Chinese Herb and a Promising Anti-Aging Agent. 2017.Aging and Disease. 778-791. Doi: 10.14336/AD.2017.0725.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Factsheets. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. 2018. Kyle Norton. 2011.

Science Direct.

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