‘Super foods’ are foods that are – well you guessed it – SUPER! This term is often used to refer to foods that provide unusually high quantities of vitamins and/or minerals, or that are known to be particularly high in phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are plant substances that are not considered essential for our health, but may be highly beneficial or have a specific effect on the way the body works. Phytonutrients often act as antioxidants, helping to protect us our cells against oxidative damage from free radicals.
‘Super foods’ found in supplements / as powders
Here are some of the super foods that you may come across in supplement form.
- Micro-algae such as spirulina and chlorella
Chlorella is a single-celled green algae that has been popular as a food in Japan and Taiwan.  Chlorella is rich in vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamin D, folate and manganese. It can provide up to 5mg of iron in just a single 3 gram serving of chlorella – that’s 35% of our recommended daily intake! Chlorella also contains a specific substance known as ‘chlorella growth factor’ – a combination of amino acids, peptides, vitamins, sugars, and nucleic acids – that may be supportive for the immune system and for promoting growth.
Spirulina is a single-celled blue-green algae. Although it has many properties in common with chlorella, it can be richer in different nutrients. Both algae contain a high percentage of protein, but spirulina is higher, at around 65% protein versus around 50% in chlorella. It provides GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), a beneficial omega-6 fatty acid, and good amounts of beta-carotene, which our body can used to make vitamin A. Spirulina and other blue-green algae also contain a unique pigment called phycocyanin that may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects .
- Grasses such as wheat grass and barley grass
These are nutrient-rich grasses that are grown from sprouted grains. They are known as a source of antioxidants  including flavonoids, and are said to contain significant levels of the enzyme superoxide dismutase  – a vitally important antioxidant enzyme that we make in our bodies. Wheat grass in particular is often offered at juice bars to give a nutritional and energy ‘boost’ to your juice or smoothie. In supplement form, they can be found on their own as juices or powders, and are commonly found together with spirulina and chlorella ‘super greens’ powders.
Most juiced and powdered wheat grass and barley grass do not contain gluten and should not cause problems for those sensitive to the grains.
- Berries or berry extracts, such as goji berry, acai berry, blueberry, blackberry or rosehip.
Berries are known as a super food primarily thanks to their content of phytonutrients such as quercetin, catechins, resveratrol, and anthocyanins – the pigments responsible for their brilliant red, blue and purple colours. These various substances – anthocyanins in particular – have been found to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects [7,8,9]. Rose hip is a fantastic source of vitamin C, too.
- Green vegetables such as kale, broccoli, watercress and spinach
Green leafy vegetables are among the most nutrient-dense commonly eaten plant foods. For example, 100g of kale (about half an average bag) can provide 1.5 times our recommended intake of vitamin C, loads of vitamin K, and enough beta carotene for our body to make all the vitamin A it needs for one day too. It can also be good source of calcium, potassium and manganese. Broccoli is even richer in vitamin C than kale, and is also one of our best sources of folate (folic acid, a B vitamin).
As well as providing vitamins and minerals, some of these vegetables – especially those in the ‘brassica’ vegetable family (all the above except for spinach) – contain a specific group of phytonutrients called glucosinolates. These substances are reported to have potent antioxidant and protective effects for our body’s cells. In addition, dark green vegetables are a particularly good source of a type of carotenoid called lutein, that is thought to be protective of eye health.
- Herbs we can use as food such as dandelion leaf, nettle leaf and parsley.
These herbs have a similar vitamin and mineral profile to other dark leafy greens such as kale, but can be even richer in nutrients: parsley, for example, contains more vitamin C, folate, iron and magnesium than kale weight for weight. These three herbs have been widely studied for their ‘medicinal’ benefits that go beyond their vitamin and mineral content. All three have been found to have diuretic properties  – this means they can help to promote the flow of urine, alleviating water retention, normalising blood pressure and supporting a healthy urinary tract. All three are also said to have anti-inflammatory activity, with nettle and parsley in particular having anti-allergenic/histamine-lowering effects .
- Other nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables such as lucuma, baobab or beetroot.
Baobab powder is made from the fruit of the Baobab tree, known in Africa as the ‘Tree of Life’. Baobab has become a popular choice for adding to juices and smoothies, because as well as being rich in vitamins and minerals including vitamin C and calcium, it also tastes delicious!
Lucuma is a fruit that is popular in Peru. Powdered lucuma is said to be a good source of B vitamins, and minerals including iron and potassium. It is often used to provide natural sweetness to ‘super food’ powders.
Beetroot is a great source of folate (folic acid) that helps to build the blood, as well as manganese, which supports our bone health and acts as an antioxidant. Beetroot is also rich in substances called nitrates: when absorbed, nitrates help our body to make a vital chemical called nitric oxide, which encourages normal dilation of the blood vessels and flexibility of the arteries; beetroot may therefore help to maintain a healthy blood pressure. Beetroot owes its amazing colour to pigments called betalains. Like anthocyanin pigments found in berries, betalains are thought to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Specific types of mushroom have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. These include reishi, maitake, shiitake, agaricus and cordyceps mushrooms. Each has a variety of potential health benefits. Many of them have been found to have immune-supporting activity [15,16,17,18], and reishi in particular to have anti-inflammatory properties . Cordyceps in particular may be supportive for energy and stamina and general well-being. 
Let’s save the best till last! Cacao is cocoa in its raw, unprocessed form – and without all the added sugar. It’s rich in minerals including magnesium, which is often lacking in our food supply, as well as potassium and even iron. Cacao also contains lots of flavonoids that can act as antioxidants – in fact one study found that cacao (as dark chocolate) can contain up to four times the antioxidants found in tea. It also contains a natural chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA), a neurotransmitter that’s released by our nerve cells at moments of ‘emotional euphoria’ including feelings of love and pleasure.
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- Sunchlorella.co.uk, (2015). Nutritional Information – Sun Chlorella. [online] Available at: https://www.sunchlorella.co.uk/products/nutrition-benefits [Accessed 23 Oct. 2015].
- Kent M et al. Nutritional Evaluation of Australian Microalgae as Potential Human Health Supplements. PLoS One. 2015; 10(2): e0118985.
- Romay C, Ledón N, González R. Further studies on anti-inflammatory activity of phycocyanin in some animal models of inflammation. Inflamm Res. 1998 Aug;47(8):334-8.
- Durairaj V et al. Phytochemical screening and analysis of antioxidant properties of aqueous extract of wheatgrass. Asian Pac J Trop Med. 2014 Sep;7S1:S398-404. doi: 10.1016/S1995-7645(14)60265-0.
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- Wang Y et al. The protective effects of berry-derived anthocyanins against visible light-induced damage in human retinal pigment epithelial cells. J Sci Food Agric. 2015 Mar 30;95(5):936-44. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.6765.
- Lee SG et al. Berry anthocyanins suppress the expression and secretion of proinflammatory mediators in macrophages by inhibiting nuclear translocation of NF-κB independent of NRF2-mediated mechanism. J Nutr Biochem. 2014 Apr;25(4):404-11.
- Dias MM et al. Anti-inflammatory activity of polyphenolics from açai (Euterpe oleracea Martius) in intestinal myofibroblasts CCD-18Co cells. Food Funct. 2015 Oct 7;6(10):3249-56. doi: 10.1039/c5fo00278h.
- Francisco M et al. Simultaneous identification of glucosinolates and phenolic compounds in a representative collection of vegetable Brassica rapa. J Chromatogr A. 2009 Sep 18;1216(38):6611-9. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2009.07.055.
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