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What makes a super food?

There’s no scientific definition of ‘super foods’ — it’s just an informal category of foods that are particularly high in health benefits. All vegetables are good but in a contest between iceberg lettuce and spinach, for instance, spinach would be the victor. Both vegetables have vitamin C and fibre, but spinach has more nutrients such as vitamin B9 (folate) and antioxidants including lutein and zeaxanthin which may help prevent vision loss from macular degeneration as we age.

But some super foods get all the praise when there are other foods that are equally nutritious but often less expensive. Some super foods to put on your shopping list include:

Avocado Avocados provide B vitamins, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and eye-healthy lutein plus monosaturated fats that are good for the heart.
Black beans and red kidney beans Black beans and red kidney beans offer a good source of antioxidants, the food substances that help protect cells against chronic disease, plus they’re high in protein and low GI. Apart from being rich in nutrients and cholesterol-lowering properties, these foods are also easy on the budget.
Blueberries, apples and prunes Yummy blueberries are rich in antioxidants. According to a US Department of Agriculture study, red delicious apples, raisins and prunes are also high in antioxidant score; these fruits are less expensive too. The ‘eat the rainbow’ rule suggests eating a broad mix of different-coloured fruit (berries included) to scoop up a good mix of antioxidants and other nutrients. Frozen berries can be a good option and often cost less than fresh ones in the off seasons.
Broccoli Broccoli has a cancer fighting reputation, as do other vegetables in the same cruciferous (cabbage) family group as broccoli. These include Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and many Asian greens.
Citrus fruit Citrus fruits are famous for their vitamin C content but this is not their only benefit. Citrus fruits are also a good source of vitamin B9 (folate), fibre and a range of protective antioxidants such as limonene and coumarin. These antioxidants are found in the citrus peel and are thought to help protect cells from free radical damage.
Goji berries, acai or apples? Although goji berries and acai fruits may be high in antioxidants, they may not be better than other less costly foods. When the consumer organisation Choice tested some juices made from these fruits, their antioxidant score was lower than a red delicious apple.
Linseeds Linseed is often included as a super food for its omega-3 fats and cholesterol-lowering fibre content. It also contains lignans which are plant hormones that may reduce the risk of some cancers. Tip: if you add ground linseed to cereal, it’s best to freshly grind your own rather than buying pre-ground as the healthy fat found in pre-ground linseeds can turn rancid very quickly. An inexpensive coffee grinder does the job in seconds. Try storing your ground linseed in the fridge.
Mushrooms Mushrooms are a delicious, low-kilojoule food that delivers B vitamins plus fibre. Emerging evidence as discussed in a recent paper in Experimental Biology and Medicine suggests some of the more exotic mushrooms such as oyster, shiitake and enoki may even boost immunity — but more research needs to be done.
Salmon Famous for omega-3 fats that help keep arteries healthier, salmon is an excellent food. Try for at least two serves of oily fish weekly.
Traditional rolled oats Traditional rolled oats are a great source of fibre and cholesterol lowering beta-glucan. They also have a low GI (glycemic Index) rating — this means they help keep hunger pangs at bay and blood sugar levels healthy too.
Walnuts Walnuts are one of a few plant foods providing omega-3 fats. But don’t limit yourself to just walnuts. Eating a variety of different nuts will deliver a broader range of nutrients. For example, almonds provide extra calcium while Brazil nuts have selenium, an antioxidant thought to be cancer-protective. A handful of unsalted nuts daily can help keep cholesterol levels healthy.

Further information

Mayo Clinic: 10 great health foods for eating well

The Glycemic index


Borchers AT Krishnamurthy A Keen CL et al. The immunobiology of mushrooms. Experimental biology and medicine. 2008; 233: 259–276.

Choice. Superfruit juices review and compare. [online] Marrickville, NSW: Choice. c2009 [last updated 16 Aug 2007, accessed 13 Aug 2010] Available from:

Foodwatch. Super foods – making each mouthful count. [online] Lindfield, NSW: Catherine Saxelby. c1999-2010 [accessed 13 Aug 2010] Available from:

Steinmetz KA Potter JD. Vegetables, fruit and cancer prevention: a review. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1996; 96(10): 1027-1039.

Winston JC. Phytochemicals – guardians of our health. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1997; 97(Suppl1): S199-S204.

Wu X Beecher GR Holder JM et al. Lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the United States. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2004; 52(12): 4026–4037.

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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Last published 31 October 2010