Are These 5 Superfoods Totally Overrated?

Photo: Nadine Greeff

Every few months a health expert seems to uncover a "superfood" that they enthusiastically endorse as the greatest thing ever. Think back to a few years ago to quinoa. Mainstream media and big food companies fervently praised this perfectly fine seed (often confused for a grain). Quinoa is a healthy food, but before long manufacturers capitalized on the trend with quinoa chips and other quinoa-based products that were less than healthy. Inevitably, when this happens, a revolt occurs; a health blogger writes about quinoa’s anti-nutrients, a prominent doctor calls it overrated, and secretly millions of quinoa haters rejoice.

In the end, we all calm down and see quinoa (or whatever) for what it is: a perfectly healthy food or drink that fits into a well-designed diet and lifestyle plan. You’ve probably read similar hype about the following five foods and drinks. Along the way, they may have accrued a little too much hype and an inevitable backlash occurred. So here’s how to enjoy them without subscribing to the hyperbole:

1. Red wine.

Cabernet, merlot, pinot noir—take your pick. Among its purported benefits, the antioxidant resveratrol in red wine can increase HDL levels (your so-called good cholesterol), decrease platelet aggregation, and improve blood vessel function, decreasing your risk for cardiovascular disease. But over-drinking wine or other alcohol can also trigger or exacerbate inflammation, liver toxicity, and heart disease.

So what about those health benefits? Well, to get beneficial amounts of resveratrol, you’d have to drink upward of 1,000 glasses of red daily—which I definitely don't recommend. That said, studies show that among folks who drank red wine daily, health-conscious people got its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other health benefits. In other words, they weren’t just tossing back a few glasses of cabernet, staying sedentary, and diving into cheeseburgers. They used wine as a part of a healthy life. If you imbibe, quantity matters (opt for a glass or two, and call it quits) but so does quality. Cheaply produced wine hasn’t been optimally fermented (that takes time, which costs money), yielding more sugar in that glass of red.

2. Apple cider vinegar.

Photo: Yelena Yemchuk

A powerhouse of polyphenols and other nutrients, apple cider vinegar has been used for medicinal purposes for millennia. Problem is, little science substantiates its health claims. Research shows that for over 2,000 years, vinegar has been used to flavor and preserve foods, heal wounds, fight infections, clean surfaces, and manage diabetes, yet researchers note "much scrutiny surrounds its medicinal use."

Research does, however, substantiate a few benefits. One study found that apple cider vinegar could significantly improve insulin sensitivity, and another found that apple cider vinegar helps slow stomach emptying, helping maintain healthy insulin levels. Apple cider vinegar might even nudge the scales favorably. One recent study found body weight, body mass index (BMI), visceral fat, waist circumference, and serum triglyceride levels were significantly lower for those who used apple cider vinegar daily compared with the placebo group.

Unfortunately, most apple cider vinegar you find in grocery stores is poor quality. One study found massive variation among eight different brands. And researchers found that their labels’ health claims were completely unsubstantiated. Among its problems, processing kills its active constituents. One study compared conventionally pasteurized apple cider vinegar with a raw, organic product. The raw organic one had more polyphenolic compounds, enzymatic strains, and acetic acid. If you struggle with indigestion or acid reflux, want to boost your immune system, or need to maintain healthy insulin levels, you would probably benefit from a few daily tablespoons of raw, unfiltered, organic apple cider vinegar. Just don’t think doing so will magically cure all your health woes.

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3. Kombucha.

Kombucha has been around for thousands of years, and researchers estimated American sales at around $600 million for 2016, with projections for 25 percent annual growth. Along with some nutrients, kombucha contains several strains of probiotics. Regardless, very little scientific evidence is available that validates the beneficial effects of kombucha.

One systematic review even concluded "the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha." the risks referring to the fact that there is no standardized process for making kombucha, and the wrong strains cultivated during the fermentation process could lead to food poisoning. Fermentation could also produce excessive acid formation, creating lactic acidosis. Researchers found that bad strains could create jaundice, nausea, vomiting, and full-blown allergic reactions that stopped in most subjects when they ditched kombucha. In other words, if you get a bad batch—you’re not in for a fun evening.

If you still opt for kombucha, check sugar content (some brands contain too much added sugar) and be ready to show your ID: The fermentation process means some varieties of kombucha contain alcohol.

4. Coconut oil.

"In the 1940s, when farmers wanted to fatten up their livestock, they gave them coconut oil," writes Mark Hyman, M.D., in Eat Fat, Get Thin. "This plan backfired. The animals lost weight and had more energy!" Despite those and other promises, coconut got a bad rep because it’s mostly saturated fat. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) recently resurfaced the coconut-oil-is-bad-for-you theory. Here’s the scoop. Most of that saturated fat comes from medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which your body metabolizes differently from other fatty acids and prefers to utilize for energy rather than store. Furthermore, about half of the fat in coconut comes from lauric acid, which Bowden says your body converts into antiviral, antibacterial monolaurin.

However, this still doesn’t give you permission to go overboard. Extra-virgin coconut oil makes an excellent medium-heat cooking oil, so throw a few tablespoons into your broccoli stir-fry, and you’ll get all the benefits and none of the worry.

5. Bone broth.

Your great-grandparents might have made bone broth, which is simmered for 8 to 24 hours, creating gelatin from collagen-rich joints and releasing trace minerals from bones. Essentially, bone broth is a healthy mineral-and-amino-acid-rich drink or food, yet few scientific studies show specific healthful properties. What's more, there is no single bone broth recipe.

Bones can also sequester the heavy metal lead, potentially contaminating the broth that is supposed to supply so many health benefits. One study looked at lead concentrations in three types of organic chicken broth and found broths contain several times the lead concentration of the water with which the broth is made. Then there are practical problems: Traditional bone broth takes time and effort. If simmering for hours doesn’t fit your schedule (bone broth can be time-consuming), you can find many premade broths online or at your local health food store. As always, read those ingredients.

Remember, too, that most plans combine bone broth with other health-minded endeavors like regular exercise and optimal sleep. In other words, no one food or drink is a "cure-all." But you knew that already.

The American Heart Association declared coconut oil unhealthy, but here's why functional medicine experts disagree.

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