Are Superfoods Really Worth the Hype?

Get the 411 on the trendiest, most hashtagged foods and drinks. Are they worth the cost? Read on to find out.
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Scrolling through your social media feed might tempt you to run out and drop some serious cash on mushroom coffee or an acai bowl, but what among the food porn is just eye candy and what is truly good for you?

The trend cycle of healthy, wholesome foods and drinks is in constant flux, and it’s easy to get duped into buying an overhyped product whose only true power is draining your bank account. Still, hopping on board the trend train is a great way to add variety to your diet and keep healthy eating interesting and fun. Here, we separate the science from the sales pitch and reveal what is worth the splurge — and what isn’t — so you can put your money where your health is.

Iced matcha latte

Iced matcha latte

Splurge: Matcha

Matcha is essentially powdered tea leaves, and its popularity has been slowly picking up steam — with good reason. For starters, it contains a mother lode of antioxidants, including a next-level compound called ECGC, which may help ward off certain cancers and bolster bone strength. One study found that — since you’re consuming the entire tea leaf — matcha contains up to 137 times more antioxidant firepower than typical green tea.

Matcha has a bigger caffeine kick than black tea (but still less than coffee), and a study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that the combination of ECGC and caffeine in matcha may amp fat burning during exercise. Plus, matcha’s smooth, grassy taste is strangely habit-forming. Just be cautious when ordering commercially made matcha lattes because many include hidden sugary ingredients, like flavored milks or syrups.

Matcha powder

Made from the youngest tea leaves, ceremonial matcha is considered the highest grade available and should be consumed as a brewed tea. Less pricey culinary matcha is still high-quality but is better suited for use in smoothies, yogurt and even salad dressings.

Skip: Bone Broth

Hollywood A-listers and Paleo proponents are guzzling it back, but you may want to hold off on buying into the big-bucks brouhaha. Processed by slowly simmering animal bones and connective tissues, bone broth is hyped as a great source of collagen, which is a building block for bones, tendons, ligaments, nails and skin. It makes sense that drinking it means you’ll get stronger joints, less brittle nails and glowing skin, right? Perhaps. The jury is still out on the hard facts because as of yet, there is no real research that supports the idea that consuming extra collagen via broth is a free pass to the fountain of youth.

“Our bodies already synthesize ample collagen from the amino acids consumed via dietary protein sources like chicken and beef,” says Jennifer O’Donell-Giles, MS, RDN, CSSD, a board-certified sports dietitian. “Therefore, if a person is eating enough protein, they are already making enough collagen and don’t need to get more from expensive bone broth.” What’s more, your digestive tract breaks down the collagen found in broth into individual amino acids instead of absorbing it whole.

That being said, the total protein per cup of bone broth is upward of 10 grams, and the naturally occurring electrolytes could make it a helpful recovery aid after a sweaty workout. “But bone broth is not a complete protein source and is therefore not the best form of protein for rebuilding muscle tissue,” O’Donell-Giles adds. Plus, it’s expensive and is probably not as good — or affordable — as your standard protein shake.

Kefir

Though it is typically made from dairy milk, kefir is also produced using nondairy alternatives such as coconut and rice milks.

Splurge: Kefir

Not quite yogurt and not quite milk, kefir is a cultured, fermented beverage with a creamy-tart taste similar to yogurt. However, kefir contains more strains of probiotics and greater numbers of live and active cultures than yogurt, and because these bacteria play a big role in maintaining immune health, reducing inflammation and protecting your heart and brain, kefir is worth a buck or two.

“It also includes high amounts of protein and bone-supporting nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D,” O’Donell-Giles says. The probiotics in kefir also break down lactose, which may make it easier to digest — good news if your tummy isn’t chummy with dairy. Remember, though, to keep your added sugar intake in check and to choose plain kefir products over flavored ones.

Low-calorie ice cream

Low-calorie ice cream

Skip: Low-Calorie Ice Cream

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and this is the case with low-cal ice cream. The core ingredients tend to be skim milk, milk-protein derivatives and sugar alternatives like erythritol, which work in tandem to slash ice cream calories down to about 300 to 360 per pint. But that comes with a cost.

“The risk here is that since they consider it guilt-free and healthier, people eat the entire pint in one sitting,” O’Donell-Giles says. She adds that while the low-fat label sounds appealing for physique purposes, in the end, the product is much less satiating and also can contribute to overindulging and caloric excess. The research backs this, as well, and one study found that when foods were marketed as low-fat, subjects ate up to 50 percent more than when no claim about its fat content was made.

These slimmed-down treats are also sweetened with zero- or low-calorie sweeteners, but research in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that sugar alternatives are not tied to long-term weight-loss success, and in many people, it can lead to gastrointestinal distress (read: bloating, gas and diarrhea).

So if you’re craving ice cream, find a way to fit a serving of the real stuff into your daily calorie allotment. You’ll save your belly and bank account some abuse.

Sourdough bread

Sourdough bread

Splurge: Sourdough Bread

Any way you slice it, there’s power in the sour. The quintessential tang of sourdough hails from the old-school baking method of using a bacteria-rich starter to initiate fermentation. This process creates taste-boosting compounds and decreases the impact of the bread on blood sugar levels. This in turn increases satiety, prevents energy crashes and makes it easier to hold onto your abs.

Word of warning: Don’t fall for supermarket sourdough impostors, which typically add ingredients such as ascorbic acid or vinegar to give the product a sour taste. Your best bet for the authentic stuff comes from independent local bakeries that often employ longer fermentation periods using just a starter culture for greater health perks. It will set you back a few extra bucks, but it is worth it.

Slice of sourdough bread

Want a little more nutritional oomph? Try a sourdough made with whole-grain flour such as rye or spelt, or one made with a heritage grain such as einkorn.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil contains 90 percent saturated fat, as compared to butter, which contains just 65 percent.

Skip: Coconut Oil

The health hoopla surrounding this tropical oil continues to swell, but this is a classic case in which the sales pitch has drowned out the actual science. Proponents claim that coconut oil has fat-zapping powers because of the presence of medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat that is more likely to be burned off as energy than stored as body fat. But most of the research cited in favor of coconut oil has been done on pure forms of MCT, and since less than 20 percent of the fat in coconut oil is MCT, this becomes problematic. Moreover, it’s a stretch to assume that adding spoonfuls of coconut oil to smoothies and coffee will have much of a fat-loss benefit, and in fact, at 116 calories per tablespoon, you will more likely gain weight than lose it with a heavy-handed pour.

The American Heart Association advises moderation when consuming coconut oil because it contains sky-high levels of saturated fat, which is bad for heart health: One study found that replacing 5 percent of saturated fat from sources like coconut oil with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat from sources like nuts, olive oil and fatty fish can markedly slash heart disease risk. And other research suggests that coconut oil raises both good and bad cholesterol, and at best, it may have a neutral impact on heart health.

Bottom line: If you like the flavor of coconut oil, go ahead and use it sparingly for cooking and baking. Just don’t make it your go-to fat or depend on it to bulletproof your health — or your coffee.

Bean pasta dish

Bean pasta dish

Splurge: Bean Pasta

It may make Italian grandmas cringe, but pasta made with beans and lentils is a worthy contender for your next noodle night. Brands like Banza that are made with chickpea, lentil and other legume flours typically deliver twice as much protein and three times more fiber than pasta made with wheat flour, making them more physique-friendly. A review of studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating more pulses, including beans and lentils, could mean easier weight loss and more body-fat shed, even when you’re not restricting calories.

“The extra protein and fiber in this style of pasta can make it easier to regulate blood sugar and overall hunger levels,” O’Donell-Giles says. More reason to pour your marinara over bean pasta: Research shows that a higher intake of legumes is linked to a lower risk for early mortality, including death from heart disease.

Bean pasta raw

No more sticky, starchy clumps: Companies have worked hard to improve the flavor and texture of their bean products to closely replicate even the best of pastas.

Celery juice

Celery juice

Skip: Celery Juice

Celery juice is the new queen of green, and self-proclaimed health gurus are bombarding social media with claims that it can fortify your health by decreasing inflammation, detoxing the liver, chiseling killer abs and improving digestion. Not to say that celery juice is completely useless — it may contain a few nutrients such as vitamin K, potassium and magnesium — but before you choke back an expensive, bitter glass of the stuff, know that it stands on shaky scientific claims, most notably the notion that it can solve your deepest-seated anxieties.

Furthermore, juicing vegetables in general doesn’t make them any healthier, and in fact, it does the opposite, removing all the beneficial dietary fiber when you sip celery through a straw. A huge study commissioned by the World Health Organization found that women who eat at least 25 grams of fiber a day benefit from a lower risk for some of the biggest killers, like heart disease and breast cancer. “To nail your daily fiber needs, you should have more vegetables on your plate and not in your glass,” O’Donell-Giles explains. Besides, celery sticks dipped in hummus is a much more appetizing (and significantly cheaper!) snack.

Also Trending...

Many other foods are having a moment. Here are some that are “maybes” on the list of hype or hero.

CBD Energy Bars

Sales of cannabidoil-laced foods and drinks are skyrocketing, and CBD is reputed to help with everything from reducing postworkout inflammation to improving sleep — all without the side effects of toking up. But the science is not fully in as to its solid benefits and is a long way from validating the marketing speak, and the bars are expensive to, say the least.

Oat Milk

This is a less-watery counterpart to other nut milks such as almond, and it’s a decent source of cholesterol-busting soluble fiber. But oat milk only has a third of the protein found in dairy milk, so it’s a toss-up in terms of benefits, depending on your dietary needs. If you want to give it a go, however, look for unsweetened products to keep added sugar at bay.

Kimchi

This fermented cabbage can add a fiery kick and a dose of probiotics to tacos and burgers. Still, its funky smell and flavor could be a deterrent, and you may want to stick with your daily yogurt for the same bacterial benefits without the stink.

Kombucha

This fizzy drink is essentially a fermented tea that is rich with beneficial gut bugs. However, kombucha can be an acquired taste, and many brands try to cover its natural tang with a heavy dose of sugar, so read labels carefully before investing your four bucks in a beverage.

Riced Veggies

Pulverized veggies like cauliflower are now widely found in the frozen food section of most grocery stores and are a great way to trim calories and sneak in more servings of vegetables when used in place of starchy sides like rice. But if you’re training hard, the quality carbs in rice give your muscles the energy boost they need for recovery and growth, so weigh the pluses and minuses of your get-fit goals before abandoning regular rice for good.

Golden Milk

This milk gets its slightly pungent smell and somewhat shocking color from turmeric, a spice that contains an anti-inflammatory compound called curcumin, which is also reputed to help with digestive ailments such as leaky gut and irritable bowel syndrome. Still, it’s unclear if a manufactured milk contains enough curcumin to bring forth any health benefits, so you’re probably better off sprinkling the spice into your meals and smoothies to save a bundle on dubious drinks.

Coconut Yogurt

For those who are dairy-sensitive, this can be a decent probiotic alternative to regular yogurt. But it is higher in saturated fat and much lower in protein than traditional yogurt, so unless you’re in dire need of a probiotic dose, skip it to save some cash.

Date Syrup

While it retains some of the nutrients found in whole dates — such as fiber, potassium and calcium — this syrup is still a concentrated source of sugar and should be used sparingly in place of things like honey or maple syrup.