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Superfruits: The Truth Behind the Hype

The word "Superfruit" is a marketing gold mine. Vitamin and supplement companies have taken the term and worked tirelessly to associate superfruits with healthy living, weight loss and near miraculous benefits.

I'm in the business of getting results. What I want to know is simple.

  1. What exactly is a superfruit?
  2. Are supplements made from superfruits beneficial?
  3. Is there any benefit to eating a superfruit in place of regular fruit?

The first question is easy to answer. A superfruit is anything you want it to be. There are no state or federal laws, no scientific standards and no industry agreement on what can and what cannot be called superfruit. It's nothing more than a marketing word dreamed up by advertising executives. That's why you'll see the term appear on things exotic as goji and açaí or as common as cranberries and blueberries.

The second question is a little more detailed. The primary claim behind most superfruit supplements is that they have high amounts of antioxidants (beta-carotene, vitamin C and E). You're led to believe those antioxidants will suppress the free radicals that cause aging.

A pill that can help keep me young? Sign me up! Unfortunately it doesn't work like that.

After years of medical research, a few simple facts have emerged. In general, antioxidants can be good for you, but taking too much is definitely bad. In fact, the results of people taking antioxidant supplements in clinical trials have almost all been neutral or negative.

In 1997 researchers gave 1,862 men the dietary supplements alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E, 50 mg. a day), beta-carotene (20 mg. a day), both or a placebo. The unlucky participants who took beta-carotene supplementation suffered significantly more deaths from coronary heart disease. Those who took the vitamin E alone also had a greater chance of death than people taking a placebo.

In an even larger study with 18,314 smokers, former smokers and workers exposed to asbestos, researchers tested a combination of beta-carotene (30 mg. a day) and vitamin A (25,000 IU a day) supplements. The trial was terminated after only four years when it was discovered that smokers who took the supplements had a 28% higher incidence of lung cancer and a 17% higher death rate.

The results are crystal clear. Taking antioxidants (from superfruits or otherwise) in supplement form is not a healthy decision.

That doesn't mean you should give up fruit. Eating whole fruits and drinking the juice has been repeatedly shown to be good for you. In fact, dozens of studies and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agree that a healthy diet includes 2-4 servings of fruit every day.

What makes a single serving of fresh fruit?

Fresh Fruit Cut 1/2 cup
Fresh Fruit Berries 3/4 to 1 cup
Fresh Fruit Whole 4 oz. is edible portion
Dried Fruit 2 Tablespoons
100% Fruit Juice 1/2 cup or 4 fluid oz.

To answer my third question, I needed to compare the antioxidant levels of the most popular superfruits to traditional fruits. After all, extremely high levels of antioxidants are the big bonus most superfruit companies claim. Luckily for me, the Australian Consumers Association did that very thing. In 2007 they printed the results in their publication Choice. What they found out was astonishing.

Using a test called the oxygen radical absorbance capacity assay, they tested nearly every superfruit juice available at the time. The results are the total antioxidant capacity or TAC of each product. As a baseline for comparison, they tested a common Red Delicious Apple.

The TAC for the Red Delicious Apple was 5,900.

First up was the goji or wolfberry. Four different goji based juices were tested and the TAC measurements ranged from 570 to 2,025 per serving. All were less than half the common apple.

The two brands of mangosteen didn't fare any better, with TAC measurements of 1,020 and 1,710. Noni superfruit juices came in with miserable TAC measurements of 540 and 525. When the most popular superfruit ingredient açai was tested, the TAC measurement was an underwhelming 1,800.

Common fruits were also tested and a cup of strawberries got a TAC measurement of 5,938. A cup of raspberries got a TAC measurement of 6,058 and a cup of cultivated blueberries topped the list with a staggering TAC of 9,019. So much for the myth that expensive superfruits are the healthy choices. If you're eating exotic superfruits for their antioxidants...you're spending far more than you should to get far less than what common fruits offer.

The bottom line is this. If you're taking superfruits in supplement form you may be putting your health at risk. If you're consuming superfruit drinks for their antioxidants, you're spending up to 100 times more than you need to when compared to more common fruits.

Your best healthy option is to eat an apple a day, pour a cup of blueberries over your morning cereal or cut up some strawberries for dessert.

How can superfruit companies lie?

Read the labels of superfruit drinks and supplements and they claim açai berries have six times and goji berries have ten times the antioxidant capacity of blueberries. That's true...sort of.

The difference is between just the juice and the whole fruit. The part you eat, the edible pulp has very low levels of antioxidants. All the healthy stuff is in the rind you can't eat!

When a company says goji berries have ten times the antioxidant capacity of blueberries, technically they're correct. If you grind up all the parts you can't eat, goji berries would win. But if you only count what you actually eat, blueberries have on average more than nine times the antioxidant capacity of goji berries. Blueberries are cheaper too.

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3/22/2009