What the Heck are Superfoods and Full Spectrum Supplements?
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4 months ago
Daywalker • 180

What exactly are superfoods as well as “full spectrum” supplements? I have seen them mentioned on FitEyes and on some nutrition product websites, but it’s not clear to me what they are.

dietary-supplements • 118 views
Entering edit mode
4 months ago
david 3.9k

What are superfoods? I have seen them mentioned ... but it’s not clear to me what they are.

I suppose it is a bit hard to nail down whether a particular food is a superfood or not. We have a lot of marketers misusing that term now to sell us stuff. And there is no official guideline for classifying something as a superfood.

One dictionary definition is, "a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.” OK, but then you have to ask, "considered by who...?"

My personal definition has two parts

1) Superfoods are whole foods that pack a high level of nutrients into a relatively low amount of calories. They are nutritionally dense and you can quantitatively rank foods by nutrient density.

2) Superfoods provide specific nutrients that are not abundant in the foods a population commonly eats.

That's closer to a useful definition that could become the basis for a formal classification system for superfoods.

Some commonly cited examples of superfoods are goji berries, chia seeds, hemp seeds, acai berries, ginger, and green tea to name just a few.

Now, consider the brazil nut. One brazil nut provides about 90 mcg of selenium (as well as magnesium, vitamin E and healthy unsaturated fats). The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of selenium for adults (based on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommendations) is a minimum of 55 mcg per day -- yet most adults in the US don't even meet that minimum requirement. Given the widespread selenium deficiency in the population, and the fact that brazil nuts are richer in selenium than any other food, I would say this qualifies them as a superfood.

Eating one brazil nut (maybe two) is often a better choice than taking a selenium supplement. (Just don't overdo it on the brazil nuts because you can consume too much selenium.)

What are “full spectrum” supplements?

Let me answer this by defining what they are not.

Much of modern medicine and modern science is reductionistic. This is the opposite of a systems approach and it is a philosophy that leads to searching for a single active ingredient in a plant compound, for example. Reductionism has many advantages, but we often forget that it also has serious drawbacks and limitations.

Let me share a story about carotenoids. Scientists found that eating a diet rich in carotenoids (think carrots, pumpkin, squash, apricots, spinach, and really all the brightly colored vegetables) reduces the risk of lung cancer. There are hundreds and hundreds of naturally occurring carotenoids in foods. But reductionistic thinking leads one to seek the single active ingredient in these foods that can prevent lung cancer. Well, scientists found their answer - beta carotene. Fortunately, they also thought to study beta carotene in a large scale clinical trial. Guess what? Taking a beta carotene supplement increases your risk of lung cancer if you are a smoker (or even a former smoker). Ooops.

To my knowledge, this finding has not been followed on as well as it should have been. But we do know that all the naturally occurring carotenoids working together (i.e., as they occur naturally in our foods) reduce the risk of lung cancer across the board, while the single isolated molecule, beta-carotene, does not in every case. (Beta-carotene does have its uses, but I prefer a full spectrum carotenoid supplement, even though I have never been a smoker.)

Beta-carotene is an example of something that is not a full spectrum supplement. There's really no reason I can think of that any of us should be taking isolated beta-carotene in our supplements instead of what I would call a full spectrum carotenoid supplement such as Food Carotene 25,000 IU 100 softgels by Solaray.

Here's another example of a supplement that is not full spectrum: curcumin. Curcumin is one molecule isolated from turmeric. (As an aside, turmeric root might fairly be called a superfood.) Whole (i.e, full spectrum) turmeric, on the other hand, contains additional beneficial compounds, including turmerones. In fact, here's a partial list of identified chemicals of interest in turmeric:

germacrone, α-, and β-turmerones (and others), β-bisabolene, α-curcumene, zingiberene, β-sesquiphellandene, bisacurone, curcumenone, dehydrocurdinone, procurcumadiol, bisacumol, curcumenol, isoprocurcumenol, epiprocurecumenol, zedoaronediol, curlone, turmeronols A and B, and many more.

Full spectrum supplements are supplements that contain all (or I would say, at least almost all) of the naturally occurring micronutrients of the source. (Macronutrients and fiber are commonly excluded.) That may not be a perfect definition, but it's a starter.

Western science took a reductionistic approach to turmeric and gave us curcumin -- which I am glad we have. I'm not against isolated single-ingredient nutrients. But they do not generally make their full spectrum sources obsolete, even though much of the scientific establishment would like us to believe otherwise.

Traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda have an interesting approach to using herbal medicines that contrasts with the West.

In Ayurveda, rather than seek to isolate a single ingredient from one plant, the focus is on combining multiple herbs (and other ingredients) in a way that balances the entire formula to enhance its efficacy and reduce its side effects. You end up with an incredibly rich combination of ingredients that is simply too complex for a reductionistic approach to fully comprehend. These are very, very different systems, even though both seek to enhance efficacy and reduce side effects.

I personally appreciate both approaches. I understand the value in curcumin, but I also recognize that we cannot simply claim, as western science often does, that curcumin is "the" active ingredient in turmeric and that by isolating curcumin we improved upon turmeric. No. We have created something different. Curcumin has its uses. But turmeric remains as valuable as it has ever been.

I recently saw a magnesium supplement marketed as "full spectrum." That's ridiculous. Magnesium is one isolated mineral. Even if your product includes magnesium in more than one chemical form, it is simply wrong to call this a full spectrum supplement. It's marketing nonsense.

Here's an article I wrote several years ago:

A Comprehensive Program of Glaucoma Dietary Supplements | FitEyes.com

In it, I ranked the different sources of nutrients (or chemicals) that we can consume. I'll expand on that here:

  1. Junk foods and foods that have a low density of nutrients per calorie
  2. Common or normal foods
  3. Healthy whole foods that have a higher density of nutrients per calorie and/or nutrients that are removed from processed foods.
  4. Actual superfoods consumed as real meals (not simply smoothies, powders, etc.)
  5. Superfood supplements
  6. Food-based supplements (including full spectrum herbs)
  7. Moderately isolated or fractionated nutrients
  8. Nutraceuticals
  9. Pharmaceuticals

Ideally, we would stay in the range of #3 to #7. But some low nutrient foods are almost unavoidable. Also, the benefits of pharmaceuticals are undeniable -- many of us will have our lives saved at some point thanks to pharmaceuticals. Likewise, there are powerful reasons for consuming non-full spectrum nutrients and nutraceuticals. But in the absence of a compelling reason, we should prefer superfoods and full spectrum supplements. Glaucoma, however, is a very compelling reason to also consider nutraceuticals (and pharmaceuticals).


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