Superfoods. The term is tossed around a lot these days, used to describe a number of common foods, including blueberries and chocolate. But what exactly is a superfood, and how important are they to your diet and your overall health?

Are they super enough to erase the potential damage of fast food and little exercise? Will they stop or slow the aging process? Will they prevent heart attacks or cancer? The answers to these questions are a bit more complex than a simple yes or no. Read on for more information.

Superfood Defined

According to an article from the American Heart Association (AHA), there’s no standard criteria used to define a superfood, nor has anyone created a master list as to which foods are superfoods. In fact, the word has been so heavily used in marketing that most nutrition experts avoid it all together.

However, for curiosity’s sake, when speaking of superfoods to incorporate into your diet, the AHA looks to those that provide essential vitamins and nutrients, in addition to some that also provide phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are chemicals found in plants that can aid in preventing fatty deposits from building up in the arteries.

The AHA notes that many American diets are lacking in potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D, which can be found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, milk, and milk products. Some foods that the AHA recommends due to their health benefits include salmon, which is low in saturated fat and high in omega-3s; berries such as blueberries or strawberries that contain flavonoids, which are among the above-mentioned phytochemicals; nuts, legumes, and seeds in moderation, for their high protein content and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated (healthier) fats; and kale, which is high in vitamins A and C, potassium and phytochemicals.

Buyer Beware

Live Science reports that even those foods that are good for you are often not all that the term “superfood” touts them to be. For example, green tea is known to contain antioxidants. However, according to the article, the green tea that is often sold in the United States is often mixed with inferior teas and brewed with sugar.

Sugar is often added to drinks that are marketed as “super juices” — including acai berry, and pomegranate. Breads which are said to be made of “whole grains” (another ingredient often listed as a superfood) are so processed that they can spike blood sugar levels. Even fruits that contain no added sugar do contain calories, meaning that eating them in unlimited quantities isn’t necessarily the best idea if one is looking to lose weight.

Can Superfoods Prevent Cancer?

According to research, there are no studies that definitively show that consumption of a certain food will prevent cancer. Unfortunately, the researchers found, a number of foods are touted by marketers as being “miracle foods” for their ability to prevent disease, including red onions and sea bass. In reality, the amount of studies on superfoods is scant and the results of food benefits are often skewed by factors such as how the food was prepared, what other foods the study subjects were consuming, varying genetic factors with the study subjects, and the simple fact that cancer is a disease with a long onset, which often makes it very difficult to determine exactly what caused or prevented it.

The Bottom Line

As stated by the AHA, Live Science, and research, an individual’s diet is one part of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. Eating one food that is really good for you isn’t helpful if the rest of your diet is not. And even when it comes to superfoods, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

For example, the AHA concedes that dark chocolate contains bioactive compounds that may provide health benefits, but it also has ingredients such as sugar and fat that are not. Red wine also is said to have health benefits, but the AHA still recommends that it be consumed sparingly, as the alcohol content and calories pose negative effects on health.

When it comes to foods, even superfoods, moderation is key, and a variety of foods – each providing different benefits – is best.