Updated: 2019, Aug 2

Functional Foods: Demystifying Myths & Facts Of Trending Super-Foods

Functional Foods

Supermarkets, Smoothie Bars, Juicing, Health Food Stores, Commercials, Social Media, Recipe Books, Radio Shows…the list goes on. The consumer market is inundated with claims on “miracle health foods” and alternative ways to promote nutrition, health, and overall well-being. But how do you know what claims are true? Today’s most common “Super Food” myths and facts will be de-bunked to give you a clearer picture of what to expect, and potential health implications for you.


A powerful adaptogenic (stress-reducing) herb used commonly in Ayurveda and Indian medicine; this root often comes in powdered form for consumers. Touted benefits of this herb include improving reaction to stressful situations, enhancing brain function and improving memory[1].


“I’ve heard this herb can increase my muscle mass, is that true?”


In a study performed on healthy, active men ashwagandha taken twice daily along with resistance training was shown to produce increases in strength compared to the control group that was not receiving the supplement [1]. It is important to note that this study was completed in already active individuals.

Therefore, it is difficult to determine causality from the herb or from the exercise alone in addition to other physical factors on an individual basis. Recent animal trials, ashwagandha proved effective in improving the overall stamina and endurance of rats in a swimming test and well as reducing levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the rats during the swimming task[2].

Many people use ashwagandha in conjunction with other ayurvedic foods such as collagen, including in a warm tea-like beverage. Although it may have stress-relieving benefits, it is important to check with your primary care doctor to ensure that the herb will not interact with any medications that you may be taking or if you are breastfeeding.



Antioxidant packed berries, known to be one of the richest sources of antioxidants, and it is also a viable source of fiber. Many people in the United States look to this berry for it’s supposed weight-loss benefits as well as free-radical grabbing powers, said to reduce the implications of aging[3].


“All acai is the same, if I add it to something, I am bound to see results”


False. Not all Acai is created equal. Many products have added sugars that you would never be able to discern unless you read the label, or asked. Recent news headlines have been discussing this phenomenon at length, stating that the restaurants you are ordering acai bowls from may, in fact, be misleading you to order a very sugary, chemically altered product.

All-natural acai in berry form can be found either in dry-powered form or frozen and packed, but either way, it is important to read ingredients. In 100% acai, you will notice there should be 0g added sugars. This is where consumers become tricked; the less expensive versions will have added sugars, defeating the purpose to the “super-food” adding calories and sugar to diets of people who may be monitoring it.

When ordering acai at a juice or smoothie bar, those restaurants using the less expensive option may, in fact, be providing you with a “healthy” bowl full of sugar. Very deceiving, especially to those with diabetes or pre-diabetes who may think they are consuming a balanced amount of fiber, and protein along with their natural fruit carbohydrates. It doesn’t hurt to ask what products they use; this will provide you with clarity.

Eating acai alone will not help you lose weight, a balanced diet along with exercise is recommended. In terms of its ability to reduce the effects of aging, antioxidants are known to be free-radical grabbing, but a diet healthy in a balance of macronutrients and low in processed foods, along with plentiful hydration also help these effects.


Cyanobacteria, also known as marine algae is native to waters of Central and South America. This blue-green powder (or liquid, depending on how you purchase it) contains lutein, carotenoids and fatty acids that we don’t often consume enough of as part of a Western diet[4].

It can be a rich source of calcium, niacin, B vitamins, and iron for those who aren’t consuming a multivitamin or balanced diet.



“Adding Spirulina to my diet will help control metabolic and heart disorders.”


Spirulina may have benefits if you typically have a hard time including vegetables such as carrots and peppers due to its carotenoid potency which may benefit vision and overall eye health however it should not be relied on as the only source of these nutrients in your diet[4].

The National Institutes for Health report there is not enough current evidence on spirulina to support claims of metabolic improvement, or prevention of heart disorders, larger studies are needed to deduce such claims[5]. Spirulina can be used as a food coloring substitute to desserts and foods that you would like to add either a blue-green or orange hue to batters, bread, frostings, and beverages.

Spirulina Myth And Fact

Bee Pollen

You may have seen bee pollen as an add on in your local smoothie bar, but what is the big deal? Is it flavor or function driving the force behind this health trend?


“Bee pollen is very unsustainable, especially considering our present environmental concerns”


Go straight to the source, bee-keepers often sell bee-pollen along with honey, and other goods that come straight from the hive. But doesn’t the environment need that pollen more than us humans? Yes, and no. When bees harvest pollen from plants, they deliver this pollen to their hives, some pollen escapes into the air, and other pollen becomes stuck or trapped on the plant, bee or hive itself, unable to make it into the air.

Instead of having that trapped pollen linger and be lost, this is the pollen we see a source for human consumption. Bee pollen contains all essential amino acids, great for vegetarians and vegans[7]. It is important to find a company or beekeeper that controls the collection of bee pollen in order to reduce the risk of allergic reaction from other pollens aside from floral plants including ragweed and grass[7].



Ah, ghee. AKA “clarified butter”. Yes, you may have heard of this, and it is true, the remnants of butter clarification have health benefits. But what do you need to know before jumping onto the ghee-train? Often used in South Asian cooking due to its ability to handle heat better when sautéing, ghee may have a place in your diet.


“The clarified part of butter is bad, that’s the point of clarifying it…right?”


Butter is a source of saturated fats, yes. Saturated fats should be consumed in moderation in our diets due to implications for cardiovascular disease, or obesity if consumed in excess, also true. However, these fats in moderation can provide our bodies with some benefits. In a study completed in rats in 2010, ghee was found to have limited impact on increasing total blood cholesterol levels, as well as triglycerides[6].

However, another study in a rural Indian population reported that consumption of 10% of calories as ghee did result in lower prevalence for coronary stresses such as stroke or heart disease[6].

It is important to note that the study populations are not representative of the general population in the United States that follows a Western diet. Ghee benefits include being rich in vitamins A, D, and E as well as being tolerated better by individuals that experience lactose intolerance.


Overall these superfoods have some health and nutritional benefits. However, it is important to be cautious when exploring their uses. Always ask your registered dietitian and your primary care doctor if taking them is appropriate for you. If you maintain a well-balanced diet, you will ensure there are a variety of nutrients included in your daily habits without needing to rely on supplements.

Image Credits
Featured Image Credit: istockphoto.com
In-post Image Credit: istockphoto.com, infographicspedia.com
1. Singh et al., Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. (2011) 8(S):208-213https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/pdf/AJT085S-0208.pdf
2. Wankhede, S., Langade, D., Joshi, K., Sinha, S. R., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2015). Examining the effect of Withaniasomnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 43. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26609282
3. "Acai." National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 13 July 2017. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acai/ataglance.htm
4. "Acai." National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 July 2017. http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/spirulina
5. Karkos PD, Leong SC, Karkos CD, Sivaji N, Assimakopoulos DA. Spirulina in Clinical Practice: Evidence-Based Human Applications. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine?: eCAM. 2011;2011:531053. doi:10.1093/ecam/nen058. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136577/
6. Sharma H, Zhang X, Dwivedi C. The effect of ghee (clarified butter) on serum lipid levels and microsomal lipid peroxidation. Ayu. 2010;31(2):134-140. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.72361 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3215354/
7. Komosinska-Vassev K, Olczyk P, Ka?mierczak J, Mencner L, Olczyk K. Bee Pollen: Chemical Composition and Therapeutic Application. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine?: eCAM. 2015;2015:297425. doi:10.1155/2015/297425. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4377380/

Chloe Davis, MS, RD, LDN, CSN

Chloe Davis, MS, RD, LDN, CSN is a New England-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of NutriTrain, LLC. Chloe completed he


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