I’m all for eating a wide variety of fruits—it’s a great way to increase your intake of nutrients and satisfies a sweet tooth as well. A few years ago, Weight Watchers gave fresh fruits a value of zero “points” to encourage its members to eat as much as they like. But before you forgo the same old, same old—blueberries, cherries, cranberries, red grapes, strawberries, or whatever you find at your local farmers market—for the latest exotic “superfruit,” you should be aware that the term has its origins in marketing, not science.
I’m not saying that superfruits aren’t nutrient-dense, and thus good for you, but so are other fruits that boast deep, rich colors. Superfruits are also expensive in comparison and often hyped way out of proportion. In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice and POMx supplements “deceptively advertised their products and did not have adequate support for claims that the products could treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction, and that they were clinically proven to work.” And while acai berries have much to offer in terms of general health, acai berry products that allegedly burn fat, stop hunger, increase energy, and restore youth made the Better Business Bureau’s Top Ten list of scams and rip-offs in 2009. It all puts me in mind of that old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Superfruits are one category of so-called superfoods, popularized by the bestselling SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life (2006), by Steven G. Pratt, M.D., and Kathy Matthews. Driven by consumers who prefer getting nutrients from foods instead of supplements (what’s not to love?), the trend has captured the interest of a number of multibillion-dollar industries.
According to the 2008 primer Successful Superfruit Strategy: How to Build a Superfruit Business, available used on Amazon for $935.89, “superfruits are revolutionizing the way consumers relate to fruit and fruit-based products and they're growing their market fast […] And yet just a handful of fruits have crossed over from commodity status to superfruit stardom. This book provides a checklist for superfruit success that is written as a practical ‘how-to’ guide for: food and beverage marketers, R&D managers, fruit growers, processors and marketers, ingredient manufacturers […] every fruit industry professional who has ever wondered how to boost fruit consumption or how to use fruit to target the wellness foods trend.”
You can’t read anything about superfruits, of course, without tripping over the word antioxidants. As I wrote earlier this year, antioxidants come in an astonishing array of forms, from vitamins (A, C, and E) and minerals (selenium, manganese) to phytochemicals. “The theory that our cells produce or absorb antioxidants to protect themselves from oxidative damage is rooted in the free-radical theory of disease,” I explained, “and you may presume that the more antioxidants we have in our bodies, the healthier we will be.” The jury’s still out as far as that thinking goes, however, at least when it comes to antioxidant supplements; you can find out more in this follow-up post. Eat produce, not pills, I concluded, and if you can afford to include more expensive exotica in the mix, then why the hell not? It’s perfectly true that superfruits score higher on the USDA Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) chart than many common fruits. Just promise me you’ll view all overblown claims with a skeptical eye.
The list of superfruits found below is far from complete; every time I turn around there’s a new one in the headlines. And if you find some curious omissions—such as aronia, elderberries, and goji berries—be patient and more will be revealed. Because they can all be grown easily at home, they’re the subject of another reader’s query, which I’ll answer next week.
Acai (Euterpe oleracea): The acai (pronounced “ah-sah-EE,” according to the Forvo pronunciation guide) palm is native to Central and South America. The flavor of the dark purple fruit (technically a drupe, not a berry) is reminiscent of blueberry, chocolate, and wine. Its dark, saturated color signifies that it’s high in the good-for-you plant pigments called anthocyanins, which are also found in more common fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, and cherries.
Baobab (Adansonia digitata L.): In Africa, the almost citrusy, sweet-tart fruit pulp of this iconic bushland tree is renowned for its medicinal qualities. With six times as much vitamin C as oranges, twice as much calcium as milk, and loads of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorous—and, yep, antioxidants—it’s eaten on its own or mixed in porridge and is also used for making a lemonade. Because the fruit is dry, not moist and tender, it’s easily milled, then packaged and exported to Europe and the U.S. for use in juices, smoothies, nutrition bars, baked goods, and even small-batch (and ultrasmooth) Whitley Neill gin. Because baobab has a high pectin content, it’s also a natural thickening agent. TakePart readers might also be interested to know that baobab exports are helping African families make a living and send their kids to school through the not-for-profit charity PhytoTrade Africa.
Camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia): According to the Tropical Plant Database, the round, orange fruits of camu-camu, a low-growing shrub found throughout the Amazon rainforest, contain more vitamin C than any other fruit or vegetable. “In comparison to oranges, camu-camu provides thirty times more vitamin C, ten times more iron, three times more niacin, twice as much riboflavin, and 50% more phosphorus,” it reads. “It also has a full complement of minerals and amino acids that can aid in the absorption of vitamin C.”
Cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum): This tree fruit species (pronounced “coo-poo-AH-coo”), which is related to cacao, is thought to be a pre-Colombian crop plant that is common to the Amazon basin. The fragrant, creamy-fleshed, and (surprise, surprise) antioxidant-rich drupe is often used in desserts and juices.
Mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana): The mangosteen, native to Southeast Asia, looks like a tennis ball covered with a thick purple rind. Inside are segments of white flesh that taste like a blend of cherimoya, lychee, peach, and pineapple. The entire fruit, including the rind, is edible, and contains vitamins C, B-complex, and E, as well as high levels of the antioxidants called xanthones, which are of particular interest to cancer researchers. Fresh mangosteens, however, are infernally hard to find; fruit authority David Karp explains why in this August 2013 piece for the Los Angeles Times.
Maqui berry (Chilean wineberry; Aristotelia chilensis): Dark-purple maqui berries from Chile and Argentina are yet another source of anthocyanins.
Monk (Siraitia grosvenorii): The fruit of this vine (a member of the gourd family and native to southern China and northern Thailand) is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, thanks to chemical compounds called mogrosides.
Pichuberry (Physalis peruviana): This small, plump, firm berry, native to Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, comes wrapped in a papery husk, just like a Cape gooseberry. Whoops, wait a minute, it is a Cape gooseberry, only with a sexier—and trademarked—name. Its health bennies include vitamins A and C, but if you avoid nightshades, then this isn’t the superfruit for you.
Pitaya (Hylocereus polyrhizus) and dragon fruit (H. undatus): These cactus fruits are cousins widely grown in Central America and Southeast Asia, respectively. Both are piñata pink on the outside and studded with soft seeds, like the inside of kiwifruit; dragonfruit has white flesh, while pitaya has deep-pink flesh that’s more flavorful. Both species are high in vitamins B and C and are full of phytoalbumin, an antioxidant thought to help prevent the formation of cancer-causing free radicals. You’ll find a nutritional comparison of the two species in this study from Monash University, in Selangor, Malaysia.