What makes so-called superfoods so super? One unifying characteristic might be that they come from plants rather than animals. That’s a major takeaway from a recent survey of nearly 800 registered dietitians conducted by Today’s Dietitian and Pollock Communications.
In the 11th installment of the “What’s Trending in Nutrition” survey, respondents were asked to select their top 10 choices from among 31 different “superfoods” they anticipated consumers to be searching for in the year to come “to support their immune and overall health.” For the second year in a row, everything on the list was compatible with a plant-based diet.
These results came as no surprise to Hannah Kalet, a registered dietitian who helped organize the survey. “We saw throughout the survey that plant based is more top-of-mind than it has been in the past, and that consumers and RDs alike are looking for plant-based sources of protein as well,” she said.
The complete list of superfoods included these nutritional standouts:
- Fermented foods, such as kimchi, kombucha, pickled vegetables and yogurt
- Seeds, such as chia and help
- Nuts, including pistachios, almonds and walnuts
- Leafy greens, such as spinach
- Aquatic greens, such as algae, seaweed and sea moss
- Green tea
- Ancient grains, such as millet, amaranth, teff, freekeh and farro
- Nondairy milks
Immune health continues to be a high priority
While the list isn’t intended to be read as a hierarchy of importance, it’s still telling that fermented foods were the top superfood for the second consecutive year. Kalet said the top ranking speaks to these foods' growing appeal as a way to support both immune and microbiome health.
“This comes off of last year’s survey, which focused quite a bit on the fallout from Covid-19,” Kalet said. “We've still been talking a lot about immunity specifically.”
And while certain fermented foods may seem like a relatively recent addition to grocery store shelves, a growing amount of contemporary science backs the healthfulness of these foods, many of which have been around for centuries.
“The research to support the benefit of consuming them is definitely there,” Susan Hewlings, Ph.D., R.D., VP of research affairs at the nutritional research firm Radical Science, said. “The more we learn about the microbiome and the importance of maintaining a balanced microbiome, the better these foods start to look. The evidence just keeps mounting.”
Affordability is the new superpower
Lists of top superfoods commonly contain a few animal-derived products like eggs and salmon, but also a number of global and costly fruits and vegetables. For the second consecutive year, however, salmon came in at No. 11, and the only fruit on the list is blueberries. A major reason, Kalet noted, is price.
“A theme that was resounding in this year's survey was food availability and cost,” she explained. “In the past, exotic fruits and expensive items have topped the list. But this year’s superfoods could be added to your diet even if you’re on a budget. These superfoods don't have to be exclusive.”
Salads are extra super
The more you mix and match items on the list—like greens, berries, avocado and seeds—the more it starts to resemble a salad, whether homemade or purchased pre-mixed (as in the increasingly popular bagged salad).
That’s no coincidence, according to Hewlings. “You can make a salad with pretty much any food on that list, or you could put nearly all of them on one salad,” she said. Consumers definitely understand this appeal. After dipping slightly during Covid-19 lockdowns, the global packaged salad market is valued at well over $10 billion currently, and is expected to double by 2028.
Plant-based foods are the new “undeniably healthy go-to”
Kalet said that the new list is indicative of the increasing popularity of single, plant-based ingredients. But its implications also speak to plant-based eating growing from a niche market to a mainstream category.
“You're no longer seeing three eggs at the breakfast scramble, but instead, maybe one egg paired—paired with avocado and a grain of some sort,” she detailed. “People are mixing and matching these superfoods, which have specific nutrient profiles, and are looking outside of simply protein, carbohydrates and fats.”
Nevertheless, Hewlings said the near-total lack of protein sources on the superfood list shouldn’t be interpreted that protein isn’t as important as other nutrients.
“I don't want the ‘plant-based’ message to end up being anti-protein, which sometimes it can,” Hewlings said. “We need to make sure that people, and especially older people, are getting adequate protein. Being ‘plant-based’ can just mean nutrient-dense vegetables, nuts, seeds and those sorts of things are your base—foundation of your diet—alongside your protein to round everything out.”
Viewed from that perspective, a superfood like this can be what Hewlings calls “a checklist of undeniably healthy go-tos” that consumers and manufacturers can consume and recommend without hesitation.
“Dietitians like me have been saying this for our entire careers,” she explained. “Maybe people are just starting to hear it.”
Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longford print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor.