For American eaters who long to take control of their health, nothing offers the perception of power quite like “superfoods.” These discussion always start with kale but stretch far beyond, into an almost religious reverence for produce with a nutrient-rich reputation. Not only do three-fourths of consumers believe they can manage their health through nutrition, according to a Nielsen survey, nearly one-third believe food can replace medicine.
America’s faith in food is strong indeed. ”People like to think they can control their health and that biochemistry is the secret to a healthy lifestyle,” says Lynn Kahle, professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. “One of the challenges in marketing is getting credibility. If there are voices in the scientific and medical communities saying superfoods are good for you, and marketers attach to that, it makes sense.”
Sure enough, an increase in sales of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables has followed. The biggest problem with trying to understand the superfood boom, however, is trying to pin down just what counts as a superfood. In an analysis for Bloomberg Businessweek, Nielsen found that retail sales of kale increased at a compound annual rate of 56.6 percent from 2009 to 2013. Moreover, 2,500 farms harvested kale in 2012, up from fewer than 1,000 in 2007.
Nielsen studied 41 “powerhouse fruits and vegetables,” all of which contain at least 10 percent daily value of 17 nutrients per 100 calories, for a paper (pdf) recently published in Preventing Chronic Disease. The list includes unexpected foods such as iceberg lettuce and excludes raspberries, tangerines, cranberries, garlic, onions, and blueberries. Some foods that have attracted a lot of healthy buzz—pomegranate, quinoa, and wheat berry—were not considered.
Based on these parameters, Nielsen found the most popular superfoods in the produce section are tomatoes, strawberries, oranges, carrots, and iceberg lettuce. The most nutrient-dense foods include watercress, Chinese cabbage, chard, beet greens, and spinach.
“Consumers are proactively using food to address their health issues,” says Sherry Frey, vice president for Nielsen’s perishables group. “I believe we’ll continue to see this grow. The aging boomer demographic and millennials are interested in health claims and fortified foods.”
Of course, we often don’t live up to our best intentions. Half of Nielsen’s 471 survey takers said they were not willing to give up taste for health. And even though superfood consumption has been on the rise, a certain pattern persists. Much like gym attendance, online interest in the topic tends to wane after our collective New Year’s motivation fades away.