Why berries may not be a brain-boosting super food (part 1)

berry brain health superfood myth

Early October and the mulberry tree over my back fence is laden down with fruit.  I picked three kilos to freeze in less than half an hour over the weekend … I’ll be heading out again this afternoon to pick more.  And, once the crop is finished, it should be time for the strawberries to ripen. Yum!

Do you know why I love berries?

Simple.  They taste good!

Do I also love them because they’re a brain-boosting super food?

No. Because I don’t believe in ‘super foods.’

I absolutely think berries should form part of a healthy diet, and, yes, they contain nutrients that may impact cognition (I’ll blog about that next week), but whether or not they deserve their ‘super food’ status is open for debate.

The term ‘super food’ is a marketing word

It refers to something that has a supposed health benefit, or is claimed to do several positive things – like cure cancer, boost your brain, or ‘cleanse your blood’.

As far as I can tell, the top super foods for 2013 include kale, almonds, pomegranates, quinoa, coconut, cacao nibs and, of course, berries.

Aussie nutrition academic and blogger at Thinking Nutrition, Tim Crowe, also believes the term ‘super food’ has little meaning when it comes down to the science, he sums it up nicely when he says,

The term ‘super food’ is an over-used and over-hyped marketing tool, rather than a useful guide for consumers in choosing what foods to eat.

Often the scientific evidence for their super powers over more humble (and cheap!) foods is limited.

Lets compare blueberries with, say, liver.

If you take 100 grams of chicken liver and look at the  recommended daily value (RDV) of various nutrients you’ll find liver contains,

  • Vitamin A = 267%
  • Vitamin C = 47%
  • Iron = 65%

Liver is also a source of Thiamin, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, protein, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Phosphorus and Selenium.

Take 100 grams of blueberries and you’ll find the RDV for the following is,

  • Vitamin A = 1%
  • Vitamin C = 16%
  • Iron = 2%

And a large portion of the calories in blueberries come from sugars.  Granted, berries are much lower in cholesterol, but liver exhibits roughly 16 times the anti-inflammatory properties of blueberries!

Maybe the problem is, liver just doesn’t look as pretty liquefied into a smoothie and poured into a mason jar to be photographed on Instagram.  Beware all the pretty pictures you seen on foodie health blogs … the science isn’t always in support.

Obviously, I’ve just shown one comparison here, but I did choose liver because it really is close to a complete food, it’s just not as marketable or pretty as the blueberry!

So where does that leave you when you’re trying to eat the best diet for brain health?

I blogged about a few weeks back that scientists are pretty confident that the Mediterranean diet appears to offer protection against cognitive decline and dementia.  And as I said then, the “single nutrient” approach fails, similarly, so does the super food approach.

Relying on ‘super foods’ might seem like the quick and easy way to good health but it’s unlikely that any single food will make a major difference to brain health.

Think about including berries as one of many foods in your Mediterranean diet-based approach. Along with the kale, almonds, pomegranates, quinoa, coconut and cacao nibs (and whatever the super foods for 2014 will be)!  Add them all – just don’t assume each food has the ability to supercharge your brain.

Berries DO contain a number of nutrients that are very good for your health – polyphenols and  flavonoids to name two – and there are many studies underway assessing the impact of these specific nutrients on brain health.

Next week, I’ll blog about the studies testing the impact of berry nutrients on cognition.

In the meantime, here is a great article about super foods and cancer written by Cancer Research UK, well worth a read.

And if you want to read more about the nutrient components of various foods, look them up here at Nutrition Self Data.


Leave me a comment below … are you surprised by the comparison between berries and liver?

Would you be brave enough to try a liver smoothie, or will you stick with liver pate?

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  1. Susan Diamond on October 11, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Glad to read your post. I agree with you about the use of the term super foods. I love blueberries since I was 4yrs old and given a bowl of bberries whenever I visited my beloved grandma(of blessed memory).
    And I dislike liver since early childhood when my mother(obm) tried to get me to eat liver even with onions. Chopped chicken liver, the exception, I like a lot.

    Are you familiar with the benefits to the brain.
    of Matcha,
    powdered green tea from Kyoto?
    I learned why it is good for brain health at a session at the Society for Neuroscince conference yrs ago.

    • Sarah McKay on October 13, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      Hi Susan! So glad you do like chicken liver … the comparison I did between blueberries and liver was for chicken liver too.
      I don’t know so much about Matcha – I’ll look into it. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. Danielle on October 13, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    What do you think of the ‘isagenix’ diet where people live on smoothies packed with ‘superfoods’ from around the world? They are also allowed 500 calories of ‘real food’ in the day. And it’s so expensive

    • Sarah McKay on October 13, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      Hi Danielle, I don’t know much about them at all… but they’re certainly not ‘food’! I just read Lionel Shriver’s new novel ‘Big Brother’ which dealt with that sort of diet. The first I’d heard of them!

  3. Kirsten on October 13, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    Well, from a vegetarian stand-point (as well as aesthetic), there’s a pretty good reason why I would choose berries over the liver of a dead animal.

    • Danielle on October 14, 2013 at 11:41 am

      Yeah, I’m in the same boat 😉

  4. Ana on October 14, 2013 at 6:21 am

    My husband is going through a mayor short term memory loss.He had epilepsy since 5 abd had brain surgery 20 years ago and all was well.He was on Lamotrigen for 20 years now about a year ago he is suffering from short term memory loss and after 5 hospitalizations we still don’t have a diagnosis.We get bounced from “seizure” to dementia and I need suggestions on dietary regime!!!

    • Dan on January 14, 2015 at 1:21 am

      *Wow – where to start.
      Dr. McKay – u would need to drink 100-1000 bottles of red wine everyday to get the benefits of resveratol – and theres more proof that it does nothing for brain/general health, than there is proof that it does!
      Alcohol is a CLASS A Carcinogin – just like cigarettes – u should not promote it on ur website.

      *Hi ana – ive only just started scratching around on the website, but one thing that strikes me is how Turmeric has NOT been mentioned.. (and hailed!)
      Ana, this is what u need.
      after have both my grandparents died from Alzheimers complications i decided i should look after my brain as well as possible..
      A few months after i started taking a rounded teaspoon of turmeric (not curry powder), with a dozen or so sprinkles of ground black pepper on top and washed down with a half a glass of milk, memories and thoughts from years back – some great stuff i know i would never have thought of again – came flooding back..to the point that i was emotional.
      I can vouch for turmeric, as i have been using it for years! – It kind of cleans the pathways between ur actual thought and ur hippocampus (where the thought is stored/comes from) – this makes for much better memory and forms clearer memories initially.. i guess there some proof in this as i read this information years ago and am now re-telling it off the top of my head, with no need to clarify or re-check anything im writing.
      It is also anti-inflammatory and the best thing for ur digestive system.
      get into asap!
      Dr .McKay – pls take note of what ive mentioned here.. follow it up, its amazing and should be what u r basing the whole idea of this website on.

      • Sarah McKay on January 14, 2015 at 8:08 am

        Thanks for your thoughts Dan.

  5. Vicki on October 14, 2013 at 7:57 am

    I have to say that I have always been a huge fan of liver, which I each ear monthly when I have my period. Sure, it’s not to everyone’s taste but cheap source of iron and other goodies. Just don’t cook too long.

  6. […] week I wrote about why berries may not be the brain-boosting super food we’ve all been lead to believe. And I made a case for adding chicken liver to smoothies […]

  7. Lucia Mayo on October 12, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Considering the way farm animals are raised these days and the possibility of unprocessed toxins that may reside in the liver, it does not seem advisable to include liver as a regular part of your diet.

  8. Joyce on September 23, 2018 at 6:02 am

    I eat blueberries because I love them. I love them in my smoothies because they add a natural sugar. I also understand they’re very high in antioxidants something you did not mention in your article. I must say I never thought of them as a brain food. Your article, however, has inspired me to check out chicken livers! 🌺

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