by Josh Schonwald
Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.
They can purify water, feed a family of four for 50 years, and help combat climate change — and you've probably never heard of them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of kale.
But kale is absolutely, positively not a superfood.
A superfood is high in protein, low in fat, gluten-free, loaded with omega-3s, bursting with antioxidants and overflowing with folate, fiber and phytonutrients. But the vast majority of what gets called a superfood these days should be called “health food.” Yes, health food is a perfectly suitable descriptor for goji berries, pomegranates and chia seeds.
To get an idea of a true superfood, look at quinoa. The Andean grain is more than just a high protein, low-fat, gluten-free alternative to rice or pasta. Quinoa is not only one of the only plants in the world that provides a complete source of protein. It is also an extraordinarily resilient plant. You can grow it at just about any altitude, from sea-level up to 13,000 feet. It can withstand a wide range of temperatures, and needs very little water to survive. There’s a reason why the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa” and not “The International Year of the Goji Berry.”
Kelp is another example of a true superfood. It’s not merely high in protein, low in fat and loaded with heart-healthy antioxidants. It grows at turbo speed (9 to 12 feet in three months) without the need for fresh water or fertilizer. Kelp could provide the world with a vast new source of sustainable protein — and potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Kelp forests are carbon sinks.)
Real superfoods possess super-traits — like the ability to grow astronomically fast in some of the world’s harshest climates. Or the ability to make dirty water safe for drinking. Or the ability to feed a family of four for 50 years.