Protein powder is no longer the only thing you can add to your smoothie. Now exotic ingredients like goji, baobab, and medicinal mushrooms, among others, are showing up in powdered form with claims that they are a shortcut to good health.
Sales of these so-called superfood powders have taken off, and according to a market research report published in October 2022, the category is expected to grow by over 10 percent a year, reaching almost $9 billion in sales by 2027. Likely fueling the trend is the involvement of celebrities including Kevin Hart, Kate Hudson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who have either promoted or financially backed these products.
Superfood powders are not without merit. “They allow you to conveniently consume a highly concentrated form of nutritionally dense foods in a scoop of powder,” explains Maggie Michalczyk, RDN, the founder of Once Upon a Pumpkin in Chicago. Much like protein powder, they’re easy to mix into smoothies and other foods and drinks.
So should you give these superfood powders a try? Discover whether a scoop or two can really help your health, or if it’s not worth the money.
What Are Superfood Powders?
Superfood powders are designed to give your health a boost, whether that’s more vitamins and minerals, extra energy, or improved gut health.
“These powders are made from dehydrated whole foods that are, generally speaking, fruits and vegetables, herbs, or other botanicals,” explains Amy Kimberlain, RD, CDCES, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who is based in Miami.
These aren’t typically dried apples and bananas. Instead, the powders are often made from exotic ingredients. “Specifically, they’re dried powdered plants that you might not be able to find at your store because they’re quite unique,” says Kimberlain. Think along the lines of moringa, matcha, maca root, lucuma, and acai. In addition to single-ingredient superfood powders, you can find blends containing several different superfoods.
While the term “superfood” may sound special and impressive (like the packaging of these products, which is no doubt used to justify their often-high price tags), odds are there is not much to the term other than marketing. “I always use the phrase that all foods are super,” Kimberlain says. “That description has been used to describe certain foods; however, nutritionally speaking, there is no such thing as a superfood.”
The Cleveland Clinic notes that there is no official “superfood” category, nor are there any specific criteria a food must meet to be called a superfood. Still, Cleveland Clinic says, some foods are healthier than others (think a veggie-loaded salad versus a hot dog and fries), and many everyday foods such as avocados and beets have exceptional proven nutritional benefits.
Does Dehydrating and Powdering Superfoods Affect Their Nutrients?
Concentrating and grinding some of those foods to make superfood powders makes sense in some instances. After all, fruits like acai berry aren’t easy to find at your local grocery store, and a powdered version may be your only option. “Part of the popularity of these particular superfood powders is that they are harder to obtain in a whole-food form,” says Kimberlain.
Additionally, superfood powders may be seen as a more holistic or “natural” way to get certain vitamins and nutrients in your diet. While Michalczyk recommends a whole-food-first approach to eating, she says, “it can be hard to obtain enough of certain key nutrients from our diets at times, which is where a superfood powder can be a beneficial supplement.”
Still, it’s worth noting that the nutritional content of produce, for example, can be impacted by the dehydration process, according to the University of Missouri, potentially destroying vitamins including C and A with heat and air. The time superfood powders sit on a shelf may also take a toll. One study, published in October 2021 in the journal Foods, looked at the nutritional content of powdered vegetables like broccoli and carrots, and concluded that although they were nutrient-dense, storage of these products for 12 months may have affected their phenolic content. Phenolic content is a measure of compounds including those, like polyphenols and antioxidants, that are responsible for many of the nutritional benefits of these foods, according to Colorado State University.
Even if superfood powders are nutritionally rich, it’s not a forgone conclusion they’ll deliver other benefits. “There is no guarantee of their health benefit as the research is limited,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian-nutritionist and the host of the podcast Nourishing Notes. Treat any claims made on the packaging or advertising of these products with some healthy skepticism.
Superfood powders are seen as dietary supplements, which means they receive limited oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says Retelny. The FDA, for example, does not approve supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are sold, the agency notes.
Also, before you add a supplement like a superfood powder to your routine, you’ll want to speak with a healthcare professional to ensure that it is appropriate for your individual needs and determine your dosage, advises Kimberlain. For anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s best to stay on the safe side and avoid them altogether. “For many of these superfood powders, there isn’t enough information to know if they are safe to use when pregnant or breastfeeding,” says Kimberlain.
How to Use Superfood Powders
If you are interested in trying a superfood powder, your best bet is to look for trusted brands, such as Navitas or Bob’s Red Mill, Retelny says. “I always say the whole food is better than the pill or powdered form.” Still, she adds, “If the superfood powder is made without additives, fillers, flavorings, and sweeteners, it can be a good way to up the nutrition in your day.”
You can look for certifications from third-party companies unaffiliated with the brands, such as “USDA Certified,” says Kimberlain. Labels can be especially important if you have any dietary restrictions, such as a gluten allergy or vegan diet.
One of the advantages of superfood powders is how easy they are to add into your diet. “Superfood powders are a quick and convenient way to get added nutrition without a lot of prep or planning,” says Retelny. “It’s easy to add a scoop of these superfood powders into everyday beverages or baked goods and move on with your day.”
Some superfood powders may even have an appealing flavor. “Cacao powder, for instance, can add almost a chocolate flavor to oatmeal, energy bites, or even pancakes,” says Kimberlain. Not all powders will work with every recipe, though (some may work better with savory recipes), so do some online research to see what powder works well in what. “It just really depends on what it is that you’re making and which powder you’re using,” she says.
Discover some of the most popular superfood powders, and whether they’re a good fit for your diet.
1. Acai Powder
There’s a reason you don’t see whole acai berries in your produce aisle. “Acai berries spoil quickly and are rarely sold,” says Kimberlain. “That’s why you’ll find acai sold as a powder, juice, or puree,” she says. Acai powder works well in smoothies, or you can create your very own version of the wildly popular acai bowl.
Native to Central and South America, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, acai berries contain the purple-hued antioxidant called anthocyanin, notes a study published in October 2020 in the journal Foods. “Anthocyanin may lower oxidative stress and inflammation, promoting brain health,” says Kimberlain. For example, one review of research, published in November 2020 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, notes that anthocyanins may have brain-protecting properties, and could be beneficial for several brain disorders, though more research is necessary, especially in humans.
While one past, small study showed that acai may help blood sugar levels, Kimberlain advises people with diabetes to use it mindfully. “With certain diabetes medications it has the potential to drop blood sugar levels too low as well as potentially reduce the effects of the medication, so it’s important to monitor your blood sugar levels if you’re taking it,” Kimberlain says.
2. Baobab Powder
Found in Madagascar, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Australia, the baobab tree produces a fruit that’s often used in a drink, notes Britannica. “The powder is often mixed in with a drink of choice; additionally, you could add a sprinkle into your oatmeal or yogurt,” adds Kimberlain.
As for its health perks? “Baobab is high in fiber, and that links to satiety, which in turn could help with weight management,” says Kimberlain. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that baobab powder has 3 grams (g) of fiber in about a tablespoon.
And in one small study, published in April 2017 in the journal Nutrition and Health, researchers gave 10 participants a baobab-supplemented smoothie, while the other 10 had just a plain smoothie. Those who drank the baobab smoothie reported less hunger afterward than the control group. The researchers noted the fiber was potentially the reason for the increased satiety, and suggested it could have weight management potential.
“As it’s high in fiber, that too can help with GI health and prevent constipation — it definitely can help in keeping a person regular,” Kimberlain adds. As the Mayo Clinic notes, fiber helps prevent or relieve constipation.
3. Cacao Powder
Chocolate lovers, listen up! You can score all the delicious, rich flavor of cacao powder and get some key nutrients, too. Cacao powder is made of fermented and dried cacao beans (the same kind used to make chocolate and cocoa powder). When the unroasted beans are finely crushed to a powder, you get cacao powder. Cocoa powder is made when the beans are roasted and processed at higher temperatures. Cacao powder tastes more bitter, so you’ll want to add it, for example, into a smoothie that contains other sweet ingredients, says Kimberlain.
“Cacao has naturally occurring antioxidants and is quite lighter in color than cocoa powder,” explains Kimberlain. “Cacao contains flavonoids — a class of antioxidants — which show an association with improved heart function, possibly cognition, and possibly in reducing inflammation.” For example, one study, published in the July 2021 BMC Genomics, noted that cacao is a major source of flavonoids, and has been frequently studied for its benefits for cardiovascular disease.
4. Maca Powder
At first glance, maca sounds like it can do it all. “Maca, or ‘Peruvian ginseng,’ is from an ancient root with a variety of so-called medicinal benefits, from [alleviating] sexual dysfunction to neuroprotection to stress-relieving properties, as well as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antidepressant qualities,” says Retelny. In spite of these claims, a scientific review published in January 2020 in Food & Function concluded that additional research into maca’s potential pharmacological uses is necessary.
“More evidence may be needed to support these claims,” says Retelny. In one study, published in January 2018 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, for example, the authors wrote that the “indigenous local knowledge about the health benefits of maca has been dragged out of context to fit the demands of a growing market for herbal remedies.”
Past research shows it likely won’t have adverse side effects, though, so if you do like the nutty flavor and want to give it a try, consider adding maca powder to things like oatmeal, coffee, or energy balls.
5. Lucuma Powder
Lucuma, another popular Andean powder known as “Gold of the Incas,” comes from a fruit, rather than a root. “Lucuma fruit has a wide range of nutrients and phytochemicals,” says Retelny, and a study published in August 2021 in the journal Molecules confirmed that.
Lucuma also contains fiber, with about 2 g in every 5 g serving, according to the USDA. That may be one reason why lucuma powder could help with blood sugar control, says Retelny. One past study noted that lucuma may have an antihyperglycemic effect (which means counteracting high amounts of sugar in the blood), though more research on humans needs to be done.
Ready to get cooking with lucuma? “Lucuma powder can be used as a substitute for brown sugar in baked goods,” adds Retelny.
6. Mushroom Powder
Medicinal mushrooms are having a moment, although they’ve been used to treat diseases like cancer in Asia for hundreds of years, according to the National Cancer Institute.
You can purchase mushroom powder blends or buy each separately, but as Retelny says, more research is needed on medicinal mushrooms like reishi, lion’s mane, chaga, shiitake, and cordyceps.
“They each have different health benefits, such as sleep, cognitive health, focus, energy, anxiety, depression and focus to name a few,” says Retelny. A review of the potential benefits of medicinal mushrooms, published in January 2021 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, stated they’re known for their antiallergic, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties (and the list goes on!).
As for how to use them, you can add mushroom powder to tea, pudding, smoothies, lattes, and soup, suggests Retelny. She recommends doing so in moderation — you’ll want to follow the instructions on the package’s label, as too much may lead to nausea; Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center mentions this side effect with reishi mushrooms.
7. Turmeric Powder
It’s a popular powder for a reason. “Turmeric powder, otherwise known as curcumin, is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Michalczyk. According to Mayo Clinic, turmeric has been linked to a positive impact on diseases such as type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and obesity; Mayo recommends adding it to curry or chutney.
One pro tip: “Make sure to choose a turmeric powder with black pepper listed as an ingredient to increase its absorption,” Michalczyk adds. Higher doses of turmeric powder intake have been associated with minor side effects, she says; and Mayo Clinic suggests it’s safe when your serving is kept to 8 g per day.
8. Goji Powder
You may have seen goji berries added to trail mix and cereals, but now this fruit is gaining popularity in powdered form, too. “Goji powder is widely known for health promoting benefits such as being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant rich, antimicrobial, and more,” says Michalczyk.
One study, published in December 2021 in the journal Nutrients, found that regular goji berry consumption may prevent or delay age-related macular degeneration.
Before you start scooping the powder into your smoothie, note that a past review of research reports evidence of a possible interaction with the medication warfarin and Lycium, a type of goji berry, which may increase the risk of bleeding.
“If you’re thinking of adding goji powder into your routine, make sure to discuss potential medication interactions with your primary health provider,” Michalczyk says.
While these superfood powders may give you some health perks, and might be worth adding to your next smoothie or baked treat, it’s important to discuss with your doctor whether a particular powder is right for you.