Soy, or tofu, is a protein that is considered a superfood because it is high in several nutrients.
“Soy often crops up because one of its approved health claims is a link between 25 grams of soy a day and reduced heart disease,” Pope says. “But that’s a lot of soy.”
Tofu is a popular option in Asian limited-service restaurant dishes, including several at Pei Wei Asian Grill, or in vegetable menu items, such as the Tofu Power Plate at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill ($9.99).
Meanwhile, spinach, which has plenty of vitamins A, C, and K, is rich in flavonoids—antioxidants that have anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer qualities. But perhaps the most ubiquitous superfood at restaurants is the tomato. It is simple, common, and a significant source of lycopene, which has been studied for its potential to prevent prostate cancer. Lycopene is absorbed particularly well when the tomato is cooked.
Tomatoes are used in soups, salads, sandwiches, pizza, and spaghetti, among many other menu items.
“Studies have shown that eating four servings of tomato-based foods [daily] will result in a reduction in the chance of prostate cancer,” Pope says.
Another superfood that is growing in popularity at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants is the sweet potato, particularly in the form of fries. The tubers are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber and have anti-inflammatory properties. Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, El Pollo Loco, and Smashburger are among the several
brands that offer sweet potato fries as seasonal or limited-time options.
Pomegranate has also taken hold with consumers in recent years. The fruit is found in a wide range of juice drinks and other beverages, and is particularly high in antioxidants and rich in vitamins A, C, and E, as well as folic acids.
Red Mango, which has been serving frozen yogurt—itself a superfood—and smoothies since 2007, began offering a pomegranate variety early in its history. “When we started, we wanted to make the frozen-yogurt category an exciting, healthy way for consumers to indulge,” says Kim, whose Dallas-based company has 220 units that feature 10 rotating flavors daily. “Health has always been part of Red Mango.”
The company teamed up with POM Wonderful for the highly concentrated pomegranate juice Red Mango uses in frozen yogurt and smoothies. Pomegranate is the chain’s second-best seller, Kim says. Other superfruit flavors that are rotated in and out include blueberry and tangerine. The regular pomegranate frozen yogurt sells for $3.50, and the
smoothie is $4.
Juice and smoothie chains also feature these and other superfoods among their natural and enhanced menu items.
Superfoods from around the world—some of them rarely found in America—are part of the menu at Bowl of Heaven, which began serving açai bowls two years ago. “We incorporate fresh fruit, frozen fruit, and superfruit,” says cofounder Dan McCormick, whose background is in public speaking as an anti-aging expert.
Açai bowls are popular in Brazil and have gained a following elsewhere, including in Hawaii, where McCormick got his idea for the chain. The bowls’ base ingredient is a blend with frozen, pureed açai berry, the fruit of the açai palm tree in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest. The fruit has antioxidant benefits.
Every bowl and smoothie at California-based Bowl of Heaven, which has five locations in three states, includes a blend of açai and six other fruits: gac, Alaskan blueberry, Siberian pineapple, cili fruit, and maqui and goji berries. Among the most popular bowls are the Sea Sider ($7), which adds strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, banana, and vanilla almond milk to the basic blend. It is topped with strawberries, coconut, flax seed, granola, and honey.
The Popeye ($7) adds strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, banana, and apple juice, plus fresh kale and spinach. It is topped with banana, flax seed, granola, and honey.
Superfoods are likely to grow in popularity as more people learn about them and their health properties. Pope is teaching a course on nutrition, health, and lifestyle—including a lesson on superfoods and functional foods—on Coursera, a company that teams up with top universities around the world to offer free, non-credit courses
She has about 33,000 students signed up.
“The interest has been amazing,” she says.