A Doctor Dishes: Which ‘Superfoods’ Are Worth the Cost?

Gabrielle Karol

Most people you speak to these days are trying to stretch every dollar as far as possible—even the ones they spend buying apples and oranges.

Food prices are expected to increase yet again this year, and food manufacturers are making portions smaller without reducing prices. Not surprisingly, a recent Rasmussen poll found that 93% of adults report paying more for groceries now than they did a year ago.

So how can we supercharge our grocery dollars and get them to do overtime for us?

Yes, some foods are obviously a better nutritional deal than others (think apples vs. potato chips), but there’s another class of foods that blows the rest of the field away in terms of nutrients and health-protecting qualities: superfoods.

SuperfoodsSuperfoods can help prevent diabetes and heart disease, repair damage to your body’s cells and more. But before you go piling them into your cart, know that some “superfoods” are better nutritional bargains than others. As a doctor and a mom, I’ve sleuthed out which ones are worth the extra cost in terms of their long-term health benefits. Below is the scoop on which ones may help you age better, ward off cancer and more.

What to Know Before Buying Superfoods

Before we dive into what to buy, there are a few important things to remember about consuming these foods:

  • Eating foods fresh and in their natural state, especially fruits and vegetables (rather than in pill or powder supplement form), usually allows us to absorb the greatest amount of their nutrients. The way a superfood is processed or cooked can significantly lower its antioxidant content.
  • If the superfood can’t be eaten fresh, look for easy and appetizing recipes containing it. No matter how “super” a superfood may be, if you don’t know how to cook it, you’ll probably let it go to waste.

Are Superfoods  ’Good Buys’ if I’m Shopping on a Budget?

Superfood Yes/No Things to Consider
Acai Berries
These berries, when fresh, have one of the greatest antioxidant contents of any edible fruit, giving them one of the highest known ORAC scores.
No Unless you live in Brazil, you are likely getting expensive, processed Acai berries, whose ORAC score is greatly reduced. Much more cost-effective, filling and tastier options include blueberries, Concord grapes and black beans.
Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, potassium, vitamin C and fiber. At about 80 calories a cup, they’re also easy on the waistline.
Yes, when bought in season. A 4 oz. container can cost anywhere from $1.49 to $6.00! To get them at the right price, buy these berries in season, and stock up and freeze them to avoid extreme price hikes out-of-season.
Packed with cancer-fighting nutrients, broccoli is low in calories and high in fiber.
 Yes Cheap, available year round and easy to prepare, this green power vegetable should be one of your staples.
Dried Gogi Berries
Grown in China, gogi berries are touted for being highly nutritious and filled with antioxidants.
No Gogi berries are usually found in dried or powdered form. At $13 to $30/pound, Gogi berries are some of the most expensive dried fruits one can buy. We say stick with the fresh blueberries, which have an ORAC score significantly higher than that of fresh gogi berries.
Rich in antioxidants, which promote eye health, and in choline, a nutrient thought to be essential to brain functioning, eggs are one superfood not to be missed.
Yes Eggs are cheap, low in calories (75 calories per egg), and packed with antioxidants, high-quality protein and vitamins.  Also, eggs are one of the most versatile foods, and a multitude of delicious recipes call this superfood their main ingredient.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
All olive oils are high in heart-healthy monosaturated fats and are a ready source of vitamin E and antioxidants. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the least processed (no chemical or heat involved) form of all olive oils, and is therefore considered to be the healthiest.
No Exorbitantly priced and often erroneously or fraudulently labeled, “extra” virgin olive oil can stay off your grocery list. Stick with simple “virgin” olive oils.
One kiwi has more vitamin C than an orange, is packed with potassium, and is delicious when ripe.
Yes This superfood is a great value, averages less than a dollar a pound and is so simple to eat—just halve and scoop with a teaspoon!
Oatmeal has been proven to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and is an excellent source of dietary fiber.
Yes Oatmeal is inexpensive and easy to cook. While steel cut oats are less processed than traditional or quick-cooking rolled oats, both types of oatmeal products are essentially equivalent in terms of fiber and nutrient content, so go with whichever you find tastier and/or more convenient to prepare.
Pomegranate Juice
Rich in a variety of antioxidants, this fruit juice may help fight against heart disease and cancer.
No At around $5-$7 per 16 oz., pomegranate juice is certainly not easy on the wallet and packs 278 calories. Consider substituting with antioxidant-rich, unsweetened cranberry juice instead. This super beverage averages $3-4 or less per 16 oz and has fewer calories than pomegranate juice. Additionally, cranberry juice is rich in vitamin C and has proven urinary tract infection-fighting properties.  Be careful to avoid juice products that are labeled as punches, blends, cocktails, “drinks” or “beverages,” as these are unlikely to be 100% pure cranberry juice.
Purple Cabbage
Purple cabbage is packed with antioxidants and fiber, and is a rich source of vitamin K and fiber.
Yes Purple cabbage, also known as red cabbage, is inexpensive, readily available year round and can keep for up to two weeks when stored in your refrigerator’s crisper. Keep this superfood on hand to slice into your salad for extra crispness or to add some vibrant color to your next stir-fry.
Quinoa is a whole grain that one would usually use as a white rice or brown rice substitute.
Yes Although it’s more expensive than both white and brown rice, quinoa should stay on your grocery list. Compared to brown rice, quinoa has about the same number of calories but is higher in both dietary fiber and protein—so much so that it can serve as a fine protein substitute. Furthermore, it is much easier and quicker to cook. And as for white rice, nutritionally, quinoa blows it away.
Salmon (Fresh)
A great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
No While salmon is a ready source of omega-3 fatty acids, it is a pricey one. Consider substituting canned salmon or sardines which are just as rich, if not richer, in omega-3 fatty acids and a lot less expensive. Also remember that cost-effective walnuts are a great source of the ALA type of omega-3 fatty acids, which should comprise two-thirds of our daily-recommended omega-3 fatty acid intake.
Spirulina is a nutrient-dense, B12-packed blue-green algae, which is usually sold in powdered form. This supplement has been advertised as being cancer-fighting, immune-boosting and helpful for those wanting to lose weight.
No A pound of this superfood will run you around $30 to $40, and while the daily recommended dose of 10 grams is rich in vitamin K, folate, calcium and magnesium, you will actually find considerably higher amounts of the same nutrients in a salad-sized portion of fresh romaine lettuce. Plus, there is insufficient evidence to support the anti-cancer, immune-boosting and weight loss-enhancing claims that have been made about spirulina.
Sweet Potatoes
One of the oldest known cultivated foods, sweet potatoes are rich in fiber, minerals and vitamins. They help curb one’s appetite by stabilizing the body’s blood sugar levels, and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Yes At $1-$1.50 per pound, sweet potatoes are a nutritional steal. The next time you plan to cook with regular potatoes, consider substituting them with this delicious superfood instead—your body will thank you!

Dr. Radha Chaddah MD JD MPH earned her professional degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at the Harvard School of Public Health and completed residency training in Internal Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard University. She has practiced medicine in Boston and New York City, provided lectures on health and wellbeing to professional, academic, and public audiences in the U.S. and abroad, and currently lives in Beijing, China with her husband and two daughters. 


More From LearnVest

Learn how to braise (it’s easy!) while making linguini with braised escarole … for only $7.
We’ve got it: The ultimate grocery store plan, step by step.
These adorable, under $10 gadgets will complete your kitchen.
  • Deedeesweeney

    Thanks for this article. Very informative and I will certainly be using it.

  • Lori Baird

    What about flaxseed and chia seeds?

  • sands

    Great article – this one’s a keeper! I’m going to sent it to myself to save a copy. It’s helpful to have someone cut through all the hype with the straight facts.

  • Amber S

    Great article, but I would also add spinach and kale to the list of superfoods. They are inexpensive and are great when pureed and put into smoothies. Thanks for sharing – I need to give red cabbage a try.

    • Janas23

      You’re right!  I love Kale…used to only have it at Christmas cooked with salt-cured ham (I’m from VA!) but now I love it just steamed with a little vinegar.  My sister makes a soup with kale and cauliflower, purees it.  I think it is a Martha Stewart recipe. My sister says the secret is also using caraway seeds.  Somehow, spinach has also become a favorite, too!

    • Tenley

      Yes — KALE! Amazing leafy green. I buy the organic flat leaf kind from Whole Foods, which is less bitter than the curly leaf kind, and cook it with garlic and pumpkin seeds using this technique: 
      At $2.50 per bunch (which gives 2-3 servings), it’s a bit more expensive than some other options but way more nutritionally dense. I’m surprised it got overlooked!

  • guest

    Thanks–this was very helpful. I appreciate that you concentrated on easier to find and less expensive super foods

  • jeb

    I agree–great article! My favorite part of LearnVest is how easy everything is to understand. You educate me with pertinent and relevant information without making me feel stupid for not having previously understood a topic, be it financial or lifestyle-related. Thanks!

  • Jane

    This was a great article with lots of great information…and glad to see that great people continue to come out of UIUC!  Oskee Wow Wow!

  • http://www.accessoryaffair.com/ Lisa

    Very important article and extremely helpful-especially knowing which ‘superfood’ is not as super as it’s popularity makes it seem–example: acai berries. I am definitely sharing this article with my health concious friends!

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Q3TB4JXOPYTBX3XLYDBM5VOTKE Brandon

      Please don’t listen to the doctor on acai. She is not very well informed about what real acai is. I lived in Brazil for many years and ate acai all the time there. The price difference is small and some of the best quality actually comes to the U.S. Plus, a top frozen acai puree will be much more nutritional than she leads you to believe. I have had top laboratories test our acai purees to prove this. Of course, do avoid the juices and capsules with are over-processed as she claims, but there is no reason to believe her about acai purees which when kept frozen since harvest are some of the highest, natural antioxidant sources of food with fiber, omegas & much more.

      • Lisa_landen_thompson

        Brandon, which product do you sell? Can you share your research with us so that we can see the results? Thanks!

  • Cindy

    The Dr. is truthful in her comments regarding the acai berry.  All fruits start to loose antioxidants after picking.  However, one company, MonaVie has a patented process that helps preserve those antioxidants making the juice of the acai berry one of the best sources of antioxidants.

    • Lisa_landen_thompson

      …or at least they say they do.  How do we know that it is not just a marketing ploy for a lucrative ad campaign? MonaVie is one of the most expensive drinks you can buy.  I agree that a person is better off buying large amounts of kale, spinach, and farm-fresh eggs and eating those instead of MonaVie, saving their money, and contributing to local farmers rather than wealthy business people at MonaVie. I tried MonaVie once; I bought a bottle for about $30, I think, and was bothered for months afterward to keep buying more.  The bottle lasted 4 days because of giving my family the amount of the drink that was recommended.  I found it to be terribly sweet, and that it caused inflammation in my body due to its high glycemic index.  I never bought another bottle, and have been able to maintain good health with an organic, traditional, whole foods, low-glycemic diet.

  • http://twitter.com/bhardeman Bethy Hardeman

    Thanks for this great list! I’m book-marking it for future reference. I’m on the slow-carb diet right now, so implementing high-nutrient foods into my diet more often is critical.

  • Ime

    Great seeing my former primary care doctor featured here!! Great list and information too. Kudos.

  • http://theWardrobeCode.com Nicole Longstreath

    Great list – I love Quinoa!

  • Reina Lopez

    Wow.  Great to see list that includes foods that we can realistically include in our pantries without breaking the bank 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ADTRNI6TQPS2CJ4MHULVIYSZDY Lauren

    Great list – and thanks for tips on how to prepare some of these foods as well! This will definitely shape my grocery list.

  • Nancy L

    For those who don’t like quinoa (I think it tastes like dirt) try barley. Pearl barley is cheap, nutritious, and much lower on the glycemic index than brown rice. It’s easy to prepare also and subs great for rice in casseroles.

    • Jason

      Quinoa needs a little help in the flavor department, no doubt, but that can readily be fixed by: using low-sodium broth instead of water to prepare it, and while its resting mix in some olive oil, black pepper, and some vinegar or lemon juice.  I’ll make a salad and prepare some vinagrette dressing and use some of that to flavor the quinoa.  Yum.  The acid the key to better tasting quinoa.

      • Lisa_landen_thompson

        I agree with Jason; when prepared in a way like he describes, quinoa can be delicious! For people with gluten sensitivity, barley is not a good option.  Quinoa is also higher in protein and lower carbs, which is I really like about quinoa.  I find it easier to digest than other grains, too.

  • http://twitter.com/NewClarySageOil Gad Levy

    Eating healthy food is crucial if we want to be able to live
    healthy life, reading this article is a reminder to all of us to watch what we

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Q3TB4JXOPYTBX3XLYDBM5VOTKE Brandon

    Disagree completely on the Acai. This doctor apparently doesn’t know real acai and therefore should not risk reputation to comment on it. But, let me correct her anyhow. Acai cannot be eaten whole, it has to be processed into a pulp or puree to be eaten. This is because the acai fruit is more than 90% hard, inedible seed. The actual price in the United States for freshly frozen pure acai pulps (purees) is around the same price as you would find in the larger cities in Brazil once you factor in exchange rate. It may be slightly more, but not much more. Only if you live in the Amazon regions where acai grows can you get made-fresh-that-day acai pulp. But with modern freezer technology now available at acai pulping plants in the Amazon, they are able to harvest the acai, pulp it and freeze it all within 24 hours. So, basically, there is no loss of nutrition in the frozen acai pulps you can buy in the U.S. from what you would buy in Brazil. In fact, reputable companies like Amafruits import the highest quality acai available, much higher quality than most stores in Brazil carry. Now the doctor who wrote the article is correct in assuming that if you are buying some acai juice or capsule then you probably are getting reduced nutrition. However, the last I checked quality frozen acai pulp was about the same price as frozen organic blueberries but with at least 2 times the antioxidants plus more fiber and amino acids.  

    • Lisa_landen_thompson

      Interesting and worth looking into.  Thanks for sharing!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Q3TB4JXOPYTBX3XLYDBM5VOTKE Brandon

    This doctor is not credible on her comments about acai. 14 oz of frozen organic acai puree at store = $5.99, 10 oz of frozen organic blueberries at store = $5.99, 10 oz of frozen raspberries at store = $6.99. Frozen acai puree is processed the same whether it is sold in Brazil or in the United States or China. There should be more fact-checking before writing an inaccurate article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Hopper/1381987600 Eric Hopper

    Good article but the most powerful and beneficial superfood is not even mentioned-hemp seed. Hemp seed contains all 22 amino acids including the 9 essential aminos. Hemp seed contains the perfect ratio of omega-3 and omega-6. This perfect source of nutrition is commonly overlooked because of the stigma surrounding marijuana. So sad.

  • Gerald R Cysewski

    Dear Dr. Chaddah,
    I believe your statement about Spirulina is worth reconsidering.  Spirulina has a higher content of carotenoids than any other wholefood and is the best wholefood source of GLA, an essential fatty acid that is necessary for health but the body can only get it through food.  GLA also helps reduce inflammation.  One serving of Spirulina (3 grams, costing 26 cents) provides the level of antioxidants contained in five servings of fruits or vegetables  In addition to vitamins A, K, B1, and B12, Spirulina contains a blue pigment, Phycocyanin, that protects both the liver and kidneys from toxins.  Finally, Spirulina contains both immune stimulating compounds and anti-viral compounds Indeed, there have been over 500 studies published on Spirulina and the key nutrients found in abundance in Hawaiian Spirulina showing positive health benefits which can be viewed at http://www.cyanotech.com/spirulina/spirulina_techlit.html .  Spirulina does deserve a place in many people’s health regimens.

  • Katherene

    Excellent article well written as received.  The information is right on.  I have lost 43 pounds since last Sept.  My Dr who’s a Cardiologist has me eating these foods, and along with exercise I have been able to reboot my metabolism.  I look and feel better at 50 than I did in my 30′s.  I swear too you all who reads and heed to taking care of yourself it honestly works. Pay attention to what your body is telling you.  Focus on eating and not watching TV.  Shut down the electronics and spend it with yourself, family or friends.  Power 2U Dr. Radha Chaddah, thank you for confirming what’s been working for me.  Don’t Di-et, Liv-it.

  • lisa_landen_thompson

    This is very interesting and helpful, as I am a superfood shopper who is always looking for ways to cut costs on my grocery bill.  I think I will still continue to buy extra virgin olive oil, however; and not only that, also cold-pressed, organic, and not from the USA due to regulations on the extraction process and the possibility of solvent contamination.  I am picky about my oils and this is one I am not going to let go of ;)

  • guest

    I don’t get it they tell you to eat eggs but not body talks about the cholesterol why would they have you eat them

    • Kate

      Because you don’t absorb cholesterol from your food unless you have a medical problem. It is produced in the body as a consequence of digesting saturated fats. It is decades since there was any concern about dietary cholesterol.