Superheroes may be fiction, but is there a future for superfoods?


Stan Fields asking Miss Rhode Island (Cheryl) to describe her perfect date.

Now, those of you familiar with my favourite quote from the 2000 film “Miss Congeniality” will surely remember how Cheryl misinterprets this question. The thing is I would too. My perfect date would be fresh with a soft and chewy texture. In my case, I refer to the fruit. But not only do dates taste good, they also have a great biochemical composition of essential vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, carbohydrates, phenolic acids and carotenoids 1. With the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties this composition is thought to provide, dates are often considered a “superfood” – a marketing term for foods that provide health benefits due to their high nutrient densities 2. Eating superfoods has become desirable for extending ones healthspan (disease-free lifespan), especially since aging is a major risk factor for cancer, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases 3. Targeting aging through diet would therefore be an effective strategy to minimise the incidence of multi-morbidities and likely be a cheaper option than treating the diseases individually, helping to reduce healthcare costs 4. As global increases in healthspan continue to lag lifespan, are superfoods the solution to prevent this additional lifetime spent in morbidity?


Well, there is no scientifically agreed definition for a superfood 2, neither is the term commonly used by scientists and dietitians. This is partly due to a lack of scientific evidence supporting their health claims, but also because superfoods individually cannot substitute a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet 5. But what if effective superfoods could be created, that not only provide nutritional value, but are accessible to everyone ensuring food security in an environmentally friendly manner? With the global population predicted to exceed 9.6 billion by 2050, doubling crop demand 6, and estimates of up to 20% of life spent in late-life morbidity 3, developing a superfood would be a desirable goal, but is it attainable within my lifetime?


Redefining the superfood – super for the body and the planet

The current so-called superfoods gain their title from the wealth of vitamins, minerals and chemicals they possess which claim to reduce blood pressure and cancer risk 2. Redefining superfoods as healthspan enhancers would require the addition and tinkering of crop components to achieve this, followed by substantial testing of their efficacy to gain scientific approval. Much hype is currently surrounding a variety of drugs that are beneficial to extending lifespan and/or healthspan in various species 3. These include drugs like metformin 7, which is currently registered for clinical trials against aging, resveratrol 8, spermidine 9 and rapamycin 10. The latter three are produced naturally from different biological sources but incorporating them into the synthesis of edible crops simultaneously at various concentrations or using chemical derivatives of the drugs, or novel drugs yet to be discovered would enable the crops to be distinguished from currently available superfoods. Regardless of the contents though, these crops would have to grow fast even in limiting conditions to meet the demands of the global population estimates and thus show abiotic and biotic stress resistance. This is all to avoid the food system placing a major toll on land use, biodiversity reduction, freshwater usage and pollution from fertilisers, which are major contributors to climate change 11.


Making a superfood

How could this idea be turned into a reality? Improvements in yield, quality and stress-resistance have already been achieved in crops using genome editing. This involves identifying genes contributing to these traits and mutating them accordingly 6. CRISPR/Cas gene-editing systems have the potential to advance the pace of targeted modifications and incorporate foreign gene clusters for the synthesis of desired drugs 12. Gene clusters for the synthesis of natural drugs like resveratrol can be sought from the original species from which they were discovered 13 whilst metformin would require ingenuity to modify the synthesis pathways of related natural chemicals 14. Modifications of this sort would bring superfoods into the realms of synthetic biology – the application of biology and engineering to design and produce novel biological components 6,15 – in this case, novel regulatory gene circuits for the biosynthesis of the selected drugs into crops. More gene clusters are likely to be discovered through genome mining ventures and high-throughput sequencing to explore the vast amount of biochemistry out there 16. But regardless of the method, international cooperation for superfood production would take time; the European Union currently treats genetically modified (GM) crops with the same stringent regulations as GM organisms. This would limit the planting and selling of the crops and investment opportunities for research and development 17.


Why should I care?

Aging and sustaining the planet that we live on affects us all. This includes the future generations to come. If aging can be targeted in a way that also deals with the competing battle between crop production and climate change 11, it should be a high priority goal to strive towards. Sure, there are many logistics to tackle; how to gain research funds for developing crops, identifying drugs to enhance healthspan and their effective and safe doses through clinical trials, how to incorporate the drugs into edible crops, organising international discussions on the ethics of using CRISPR and how to regulate accessibility of the superfoods to everyone. But we have the tools to get started; whether the breakthrough comes on the 25th April or another future date within my lifetime, superfoods congenial for health and for the planet would benefit us all.



  1. Tang, Z. X., Shi, L. E. & Aleid, S. M. Date fruit: Chemical composition, nutritional and medicinal values, products. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture (2013). doi:10.1002/jsfa.6154
  2. Danaher, S. Miracle meal or rotten swindle? The truth about superfoods. New Scientist (2016).
  3. Partridge, L., Deelen, J. & Slagboom, P. E. Facing up to the global challenges of ageing. Nature (2018). doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0457-8
  4. de Magalhães, J. P., Stevens, M. & Thornton, D. The Business of Anti-Aging Science. Trends in Biotechnology (2017). doi:10.1016/j.tibtech.2017.07.004
  5. Katz, D. L. & Meller, S. Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health? Annu. Rev. Public Health (2014). doi:10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182351
  6. Chen, K., Wang, Y., Zhang, R., Zhang, H. & Gao, C. CRISPR/Cas Genome Editing and Precision Plant Breeding in Agriculture. Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. (2019). doi:10.1146/annurev-arplant-050718-100049
  7. Barzilai, N., Crandall, J. P., Kritchevsky, S. B. & Espeland, M. A. Metformin as a Tool to Target Aging. Cell Metabolism 23, 1060–1065 (2016).
  8. Bhullar, K. S. & Hubbard, B. P. Lifespan and healthspan extension by resveratrol. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta – Molecular Basis of Disease (2015). doi:10.1016/j.bbadis.2015.01.012
  9. Eisenberg, T. et al. Cardioprotection and lifespan extension by the natural polyamine spermidine. Nat. Med. (2016). doi:10.1038/nm.4222
  10. Bitto, A. et al. Transient rapamycin treatment can increase lifespan and healthspan in middle-aged mice. Elife (2016). doi:10.7554/eLife.16351
  11. Springmann, M. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature (2018). doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0
  12. Yin, K., Gao, C. & Qiu, J. L. Progress and prospects in plant genome editing. Nature Plants (2017). doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.107
  13. Kiselev, K. V. Perspectives for production and application of resveratrol. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology (2011). doi:10.1007/s00253-011-3184-8
  14. Bailey, C. J. Metformin: historical overview. Diabetologia (2017). doi:10.1007/s00125-017-4318-z
  15. Church, G. M., Elowitz, M. B., Smolke, C. D., Voigt, C. A. & Weiss, R. Realizing the potential of synthetic biology. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology (2014). doi:10.1038/nrm3767
  16. Ziemert, N., Alanjary, M. & Weber, T. The evolution of genome mining in microbes-a review. Natural Product Reports (2016). doi:10.1039/c6np00025h
  17. Callaway, E. CRISPR plants now subject to tough GM laws in European Union. Nature (2018). doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05814-6

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