How super is your superfood?

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Health / Myths

Chia seeds, goji berries, kale, blueberries, turmeric, green tea, quinoa, açaí (which I’ve now learned is pronounced ‘ah-sah-ee’). There’s no shortage of so-called superfoods. But what does that term mean, and are superfoods worth your money?

So much healthy goodness….all in one bowl. Photo by Chef Mick (Michaelangelo) Rosacci via Flickr.

All in a name

Need to lose weight? Want to slow down ageing? Want to minimise your risk of cancer and other diseases? These days you could be forgiven for thinking all you need to do is eat the latest miracle superfood and your ongoing good health is guaranteed.

Superfoods are marketed for their high nutritional value and extraordinary health benefits and the marketing appears to work. A UK survey found 61% of people bought particular foods because of their superfood status. The study also found people are willing to pay more for superfoods. Research suggests we see superfoods as somewhere between food and medicine and that the higher your socioeconomic status, the more likely you are to eat superfoods.

It pays to know there is no scientifically-agreed meaning of the term ‘superfood’: it’s not a legal or regulatory term like ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’. Superfood is a buzzword created to make us believe a particular food has crossed some nutritional threshold of goodness. But it hasn’t.

Interestingly, using the term superfood on food packaging or in marketing isn’t regulated in Australia or the United States. But there have been very tight restrictions around its use in the European Union since 2007.

What’s so super?

One reason superfoods are so alluring is because we know modern western eating habits are often less-than-ideal. We’re well aware of the steadily rising rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related conditions. Foods and diets that appear to be more natural, primitive, traditional and authentic are inherently appealing.

It’s no coincidence that many superfoods have a history of traditional use by ancient or indigenous communities. For example, maca powder – often advertised as an ‘Incan superfood’ – comes from the root of a Peruvian vegetable and is said to improve energy, stamina, fertility and sex drive.

Australian researcher Jessica Loyer describes the packaging of one popular brand of maca powder: women in traditional Andean clothing picking vegetables by hand and placing them in woven baskets. In reality, men, women and children wearing jeans all harvest maca into plastic bags, using tools and in some cases, modern machinery.

Another incredibly appealing aspect of superfoods is the notion that by adding superfoods to your diet, you can compensate for your other bad habits. No need to change your doughnut-a-day habit if you add goji berries to your muesli. The muffin you had at morning tea is healthy because it was packed full of blueberries.

And although superfoods may be advertised as green, sustainable products, unfortunately the opposite can be true. As demand for these superfoods increases, so do the potential profits: it’s no wonder some farmers are abandoning their traditional production methods. But the resulting monocultures, soil degradation and increased use of fertilisers and pesticides are resulting in serious environmental and ecological problems.

What’s the evidence?

Why do some foods end up being touted as superfoods? Often because research has shown a particular component of that food does have specific health benefits. But the problem is the evidence generally comes from animal trials or lab experiments that don’t well represent the complexities of the human body. Just because a particular ingredient kills cancer cells in a lab experiment doesn’t mean eating lots of food containing that ingredient will stop you getting cancer.

There are experiments on people, but they tend to test the effect of very high amounts of a particular ingredient over a short period. For example, an ingredient in cinnamon, cinnamaldehyde, has been shown to reduce cholesterol in people with diabetes. But as nutrition research scientist Emma Beckett has calculated, you’d need to eat about half a supermarket jar of cinnamon each day to get the same amount of cinnamaldehyde as in the study.

It’s a similar story with blueberries.  Blueberries (like red wine) contain resveratrol which is a compound claimed to reduce the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. But to get enough resveratrol for the potential benefits, you’d need to eat roughly 10,000 blueberries a day. That would be both time-consuming and expensive!

So what should we eat?

There’s plenty of information out there on what constitutes a healthy diet. And if you can afford it and like the taste, there’s no reason not to include some ‘superfoods’ in your diet. But if kale doesn’t do it for you, you can also get essentially the same nutrients from cabbage, spinach, broccoli or brussels sprouts. Nutritionists tell us variety is the key to a healthy diet.

Personally, I like the idea of the rainbow diet – making sure I eat fruits and vegetables of a variety of colours. And I reckon Michael Pollan’s adage is worthy of its fame: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’.

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