Barely a week passes without a new food claiming ‘super’ status, but what exactly is a ‘superfood’, and is it really worth all the bother?
Superfoods are usually billed as plant-based (though do incorporate some dairy and fish) and nutritionally dense, packed with the cancer-fighting properties of antioxidants along with healthy fats to fight heart disease. Superfoods are also laden with photochemicals which are responsible for those appealing smells and rich colours—think avocado, pomegranate, ginger, blueberries and salmon. However, less well-known, harder-to-source foodstuffs such as acai and goji berries have been jumping on the superfood bandwagon, and good for your health they may well be, but not so much for your wallet.
Dr Emma Beckett, a nutrition scientist at the University of Newcastle says that most will associate superfoods not just with nutritional density and antioxidant content, but images of them being traditionally enjoyed by an “ancient, beautiful, population”, lending them a certain “X factor”.So, could it be that superfoods are all about style over substance—or, rather, perhaps, sustenance?
“Foods are not drugs,” writes Marion Nestle, an author and professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, for The Atlantic. “To ask whether one single food has special health benefits defies common sense… ‘Superfoods’ is an advertising concept.”
International market research firm Mintel discovered 2015 saw a 36 percent increase around the world in the number of foods and beverages launched labelled as a ‘superfood’, ‘superfruit’ or ‘supergrain’, even though questions were already being raised about the credibility of superfood claims. The previous year the journal Nutrition and Cancer published a paper called ‘Reality check: no such thing as a miracle food’ which stated: “Stories of ‘miracle foods’ sell magazines and advertising space; food industries often sponsor research to show that their foods or products are superior, and supplement industries look to boost sales.”
And boy are such techniques working. A 30,000-strong Nielsen survey has found international shoppers are willing to pay over the odds for ‘super’ items, while two years ago The International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity concluded the consumption of superfoods is highest among those that are more well off, lending credence to the argument that they may just be a bit of a (healthy) pose.
“If goji or acai or whatever is your favourite berry to eat, and you can afford it, go ahead,” Dr Beckett tells ABC, while lamenting that adding such ‘super’ labels to certain foods simply serves to propagate the myth that eating healthy is expensive. The doctor points to a study that showed just as many antioxidants reached the bloodstream from the consumption of apple sauce as with acai pulp, “but no one’s going to believe that apple sauce is a superfood”.
Registered dietician and CEO of US nutritional consultancy VitalRD, Jessica Crandall Snyder, even goes as far as to partly blame them on the demise of the humble banana. With a bounty of berries boasting ‘superfood’ status, they’re being bought at the expense of the less-antioxidant-laden banana—which just so happens to be a super source of potassium (the average American, for instance, only consumes around half their recommended daily potassium intake).
And what of those fabled antioxidants?
Antioxidants combat unstable molecules, known as ‘free radicals’, that can cause cell damage that leads to diseases like Parkinson’s and cancer. However, not all free radicals are bad. “They’re absolutely essential to life,” Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, director of the antioxidants lab at Tufts University, tells Men’s Health. “For example, immune cells will shoot free radicals onto invading bacteria in order to kill them. They’re an important part of the body’s defences.”
It’s when free radicals gather in excess numbers—boosted by the likes of cigarette smoke, pollution, too much sun, and maybe even ageing—that health issues occur. Enter antioxidants. However, not all antioxidants are created equal, either. Blumberg advises picturing antioxidants as an army, comprising generals, corporals and privates and so on, each with their own strengths and roles.
It is misleading, verging on dangerous, to make blanket statements about all antioxidants’ abilities to battle all cancers. As Dr Beckett points out, the doses applied in lab studies to cells is likely impossible to achieve through consuming certain food: “So to say it kills cancer—it doesn’t kill cancer. If you extract the compounds from its concentrate, it kills cancer, but the general public doesn’t get that six degrees of separation thing that’s happening between the studies and the marketing.”
The answer is to to make healthy, colourful choices from across all food groups, regardless of their so-called ‘super’ status. The antioxidant content is just fine in that traditional—if unfashionable—produce forgotten at the back of your fridge.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends we follow plant-based diets with plenty of whole grains accompanied by moderate levels of animal protein. Processed foods should be kept to an absolute minimum. ‘Super’ or not, these are the types of foods you should be aiming to consume on a regular basis:
Berries. Though blueberries are usually billed as the boss of this food group, all are a super source of fibre, vitamins and phytochemicals.
Dark, leafy greens—think kale, spinach and cabbages. Broccoli can be included in this vitamin-, mineral-, and fibre-laden list, too.
Beans and legumes not only brim with protein, hard-to-find trace minerals and fibre and antioxidants, but help lower cholesterol as well. Swap them for some quinoa when you fancy a change.
Nuts and seeds are known for their healthy fats, but go easy as they’re also loaded with calories. Avoided salted options.
Oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, sardines and mackerel should be eaten a couple of times a week.
Poultry—grilled, roasted or baked, and skinless—is a far healthier choice than red meat.
Whole grains such as oats are packed with B vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. They keep you feeling full for longer, reducing the temptation for unhealthy snacking, while helping to lower cholesterol and fend off diabetes.
Yoghurt, preferably the reduced fat option, is a great source of calcium and protein, not to mention all those probiotics for better gut health.