SUPERFOODS - DO THEY REALLY EXIST

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“Few lies can be told in one word, but “Superfood” manages it.”

 

This quote, which I read recently in an article by Leo Benedictus in the Guardian, is one of the best I’ve read in a while. I think it sums it up perfectly as the term ‘superfood’ has become a phenomenon – you see it in every supermarket, shop and website. It’s huge… but ultimately meaningless. This word, ‘superfood’, pulls us into the same old trap of moralizing food (which we already know is not only wrong, but potentially unhealthy). Now, we not only have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, but also ‘super’ foods which are supposedly more healthy, healing and even maybe fat fighting! Why have a regular bowl of healthy porridge when you could throw in some chia seeds and goji berries and BHAM – now you have a bowl of ‘Superfood Oats’!

In a recent survey of more than 1000 UK adults, 61 per cent admitted to buying a food because they considered it a ‘superfood’. Thirty per cent agreed that “superfoods are scientifically proven to have health benefits” and 14 per cent said they were willing to pay more as a result. Are we being ripped off?

Unfortunately, the harsh truth is that the term ‘superfood’ has no scientific definition and is no more than a clever marketing technique. The Oxford dictionary definition of superfood is that it is no more than “a nutrient-rich food beneficial for health and well-being”.  So, what makes kale a superfood but broccoli not? Or why do we think of goji berries as ‘super’ but not apples or oranges? The answer: absolutely nothing.

While it is great to encourage everyone to take a real interest in their health, nutrition and trying to eat healthily, we need to be careful to 1) follow the evidence, and 2) be vigilant to fact-check what we read / write. Most people aren’t aware of the actual scientific research and what it says. When something is well marketed, looks good and sounds like it is going to magically provide a solution, we all have a tendency to believe it (or want to). It is so important, though, to question what we read or are trying to be lead to believe.  Superfoods are a great example of this: they sound appealing, are well marketed and seem to solve a ‘problem’. So do I blame anyone for falling for the hype – of course not! But we do need to realize that it is all just hype – and very expensive hype at that! So, try not to take everything at face value, and in this specific example, just ask yourself: ‘why is this called a superfood?’

So, why are foods somehow deemed to be ‘superfoods’? Usually, it’s because they are nutrient dense, containing many minerals and vitamins.  So, these foods are by no means bad for you, and could very well be part of your healthy diet – but they are often no different from other ‘non-super’, nutrient-dense foods! Blueberries, for example, are not superior to apples. They have different nutritional value and contain different nutrients, but both are as good as each other – both have their place. In the same way, kale is not superior to asparagus.

Sometimes, the reason why certain foods are considered superfoods aren’t even particularly valid. Take quinoa, for example. While it is a very tasty grain, I would say it is far from being super. We are told it is a superfood as it is a plant-based complete protein source. While this is rare (most plant-based protein sources are incomplete, and need to be combined with one another to have a full amino acid profile), it leads us to believe something that isn’t true. Quinoa is marketed as a great plant-based protein source – but it just isn’t! Per 100 calories, you get 3 grams of protein… so to receive a decent amount of protein from quinoa (let’s say 20g), you would need to eat 700 Kcals worth of quinoa! So, not so super after all, is it?

The issue is that, according to the American heart association, there are no criteria for determining what is, and what is not, a superfood. So while some foods may be superior in nutritional value to others, superfoods simply do not exist.

This isn't to say you shouldn't eat the foods labelled 'superfoods'. If you like them, then by all means have them - but keep two things in mind:

1) Like all other food, moderate the portion sizes as you can still overeat healthy foods.

2) Eat these foods because you enjoy them, not because you think they are super or superior in nutritional value to other foods.

*Side note: if you want a quick answer about certain topics related to health and fitness,  there are groups on Facebook, such as “Eat, Train, Progress”, that are full of people who do a lot of research and reading on all things health and fitness. You can get pretty good and quick responses to any questions you might have without having to do hours and hours of research!*