We all know the importance of healthy eating, and we all know the dangers that come with a bad diet and an unhealthy lifestyle, but it can certainly get confusing with all that conflicting information out there. The concept of ‘superfoods’ is no different. The term has been subject to both praise and condemnation since it became popularized in the 1990 book Superfood by Michael Van Straten and Barbara Griggs, although it still remains quite firmly in the lexicon of many health-food advocates. In fact, between 2011 and 2015, the number of food or drink products containing the word ‘superfood’, ‘superfruit’, or ‘supergrain’ has doubled, and they claim to be stuffed full of nutrients and antioxidants that will not only make you look and feel better, but will ultimately help you to live longer. That’s quite an appealing consequence, but are superfoods really as super as they claim to be?
Alison Rumsey at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in New York City explains that superfoods are those foods which have a high content of vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants, and they are important, she claims, because “a lot of things can cause inflammation in our bodies, and cells get oxidized, which can cause many different disease states. Antioxidants help to get rid of these free radicals that happen when you have oxidation”. Superfoods can lower your risk of chronic disease, improve the ageing process, improve depression, increase intelligence, and improve physical ability, according to advocates.
Although, as the American Heart Association point out, there is no set criteria for determining what exactly is and is not a superfood, there are certainly some foods that fit the description of being especially nutritious and as a result, seem to uphold the idea that superfood advocates seek to promote. Take almonds as an example. There is solid, scientific evidence to show that almonds are one of the richest sources of vitamin E, and research demonstrates that they can help control cholesterol and blood sugar whilst reducing inflammation. Avocados, similarly, are fantastically rich in nutrients, providing around 40% daily recommended intake of fiber for a woman, 25% vitamin C, 16% vitamin E, 39% vitamin K, and 30% folic acid – all of which makes avocados great for cholesterol control, for diabetes, and even to act as a natural sunscreen. Kale is another oft-stated superfood that has the research to back it up. At only 33 calories for 100g, kale has 200% of your daily vitamin A intake, 134% vitamin C, and a massive 700% vitamin K, making it great for bone health and to help prevent blood clotting. With evidence like that, it’s hard not to take superfood claims at face value.
Except that not all claims are as open, honest, and as well researched. Take the açai juice fad, for example. After being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008, sales of açai juice rocketed to $104 million in a year, and it cost consumers a shocking $40 a bottle - all because it was marketed as a superfood. It must good then, right? With clear scientific evidence to back up the claims? Of course, there is nothing wrong with the juice, per se. It’s not nutritionally bad, but the açai berry is “nutritionally unremarkable”, containing just 6% of your daily recommended intake of vitamin A. When you compare that to the humble carrot, which contains 100% of your recommended intake, it’s easy to see which is the better option – both for your body and for your wallet! Goji berries tell much the same story. The berries that Dr. Oz described as “the most potent antioxidant fruit that we know” have a very similar nutritional make-up to other, less exotic (and thus, less expensive) fruits.
Is it all a lie?
Of course, that’s not to say that companies are outright lying when it comes to labelling their foods as superfoods though. There is a wealth of research that is industry funded, and what research there is tends to look at food extracts or particular chemicals found within said foods, rather than the foods themselves. The problem with that, of course, is that it can be difficult for the results to carry over into the real world. Take garlic, for example. Garlic was found to contain a nutrient that reduces cholesterol and blood pressure, but in order to replicate laboratory results, you’d need to eat 28 cloves. So, by taking these scientific results and using them in their claims, food companies are turning the term ‘superfood’ into a mere marketing technique.
In fact, the word ‘superfood’ as a descriptive in marketing is not regulated by the FDA, although in 2007, the European Union banned food companies from describing their products as superfoods unless the claim was well-supported. Food industry expert Phil Lempert explains that “the word ‘superfoods’ is on a lot of products that probably don’t deserve that designation because, like the terms ‘new’, ‘fresh’, or ‘free’, ‘superfoods’ has become a buzz word”. Even nutritionists and dieticians are wary of using the word, as Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St. George’s Hospital in London explains that “the term ‘superfoods’ is at best meaningless and at worst harmful. There are so many ideas about superfoods that I don’t know where best to begin to dismantle the whole concept”.
So what’s the answer?
The problems we face with our diets is not so much a lack of superfoods, but rather a diet that is too high in processed, fatty, and sugary foods. Balance and healthy eating is the answer then, and not being swept away by the latest fad. Fruits and vegetables are good, and there are many antioxidant-rich foods that don’t necessarily get the attention they deserve – peppers, oranges, grapefruits, etc. Lempert says that “practically everything in the produce department is a superfood,” so forget about marketing claims and eat plenty of varied fresh food. Nutrition expert Penny Kris-Etherton explains “eating superfoods won’t hurt you. Most are very healthy,” but also, be aware of myths that are perpetuated by marketing companies. The benefits of dark chocolate and red wine don’t justify a night of over-indulgence no matter how appealing that may sound!
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 Jennifer Sygo (2015), Are ‘Superfoods’ Really That Good for You? From Kale to Coconut Water [online], available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/are-superfoods-really-that-good-for-you-from-kale-to-coconut-water-10471531.html, accessed 07.01.2017
 Cited in Ibid.
 NHS Choices, op. cit.
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 Sandra Levy, op. cit.
 Wikipedia, op. cit.
 Vanessa Santos (2017), Superfood or Super Myth? [online], available at: https://virtuagym.com/blog/lifestyle/nutrition/superfood-super-myth/, accessed 07.01.2017
 Sandra Levy, op. cit.
 American Heart Association (2017), What’s so super about superfoods? [online], available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Whats-so-super-about-superfoods_UCM_457937_Article.jsp#.WVeJhYiGOUk, accessed 07.01.2017
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