Move over broccoli, spinach is so yesterday and pasta is old school. Quinoa, kale, chia and avocado are just a few foods having their moment. These foods are coined the buzz word ‘superfoods’, but what does this mean? Let’s take a closer look at whether superfoods are really that super?
The term superfood has been around since the beginning of the 20th century1. A simple internet search of this word brings up 47,8 million results predominately from health and nutrition blogs, magazines, online articles and providers of nutritional supplements. But why the hype now?
Superfoods are in the lime light due to a growing public interest on health and wellness. The media is full of reports on these ultra-healthy foods that claim to boost our bodies to prevent illnesses and aging. Question is – is there truth to these reports?
Despite its popularity in the media, there is actually no official or legal definition of a superfood. According to the NHS, the ‘EU has banned the use of the word on product packaging unless the claim is backed up by convincing research2.’ In general a superfood refers to foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whose nutrient content will result in a health benefit above that of other foods. These foods usually contain high levels of antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals.
EVIDENCE ON SUPERFOODS
Blueberries are one of the most popular superfoods around and have been studied in depth by scientists who are curious about their health properties. Blueberries are high in anthocyanins, a group of antioxidants that have been reported to stop the growth of cancerous human colon cells and kill them off3.
Acai berries are high in antioxidants, which are molecules that help protect the body’s cells from harmful free radicals. These potential benefits have yet to be studied in humans2. Studies including pomegranate juice have suggested that it can lower blood pressure as well as reduce oxidative stress4. This therefore assists in reducing the risk of heart disease.
Beetroot has high levels of nitrate which when converted to nitric oxide has shown to help lower blood pressure and lower the tendency of blood clotting5. Coffee contains antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients which have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer in many studies. Cocoa, high in flavonoids, has also been claimed to help decrease the risk of heart disease by increasing the elasticity of blood vessels and decreasing blood pressure6.
There are so many studies out there that look at the health properties of foods. At first it will seem as if these lend weight to the existence of superfoods. They certainly do have nutrients that will benefit individuals but when digging deeper one sees that these studies are not always realistic. Many of the studies are done in a lab and the conditions under which these foods are studied are very different to what individuals consume in their everyday lives2.
Most studies use very high levels of nutrients2. In a typical diet you wouldn’t reach these levels. Another factor is that too often these physiological effects are short-term meaning one would need to eat a huge quantity of kale every day for the rest of your life to have the intended benefits. This is just not very realistic. Consuming foods often to reap the health rewards could be counter-productive. Think of cocoa in the form of chocolate. Eating this often will increase one’s flavonoid content which has health benefits but will also increase overall fat and sugar intake. These extra calories may result in weight gain.
A huge problem with many of the studies is that they tend to use animal models such as rats, or in vitro experiments using isolated batches of human cells2. These studies help scientists to determine an idea on the health properties but there is no guarantee that the effects are the same for humans.
Lastly, these studies often study nutrients in isolation. We never just eat one food alone, we eat combinations of foods. Some foods are also better absorbed in combination with one another such as iron and vitamin C. Therefore a diet that contains a variety of healthy foods would be a better option than one that contains a few superfoods.
A FEW EXTRA THOUGHTS
Other considerations include the media. They have such a great influence on the way we perceive things, they often exaggerate the benefits and the scary thing is, consumers believe it. The media makes us think that superfoods are like super heroes and that they will help you with the unthinkable. Sadly most of these claims are for marketing purposes7.
Have you ever considered the ecological impact some of these foods have? When we look at avocados, a lot of deforestation has taken place to make space for avocado trees. These trees need as much as 272 litres of water to produce half a kilogram of fruit (two or three avos) 8.
Superfoods are often significantly more expensive, these will surely break the bank. Instead of buying one superfood at a high price but the rest of the diet lacking in nutritious, healthy options, one can get greater benefits from eating a healthy balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean protein options, low fat diary, healthy fats, wholegrains, nuts and seeds as well as including physical activity into our daily routine. Let’s focus on our total diet instead of a few out shooters. It is unrealistic to expect a narrow range of ‘superfoods’ to significantly improve our overall wellbeing9.
The ‘superfood’ label may give the impression that these foods are better than other foods in our diets. In reality there are many other foods which offer the same benefits. Apples, carrots and onions are all packed with health-promoting nutrients such as fibre, beta-carotene and flavonoids. Wholegrains are high in dietary fibre, these are also more readily available and affordable9.
Superfoods do have nutritional and health benefits when consumed as part of a balanced, healthy diet. Do not be fooled by its name. Many other food sources are just as great. Just because kale is trending doesn’t mean this leafy vegetable is superior. We need to think beyond super foods and focus on our diet quality, reducing sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, processed foods and calories (if our goal is weight loss) and increasing wholegrains, fruits and vegetables. We constantly want the magic quick fix, today it will be chia seeds, tomorrow blueberries and the next day kombucha. Let’s look beyond that and focus on what we are eating over the entire course of the day.