Sex, Lies & SuperFoods
Superfoods – they’re almost seasonal fashion statements. Kale is the “nouveau” broccoli, blueberries are “de rigeur”, quinoa is the grain “du jour” and flax seeds are so “passé”.
Maybe I’m showing my age, and hopefully not cynicism, by saying I’ve seen too many foods and nutrients exiled to “zero” in one decade, only to be reinstated as “hero” in the next … and vice versa.
I’ve seen manufacturers make outrageous, unsubstantiated claims in order to make a fast buck from the public’s obsession for quick-fixes and promises of longevity and super-human powers.
I’ve read the blogs of supposedly reputable high-profile health, nutrition and medical “authorities” regurgitating outlandish claims about the latest “superfood” – because it makes tasty website clickbait and boosts TV ratings.
But how many of these stories are backed by solid evidence? Sadly, it’s hard to tell.
In our information-saturated age, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what to believe. And even if you read the “evidence”, nutritional studies are notoriously unreliable.
Superfoods or Snake Oil?
In some respects, “superfoods” have become the modern “snake oil” – with sweeping claims of curing cancer, infertility, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, insomnia, psoriasis – to name just a few.
If this sounds rather negative – it is not intended to be so. I strongly believe that “food is medicine” and “you are what you eat” – there is much evidence to verify this – and in this section of my website, I hope to provide you with guidance as to which foods are truly beneficial to your health, and not just over-priced marketing hype.
The superfood movement is (unfortunately) ripe for fraud, as multi-national companies have seen the potential for enormous profits. As a consumer, you need to be aware.
In most cases, superfoods, by definition, should be exotic and rare. And because the logistics of transporting perishable fruit half way around the globe is prohibitive, manufacturers scramble to turn it into a powder, pill or potion.
This, of course, increases production costs. In turn, this means you need a good marketing campaign to convince the public to open their wallets. You need to do something to get your product noticed. The best way to do that? Tell the world your miraculous rainforest berry cures just about everything, and get it on TV (Tip – The Dr. Oz Show provides a perfect platform for such promotion).
And if some form of “scientific” proof is required, just fund your own study – the public won’t know the difference (and neither will many of those who jump on the bandwagon and rush to promote it on their websites and in the media), and the industry is essentially unregulated.
By the time the public realises the ruse (or loses interest), the manufacturers have made their money, and are starting production on the next superfood fad. Several supplement manufacturers have landed on the wrong side of the law for exaggerated advertising.
Even if a food has been studied, the difficulty is in knowing the “source” of the product you buy. Any type of plant can vary significantly in its nutrient content depending on the exact variety of species/cultivar, and its environment – the soil, climate, altitude, etc, whether it was cultivated or wild-crafted. How was it collected and processed? This can make a significant difference in the quality. Drying, heating or pulverising can affect nutrients. How would you know whether the berry you are buying is the exact same berry that was studied and delivered promising results? You probably wouldn’t.
Food supplement labels are often missing such vital information, the law regarding these products is hazy (some might say lazy), and some manufacturers unscrupulously take advantage of these factors.
What is a superfood?
There is no official definition of a “superfood” – which is why the term tends to be used with such abandon. The EU has banned the use of the word on product packaging unless the claim is backed up by convincing research. A number of well-known brands have been forced to drop the description.
However, the media is free to use the term freely in news headlines – and it does.
Yes, Super Foods Do Exist
Many superfoods are, indeed, “super foods”. They contain literally hundreds, even thousands, of active compounds, including phenolics, flavonoids, pigments, antioxidants, fatty acids, protein, vitamins, minerals, fibre, proteins, starches – the list is seemingly endless – and it is the interaction of these nutrients that makes these foods so special.
It’s also what makes them so “unknown”.
For all our perceived cleverness, we really don’t know that much about the food and plants on our planet. Sure, we can measure how much of a particular vitamin or mineral or nutrient they contain. But they also contain myriad substances of which we are not even aware. And we don’t understand that much about the synergistic properties of nutrients – how they work together within the same fruit or vegetable, nut or grain. Likewise, we don’t understand exactly how these nutrients affect the cells of our bodies.
Food is an integral delivery system. Eating diets rich in fruits and vegetables is known to be beneficial to health. But the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables may not necessarily be reproduced by consuming purified extracts of phytonutrients or supplements with vitamins. Evidence suggests that in some cases it is the complementary and/or synergistic effects of several of these phytonutrients that promotes health or produces protective effects against disease, and that isolating one or another of them can potentially be less beneficial for human nutrition than consuming the whole food in which a phytonutrient is found.
Additionally, it’s not just about nutrients – it’s also about the bio-availability of these nutrients. How easily are they absorbed and utilised by the body? Just because a certain food contains high levels of a particular substance, this does not guarantee it can be absorbed and utilised by the body as well as another food with a lower concentration of the same nutrient.
Enter another paradox – it is often claimed that whole foods are better than supplements, the implication usually being that food is “natural” and supplements are “synthetic” or “manufactured” – positive vs. negative.
Once again, it’s not quite that simple. For example, manufactured vitamin K supplements offer much better bioavailability than their plant-based equivalents, due to the vitamin K in plants being tightly bound to membranes.
Another classic example is turmeric (or curcumin). When consumed in food form, its bio-availability is quite low. When combined in supplement form with black pepper extract (piper nigrum), it is considerably more effective, offering many proven health benefits. So, while turmeric could be considered a super food, it is much better taken as a supplement.
Many supplements have a natural and synthetic form, allowing these nutrients to be accessible to many people. For example, if synthetic vitamin B12 supplements could not be produced, it would be very expensive and an unsuitable option for vegans, many of whom require a consistent source of supplementary vitamin B12.
There is less incentive to thoroughly study and promote common, inexpensive everyday veggies, than there is to perform a quick (often-biased) analysis of a difficult-to-obtain wild berry that lives high in the Himalayas, with associated myths of immortality, and a price tag to suit.
And it’s much easier to get the media and the public excited about a Himalayan berry, than it is to generate lots of hype about apples and oranges.
The problem with the superfood industry (a multi-billion-dollar industry), is that it usually pretends to know more than it actually does.
Labelling a certain food as a superfood tends to elevate it above other foods. And herein lies the danger.
We could be relegating certain foods into obscurity when, in fact, their nutritional content is just as valuable (or even more so) as another more “sexy” or “in-vogue” fruit or vegetable, grain or legume. For example, inexpensive beets and walnuts could have far more to offer than their costly counterparts, such as goji berries.
Superfoods – The Verdict
Eat the rainbow. Eat a wide variety of different foods of different colors – all in moderation. Eat real foods – unprocessed, fresh, and preferably organic. If you enjoy a particular “superfood” (and it doesn’t break your budget), include it in your diet as you would other fresh, healthy wholesome foods. Don’t get caught up in food fads and fashions.
Do your own research. Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear. Do not expect one food to be a miracle panacea for all your ills.
Good food is good medicine. Superfoods can be super foods.