How ‘Super’ are Superfoods, really?

I am wary of these food companies and them slapping around the label of ‘superfoods’ everywhere. What is even more saddening is how much people are willing to pay for any food which is touted to be one. Food manufacturers and producers of fresh produce are capitalizing on the lack of awareness amongst consumers to charge premium on fruits like berries, vegetables like kale, and supplements containing powders of fruits and vegetables. Although it is true that some foods may be nutritionally richer than others but context is important, it is crucial to analyze your diet in totality along with your lifestyle and risks of diseases to recommend what foods can be ‘super’ for them.


How it all began.

Back in early 1900s, a US based fruit importer United Fruit Company published pamphlets describing nutritional value and health benefits of bananas in order to up their sales. The publications pointed out their practical benefits of being cheap, nutritious, easy to store, easily digestible and tasting good even when cooked. They suggested recipes of how bananas could be added with cereals in breakfast, with salads for lunch and cooked with meat for dinner. Around this time studies were being conducted on celiac disease and gluten as the culprit was yet to be discovered. The American Medical Association, based on findings by physicians studying the banana diet, declared that bananas in children’s diet could prevent or even cure celiac disease. This propelled the image of bananas as a medicinal food and mothers across the US made sure their kids ate plenty of them, even if they didn’t have celiac disease. The United Fruit Company cashed in on this opportunity and used this information as an effective advertisement tool. Thanks to the press headlines, this soon became a trend called the banana diet craze.

Another, more recent example is of the blueberries. In 1991, the National Institute of Aging (NIA) and USDA developed a rating tool called Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) which measured antioxidant capacity of foods. Blueberries were among the top scorers and were promoted as “antioxidant rich” with inflated claims about how they can help prevent all sorts of diseases risks ranging from cancer to mental and cardiovascular disorders, even though the scientific evidences were weak. After 20 years, the USDA withdrew the information after advanced studies concluded complexity of antioxidant functioning in humans, but the image of blueberries has suffered no depreciation amongst the masses, rather the cultivation of blueberries has exponentially increased.


What is a ‘superfood’ and why is it so expensive?

There is no scientific definition yet, but general terms foods which are nutritionally rich and have significant health benefits are called superfoods. Because there is no proper definition, the label superfoods can be applied to virtually any food without facing any regulatory repercussions; this has allowed food companies to rake in about 137 billion dollars in 2018 and is expected to reach 209 billion dollars by 2026.

According surveys conducted on superfood sales, buyers, especially those who are health conscious are willing to pay a premium for products they perceive superior to their conventional counterparts or cheaper varieties. Food companies greatly profit from this consumer behavior which is why something simple as multigrain flour or a seed mixture may be priced higher in comparison to staple grains and local nuts.


The bigger picture.

Our wellbeing is dependent on multiple factors where just focusing on a few foods labeled ‘superfoods’ would be a grave injustice. Factors like overall diet, stress, sleep, physical activity and genetics play crucial roles in keeping our immunity strong and body healthy. Having a varied diet of whole foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables is more beneficial as compared to just adding a few ‘superfoods’ while rest of your diet is mostly ultra processed and junk foods. Sure the superfoods will have a positive impact but it can be outweighed by the damage done by a poor overall eating pattern, lack of exercise and incomplete rest. Each food has its own benefits pertaining to its peculiar nutrient profile so rather than stressing on singular foods, its far better to work on building healthy eating habits. Plus buying foods which have the label of superfoods may be too expensive for many, but fret not if you strive to eat clean you’re good!


The takeaway box

In this age of convenience, we are always after ‘quick fixes’ for everything including our health. I have come across so many people who think dieting is all about eating superfoods and detox juices to ‘fix’ their body. Sure diets like these may work but not because there’s anything miraculous about them, eating minimally processed foods and drinking plenty of water will always be healthier. I do acknowledge that some foods are rich in nutrients beneficial for health and there’s no harm in adding superfoods in your diet if you can afford it but it is imperative to understand that superfoods are not medicines. I have listed some superfoods in my blogs about lifestyle disorders but they are ‘super’ for those particular cases of disorders because every food has its own merits. Including variety of foods in your diet can provide you with all the micronutrients the body needs to be healthy while avoiding deficiencies.


References:


Hancock, R. D., McDougall, G. J., & Stewart, D. (2007). Berry fruit as ‘superfood’: hope or hype. Biologist, 54(2), 73-79.


Inoue-Choi, M., Oppeneer, S. J., & Robien, K. (2013). Reality check: there is no such thing as a miracle food. Nutrition and cancer, 65(2), 165–168. https://doi.org/10.1080/01635581.2013.748921


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Meyerding, S. G., Kürzdörfer, A., & Gassler, B. (2018). Consumer preferences for superfood ingredients—The case of bread in Germany. Sustainability, 10(12), 4667.


Mordorintelligence.com. 2020. Global Superfoods Market | Growth | Trends | Forecast (2020 - 2025). [online] Available at: <https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/superfoods-market> [Accessed 22 July 2021].


Reisman, E. (2019). Superfood as spatial fix: the ascent of the almond. Agriculture and Human Values, 1-15.


Sikka, T. (2016). Contemporary superfood cults. Food cults: How fads, dogma, and doctrine influence diet, 87-107.


The Nutrition Source. 2018. Superfoods or Superhype?. [online] Available at: <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/superfoods/> [Accessed 21 July 2021].