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Are superfoods really super?

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8 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long
concept image with blue background showing half a brain and half a walnut

It’s hard to walk through a supermarket without seeing products advertised as superfoods. Superfoods have become incredibly popular in the last decade, and a diet full of them is considered a signifier of good health.

But while these foods seemingly stand head-and-shoulders above the rest when it comes to nutritional value, how beneficial are they really? With a growing number of nutritionists and dietitians debating the utility of designating certain foods as ‘super’, here is a look at where the term came from, and the science behind it.

Defining a superfood

Superfoods are a diverse bunch and finding one concrete definition to accurately describe them is difficult. What is a superfood, then? The Cambridge Dictionary explains the term as “a food that is considered to be very good for your health.” Some of the most commonly recognised superfoods on the market today include blueberries, kale, spinach, walnuts, beans, kefir, yoghurt, turmeric, avocado and sweet potato.

Different superfoods, and products that contain them, claim to offer a diverse range of benefits – no two are the same. Some offer an abundance of vitamins or healthy fats, and others come with antioxidants, flavonoids, minerals, carotenoids and more. Such properties seemingly come with a wide range of benefits when consumed, from increased energy and better concentration, to improved general health and weight loss.

Another common belief is that superfoods can be disease preventing. The idea of food as medicine is a long-held belief for a great number of human civilisations, and many remedies – like ginger for a stomachache – span multiple cultures. Superfoods usually claim to go one step further. For example, many suggest wheatgrass can slow the spread of infections, and that spinach can treat gastrointestinal issues.

It began with a banana

It is thought the United Fruit Company coined the phrase superfood in the early 20th century. As the US business began large-scale imports of bananas, it utilised the term to attract consumer attention to the fruit. Informational pamphlets published at the time sung the praises of the humble banana – the fruit was cheap, nutritious, easily digested and sealed in a handy all-natural package. Calling the banana a superfood was just a quicker way to celebrate these virtues.

In the years since the United Fruit Company popularised the phrase, superfood has been widely adopted as a synonym for health. But it was the US government which supposedly crowned one of the world’s most widely touted superfoods: the blueberry. When the US Department of Agriculture developed a tool for rating the antioxidant level of certain foods in the early 1990s, blueberries topped the list. The berries were subsequently heavily promoted as a disease fighting health food and production and sales skyrocketed.

However, some 20 years later, the USDA retracted the information provided by the antioxidant tool following new science which put the utility of high antioxidant consumption into question. Despite this, the blueberry is still considered among the best examples of superfoods.

What’s in a name?

In our era of social media especially, online users have crowned countless products as superfoods, from açai and chia seeds, to goji berries, kale and wheatgrass. Because there are so many foods which are lionised as superfoods, it is hard to find any sort of commonality between them. Blueberries offer vastly different nutrients than quinoa or kefir, for example. The reason it’s so hard to work out which foods are ‘super’ and which aren’t is that there isn’t actually a methodology behind it.

The term superfood doesn’t have any scientific standing,” explains Dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine. “Nutrition is a complex science and eating well will look different for everyone.” When brands or consumers refer to something as a superfood, she says they’re often describing something which is simply “an unprocessed, whole version of a food”.

Because of how amorphous the term is and the lack of regulation surrounding it, it is good practice to be sceptical of superfoods. To this end, the European Union banned the general use of the term on food packaging back in 2007. Now, to be able to utilise the label, brands must be able to reference credible scientific research relating to a specific health claim.

Where modern superfood trends come from

Some superfoods have seemingly stood the test of time – fruits and vegetables like kale and blueberries are continually touted as uber health foods. But others seemingly burn bright and fast, ascending to superfood status quickly, usually through the help of social media.

Many of the trendiest modern superfoods are often just foods borrowed and appropriated from other cultures, says nutritionist Rohini Bajekal. The practice of adopting traditional foods from typically non-Western cultures is particularly popular among social media wellness influencers, she says.

One recent example of this according to Rohini is turmeric latte, which is derived from the Indian haldi doodh, a milky drink infused with the spice which used to treat sickness. These lattes are sold as incredibly healthy additions to diets, often with a huge mark-up in price. Rohini explains: “Taken out of their cultural context and applied in a totally new way, they are often marketed as having ‘miracle’ properties.”

Marketing disguised as health

While there is little concrete science behind superfoods as a concept, one thing is sure: superfoods sell. According to Statista, the global superfoods market is valued at around $152.7 billion (around £130.7 billion). What’s more, this is projected to rise to almost $215 billion in the next five years.  These figures show that despite the fact many diet and nutrition experts play down the benefits of so-called superfoods, the market is not slowing down. Nichola tells Food Matters Live this is because of how persuasive the superfood mythos can be.

“It can be really tricky to try and work out what is actually good for us because of clever marketing and just the huge variety that we have available to us,” she says. Additionally, because the label superfood isn’t regulated, companies can play fast and loose with what they call a superfood.  

“So-called superfoods can often be marketed as expensive and they don’t always taste great, but you accept this under the belief it is ‘really good for you’,” Nichola explains. Additionally, she says, because so many of these superfoods are not kitchen staples, there is often a sense of self-consciousness about not incorporating – “you feel like you’re missing a trick,” Nichola says.

Is there any truth to superfoods?

It is absolutely true that the vast majority of so-called superfoods are good for you. But Rohini says it is worth remembering they are usually no better for you than other foods. “Despite marketing claims on various superfoods, and their often considerable price tag, there is nothing miraculous about these foods whatsoever in comparison with regular healthy foods,” she says.

Referencing research conducted by New Scientist, Rohini explains that often, the ‘normal’ equivalent of a superfood is just as nutritious, if not more. Goji berries and blueberries, for example, are just as good as any other berries. Kale is incredibly nutritious, but so are other cabbages and dark leafy greens.

The justification behind other superfoods is even more shaky. The same New Scientist research revealed that superfood mainstays like quinoa, wheatgrass and coconut water did not have any particularly ‘super’ nutritional values. Additionally, in the instance of coconut water, consumers had to also contend with a vastly bigger environmental footprint over regular tap water.

Making smart superfood decisions

With so many conflicting claims surrounding superfoods, it can feel intimidating trying to make the right decision in the supermarket aisle. Marketing is convincing, and many people just want to make smart and healthy decisions when it comes to the diets of themselves and their families.

The goal of experts like Nichola and Rohini isn’t to completely warn people off superfoods – many are nutritious and delicious. More so, they are keen to promote the fact diets thrive on variety, and that no one needs expensive and obscure foods to be healthy.

If you enjoy foods that have been labelled a ‘superfood’ then that is a good addition to your diet, but they shouldn’t be the only foods in your diet,” explains Nichola. “Ultimately, your body doesn’t need a specific ‘superfood’ to look after your health. It is more important to include foods that you enjoy, that you can afford and can use for different meals throughout your week.”

Rohini advises consumers to simply employ caution when dealing with superfoods. “Be wary of any dietary advice that suggests you need to include one particular food or supplement that will magically cure all ailments and remember to always consult your doctor before consuming new supplements,” she says. Ultimately, if a superfood’s miraculous abilities seem too good to be true, it’s because they probably are.

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