Superfood or Supermyth??
Superfood is a widely used catch-all phrase, common on the internet and in the marketing of exotic (and normally expensive) fruits and vegetables. But just what exactly makes a food ‘super’ and are they a superfood or supermyth?
‘Superfood’ has no meaning among nutrition scientists – the people that know the most about the science of food. The word has no legal definition, so anyone can label any food they are promoting as ‘super’. It is commonly used to sell foods promoting fat loss.
There is no debate that foods like broccoli, soy, fish, oats, blueberries, garlic and tea all have lots of great health benefits, but these aren’t the focus of this article. There isn’t a lot of profit to be made by marketers in promoting these foods. It is the superfoods that are attached to a large amount of marketing hype with promises of all sorts of extraordinary health benefits, but coming at a very expensive price premium, that I want to focus on.
Acai is a cherry-sized purple berry fruit of the acai palm. Laboratory studies with cells and animals suggest it MAY have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects. As yet, little in the way of human clinical studies examining its health effects have been published, making any health-benefit claims made about it premature to say the least.
The claims and marketing of acai are best summed up with a quote from a 2011 research article in Phytochemistry Letters “It is a poster child of the power of the Internet to promote products for which only limited phytochemical and pharmacological information is available.”
Wheatgrass is a popular juice prepared from the seed leaf of common wheat. It is the darling of the popular commercial juice bars. Common claims include its ability to be a blood cleanser and ‘detoxifier’. Such claims are attributed to the ‘natural plant enzymes’ and the chlorophyll content of the freshly-juiced grass.
The claims get even more amazing when you read and hear that one 30 mL ‘shot’ of wheatgrass is nutritionally equivalent to one kilogram of vegetables. Such a claim is complete and total utter nonsense. The nutrient composition of wheatgrass is similar to that of broccoli or spinach. In fact, a single floret of broccoli, or a tablespoon of spinach, will contain more folate and vitamin C than a shot of wheatgrass juice.
Claims made about the health-giving benefits of chlorophyll are more wishful thinking. As any high school student of biology would know, chlorophyll is key to allowing photosynthesis to occur in plants, but such a process requires sunlight. Even if chlorophyll could be absorbed by our body (which it cannot), there is little sunlight that makes it past our skin. Further, the supposed high chlorophyll content of wheatgrass is no different to that of other green vegetables.
Kefir will extend your life?? No, it will not. The truth: Kefir is a wonderful, healthy product that originated in the Caucasus Mountains centuries ago. Made from milk, it tastes like yogurt and has natural probiotic cultures that may be healthy for your digestive tract. There is nothing wrong with drinking it–at least, there wasn’t, until American manufacturers dumbed it down. The fat-free, sugary drink thickened with laboratory gums and brightened with artificial colours would be unrecognisable to Eastern European cultures. Look for a natural, unsweetened version and add some fresh fruit.
I love kale. It’s crunchy, with a sweet peppery flavour. I eat it all the time, in salads and cooked as a side for dinner. Kale has important vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants… you know the story: it’s very healthy. However, kale isn’t magic. It won’t make your hair grow back , it won’t improve your sex life, and it won’t do anything other than supply excellent, inexpensive nutrition–like a lot of other vegetables. The healthiest thing you can do is to eat kale along with a wide variety of other fresh fruits and vegetables, very often. And please, do not buy dried kale (or anything else) in pills at the health food store; you may be buying someone’s lawn clippings. Seriously.
Superjuices prove not so super after all
Antioxidants are the most common nutrients focussed on in in the promotion of superfoods. Antioxidants are chemicals found in foods, especially fruit and vegetables, which help protect the body’s cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.
So how do the turbo-charged antioxidant claims made about the superfoods discussed here stack up? In 2007, CHOICE measured the antioxidant levels of a range of different samples of goji, noni, and acai juices. Remember, these juices are heavily promoted for the health benefits they give arising from the high level of antioxidants they contain.
The results of independent CHOICE testing were damming for superfood antioxidant claims. Compared to the antioxidant content of a red delicious apple, all of the juices tested contained only between 10 and 30% the amount of antioxidant capacity of a regular apple. I call that a fail for marketers of these foods who are making a tidy profit from the poor consumer hypnotised by their spin.
To gain the equivalent amount of antioxidants found in a red delicious apple, you would have to consume five 30 mL serves of goji juice costing you a hefty $10. And it would take five 30 mL serves of noni juice, costing $7.50, to get the same amount of antioxidants as that found in a single navel orange. Clearly, on a serve-by-serve basis, many common fruits such as strawberries and apples, contain more antioxidants than heavily marketed ‘superjuices’, and are far cheaper. So Supermyth not superfood.
What you need to know
Beware of exorbitant health claims made about miracle exotic foods that have little scientific evidence to support them. Such claims are typically associated with expensive boutique foods. If it sounds too good to be true chances are that it is. The fundamentals of a healthy diet, will give you close to the optimal health your body can achieve. Focus on eating earth grown nutrients (fruit and vegetables), lean sources of protein and slow releasing carbohydrates. Have a look at some of our healthy recipes created by Personal Trainer Scarlet Hollands.
So next time you are about to buy the latest Superfood being sold to you by your local Whole Foods or Planet Organic, think, is this a real superfood or a supermyth?