The myth behind superfoods, a marketing gimmick

Eat quinoa and you’re sorted for protein. Slather avocado on wholegrain toast, and you’ll grow into a hipster. Throw seaweed, chia seeds, and kale into a cold-pressed juicer, and you’re Gwyneth Paltrow. Pop a few activated almonds and live forever.

All these are leading characters in the superfoods drama. Supposedly full of magical goodness and powerful health-boosting properties, these so-called superfoods are touted as ingredients that keep you super-healthy, provided you eat them regularly, in sufficiently large quantities. You’ll have to pay through your nose for some, but, say some dieticians and celebrities, who like to be seen as leading a healthful life, you are then set for life.

Well, no. Like many words that have wormed their way into our food lexicon, a superfood is an idea that is as appealing as it is false. The trouble, of course, is no one really knows what a superfood is.

Worse, there is no clear evidence that any of the foods ‘labelled’ as such are actually any better than locally grown fruits, vegetables and grains we consume every day as part of a balanced, healthy diet.

In fact, the European Union (EU) has banned the use of the word on products’ packaging unless it is backed up by “convincing research” which does not seem to exist. This does not stop food conglomerates from sponsoring research to promote a particular food.

Unregulated marketing…

In India though, the lack of strict food and marketing regulations has ensured that superfoods are “super business”, as leading nutritionist and food influencer Rujuta Diwekar puts it. “These foods fly off the shelves as all you are required to do is consume them and not make any lifestyle change… what could be better than that!” she says sarcastically. Rujuta, who has built her reputation on championing the art of what she terms ‘uncomplicated’ eating, stresses that any food that links people to the culture, climate, and cuisine of the region is a superfood.

“The idea of a superfood is that it is good for people and not profits, and that it is in tune with Nature, soil, water tables, birds, butterflies, and bees. To put it simply, something like kale would be ideal for Europeans in their winter and quinoa is a good staple for certain regions of South America. Not anywhere else.”

In their defence, all the foods that have today been accorded this elevated status are legitimate health foods. Avocado is loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats, and grapefruit is a great source of vitamin A and C. But they aren’t the only sources. Produce billed as superfoods are berries, greens, whole grains and other natural foods. It is the ‘science talk’ built around them, partly due to clever marketing, and somewhat due to ongoing dietary research, that has resulted in the rampant exaggeration of their abilities.

So what is a superfood really?

For instance, antioxidants found in most of the so-called superfoods are promoted heavily because they are said to ‘mop up’ cancer-causing free radicals in our body that have the potential to cause inflammation, early internal-body ageing, and even damage our DNA. However, many plant-based foods with colour have antioxidants. For instance, curcumin in turmeric, polyphenols in grapes, and beta carotene in carrots, all have antioxidant properties. As regular healthy people, or those who may have minor deficiencies, we don’t need blueberries or acai berries that have travelled many miles.

The best in your backyard

  • If you can find a weekly farmer’s market or fresh vegetable market in your community, you have probably found your superfoods — not one, but many.
  • Focus on finding the freshest variety of unprocessed, plant-based foods and pairing them with whole grains and some lean sources of protein in a way that delights you.
  • If you have a place to plant a small kitchen garden, the greens and little plants you grow sans lab-made chemical fertilizers, are also superfoods.
  • The local fish market is another place to find superfoods.
  • If you can cook your food at home (most of the time) and flavour it with garlic, ginger, onions and light spices, they are capable of adding joy to your meals. And joy can be a superfood too.
  • – Inputs from Dr Maya Adam and Rujuta Diwekar

Another crucial issue that adds to the confusion is that a great deal of nutrition research is sponsored by the industry itself. Bestselling author of ‘Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health’ and Professor Emerita of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, Marion Nestle wrote in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) about how “health professionals and the public are losing confidence in basic dietary advice” thanks to industry-funded studies.

Unsurprisingly, industry-funded research tends to have results that favour the products they are marketing. In 2016, Professor Nestle identified 76 industry-funded studies of which 70 reported results favourable to their sponsors. Popular claims such as grapes and walnuts are superfoods, wine has anti-ageing properties or that dark chocolate is good for your heart were found to have been funded by or its researchers closely associated with organisations such as Mars Inc., California Walnut Commission and even Coca-Cola in a particularly well-publicised research on obesity and healthy eating.

…And the problem it causes

Dr Maya Adam, Director of Health Education Outreach and Faculty Lead at the Stanford University School of Medicine, says the commercial food industry has today fine-tuned the art of responding to what’s trending in terms of consumer demands. “For example, in the 1980s, many people were trying to eliminate fat from their diets and you could see packaged foods everywhere that advertised themselves as low-fat or fat-free. (What they didn’t advertise was that they often added a lot of sugar and artificial flavours to make the lack of fat palatable.) Overall, our sugar intake increased so much that we got sick from that — and now, you can find hundreds of products on the supermarket shelf that are advertised as “sugar-free” or “low-sugar”. The same has happened with the so-called superfoods.”

Healthy and wise The local markets that provide fresh food are the best place to source your superfood

Healthy and wise The local markets that provide fresh food are the best place to source your superfood

Dr Adam says people are looking for a ‘magic bullet’ for their dietary dilemmas, and food manufacturers are capitalising on this demand by providing us with packaged (often imported and sometimes even heavily processed) versions of foods that should probably just be part of our regular diet — in their unprocessed, natural forms. Seconding Rujuta, Dr Adam says: “If avocados are available where you live, they can be a delightful, healthy addition to your salads, your breakfast or your beans and rice! If not, there are probably locally-grown foods that will serve your health just as well.”

Ultimately, there is only one dull truth that even nutritionists who are at loggerheads with each other readily agree upon — it is that nutrition science is extraordinarily complex and mysterious. The corollary clearly then is that no single food, no matter how rich in vitamins and antioxidants, can replace a balanced diet combined with regular exercise. Sadly, there isn’t any shortcut through that supermarket shelf.

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