Superfood or superfad?

What is a superfood?

Well, there’s no official definition according to the NHS Choices website. Even the definition found on the Oxford Dictionaries site only describes them as foods rich in nutrients “considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”.

If you’ll allow me to let you in on a little secret, I often feel a little guilty for not including more “superfoods” in my diet. I don’t use spirulina or wheatgrass, I don’t make açaí bowls or smoothies (though I do eat my Riolife açaí bars because they are delicious and shut my sweet tooth up for a few hours, for only 75kcal), I don’t drink matcha and I don’t buy raw cacao products or maca powder.

Then again, at the time that the European ban on the use of the the word “superfood” on packaging came out, spinach and blueberries were considered superfoods. Now, they are just considered plain old normal foods – that says a lot about the superfood trend, if you ask me.

I wanted to evaluate the price per nutritional value of some of the most popular superfoods, but no two sources agree on the best superfoods – which, again, is quite telling. There are some recurring names, but then lists rather pedestrian staples such as oats and brown rice, while Mercola lists whey concentrate and butter. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable fount of knowledge that is Men’s Health gives us 40 superfoods to choose from – I can’t help but think that if comic books documented the exploits of dozens of superheroes at once, they wouldn’t be all that thrilling.

More importantly, though, once I had settled on a few (kale, blueberries, avocado, green tea, coconut oil) and decided I would compare the health claims with the evidence, as well as listing the actual amount you would have to eat to reap those health benefits, it became immediately apparent to me that nobody was all that clear on why a particular “superfood” was better than another.

Take kale, who everyone now recognises as a superfood. Everyone tells us it is high in vitamins A, B6, C, and K, along with iron and calcium as you would expect from a dark leafy green. That’s all great – but how much kale do you need to eat to ensure you actually absorb enough of those nutrients to make a difference? Some sources will tell you the serving size for one nutrient, but never all of them – but surely if you’re not getting all the nutrients, the “super” quality is lost? Moreover, we can’t know that those nutrients in that combination will be absorbed (calcium tends to inhibit iron absorption, so boasting that a leafy green gives you both iron and calcium is a bit of a moot point – but then both vitamin A and vitamin C may help the absorption, so which is it?).

Of course I’m not saying kale isn’t healthy; but if you eat it by the bucketload because you believe it to be a “superfood”, you might be missing out on other components of a varied diet. Personally, I’ve had to cut kale (and broccoli) out because I don’t seem to digest them very well, making me bloat sometimes quite painfully. For me, there isn’t much that is super about them.

The problem with many of these health claims is that you can never prove or disprove them – the ethical implications prevent any solid testing from taking place; you can’t feed a number of people a diet of nothing but kale for their whole life, and deprive others of it entirely, in order to see its effects – though even if you could, it wouldn’t echo real diets. So many other factors influence our health and wellbeing – the most conclusive studies on longevity seem to suggest that a sense of community is the most important factor in leading a long and active life (as well as eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, leading active and busy purposeful lives, and the occasional genetic mutation).

I doubt many of these communities have ever heard of a superfood and while their native diet may naturally contain some of them (depending on which source you use to define your list of superfoods), they certainly aren’t striving to consume the range of berries, greens and powders that many Westerners seem to be shipping in from all over the world.

Also, have you noticed how there seems to be geographical trend for superfoods? I’m sure that a few years ago everything Japanese was revered (miso, seaweed, green tea) whereas now Peru seems to have the upper hand with quinoa, amaranth, maca, and sacha inchi. I predict we are going to see a lot more of those last two in 2014, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing amaranth in commercially-produced salads in the place of quinoa (remember the days when quinoa was something you had to hunt down in specific health food stores?).

At this stage, it is worth pointing out that the list of nutritional qualities listed for many of the common superfoods include “antioxidants”, “polyphenols”, “phytonutrients” and “fibre” – which is akin to listing every family you ever babysat for on your CV; pretty well all fruits and vegetables will contain those. Then you usually find vitamin C, which frankly is not something I have ever considered worrying about, and often vitamin A, which can be toxic in high doses. Beyond that, B vitamins, iron and calcium are often listed which is great but as I mentioned above, not all of that will necessarily be absorbed. Then all that’s left is a scattering of other vitamins and minerals, occasionally in impressive quantities but often not (particularly relative to serving size).

There is no miracle pill, but miracle berries, leaves, roots, or seeds, are every bit as fictional. I will continue to enjoy green tea (and oolong tea, which I predict will be the next big thing in 2015), dark chocolate, various berries, quinoa and amaranth, and I will still plan to treat myself to maca and matcha powders and green smoothies, but I won’t ask more of them than to be delicious.

I will be treating superfoods like a salary bonus; I’ll enjoy them when they fall into my lap, but I won’t base your budget on the hope of being awarded one.

A healthy food does not a healthy diet make, and a healthy diet does not a healthy life make.