Are superfoods really all that super?


The term superfoods first appeared in a Canadian newspaper in 1949. Ironically, this was to promote the health benefit of a muffin (we’re all guessing blueberry). From then, momentum has grown for this food. Er… what? After all, superfoods are not a food group. They are rather your salt-of-the-earth unprocessed food items – it’s just that they’ve had a marketing campaign to rival Brexit. We now exist in a time where we are led to believe that there are such things as superfoods and only those superfoods can make us happier, healthier, extend our lives and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, strokes and cancer. Yet as a result, the worry is that focus on a balanced, well-rounded diet (much more sustainable for all) has been lost. Superfoods, it’s time to reveal yourselves…

What is a superfood?

It’s a made-up word. If you look to any national authority in health or nutrition you will find that no official definition exists. Why? Because a superfood is simply a marketing term for a food that is thought to have super-added health benefits over other foods.

What do superfoods claim?

Superfoods often claim extra-large quantities of health-promoting vitamins and minerals, prevention of diabetes, as well as cancer-staving antioxidants and healthy fats that stop heart disease. Just to be clear, there is no single food that stops cancer. A balanced, healthy lifestyle can help with that.

Has there been much research into superfoods?

Now, this is interesting. If you were to put into an online search engine the word “superfoods”, you get millions of pages. When I typed the same word into PubMed, one of the most well-respected health and life sciences search engines to find research publications on them, I got 21. Not 21 million. Just 21. It is not real science.

Can you give examples of superfoods?

Just to be clear, the list below showcases foods that are good for you. The use of the word “superfood” attached to them is marketing. I guess it’s just shorter than “foods that are thought to be a good part of a balanced healthy diet and lifestyle”.

* Blueberries: rich in antioxidants, soluble fibre and vitamins.

* Kale: rich in vitamins A, C and K, fibre and calcium.

* Salmon: rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

* Sweet potato: rich in vitamin A and fibre.

* Avocado: rich in omega-3 fatty acids, A, C, D, E, K vitamins and B Group vitamins.

Is there any regulation for superfoods?

Well, to back up the fact that superfood isn’t a real thing, in 2007 the marketing of products as superfoods was banned in the EU. This was unless there was a credible claim. A “credible claim” of something being “extra healthy” is, as you can imagine, open to all manner of spin.

Balance is the real superpower

Superfoods are not the answer. The answer is having a balance in your diet – balance in accessing core nutrients from a diverse number of food sources including fruits and vegetables (rather than just having a goji berry super-day and getting the runs). By placing additional focus on a superfood, we are taking the spotlight away from this fact. And, sure, I can see why it happens; we are in 2019 and we want the latest quick fix for all facets of our life. Why opt for the dryness of a well-rounded balanced diet when you can go to your food specialist and pay £20 for a five-gram pot of berries. We see the same ethos in how we exercise.

What’s your final message?

While the advancement of nutritional understanding is a valuable arm to learning how to live happier and healthier lives, let’s not get too distracted by the bright lights of radical and isolating claims. Instead, perhaps we need to take a step back and be a little more Hippocrates (460-370 BC) – he was a chap who seemed to have had the right idea right from the start: “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”

Dr Nick Knight is a GP. Follow him on Instagram @dr.nickknight

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