“Superfoods” including açaí berries to maca, and tumeric1 have caught many of our attentions. It is important to know what superfoods are, what the research is currently saying and that we do not need “superfoods” to be healthy.
I have put “superfoods” in quotations for the purpose of this article as it is an undefined term and there is no way of testing for this2. In fact, contrary to common perception, they cannot prevent disease, replace medicine, or reverse the effects of an unhealthy diet1.
Foods not advertised as “super” contribute to our health; eating a balanced, sustainable diet that you enjoy is what is important. If you do enjoy “superfoods”, have them as part of a balanced, sustainable diet.
How have “superfoods” become part of our society?
Dietary patterns have changed over the past few decades, with an increase in both fruit and vegetable intake as well as meat, dairy and refined grain products3. Alongside this, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, which include heart disease, stroke and cancer4, have increased5 and so has the negative impact of the food industry on the environment6. In response to this, we have observed a demand for natural options with health benefits7. Noticeably, there has been a rise in popularity of “superfoods”7.
What are “superfoods”?
The term “superfood” does not have a universal definition7. The word itself has be interpreted to mean a superiorly nutritious food which benefits health7,8.
Research currently suggests several features which are characteristic of a “superfood”, these include:
• They are believed to have exceptional nutritional value7,8.
• They may be foods rich in a specific bioactive2 such as antioxidants9.
• They are portrayed and considered as “natural” 7,8.
• They are often associated with traditional processing which were used by indigenous communities to prevent illness7,8.
The Food Standards Agency regulate the use of the term “superfood” in the UK stating that it cannot be used on products unless they have an approved health claim10, but there is still a perception in society around these products being “superfoods”, and this may be to do with how the media and social media portray them11,12.
Foods often perceived as “superfoods” include:
• Cocoa – used to make dark chocolate13, produced in Côte d´Ivoire, Indonesia, and Ghana7,14.
• Blueberries – fruit, originally grown mainly in Asia, North America and Europe15,16.
• Matcha – a powered green tea originating in Japan17.
• Chia seeds – a flowering plant, indigenous to Central and South America18.
Why these foods may not all be so “super”...
…research limitations. The research is often correlational not causal and may not be as strong as perceived. One example is the research associating the antioxidants in blueberries with health benefits which has been found to be limited19.
…the influence of the media and marketing8. The term “superfood” has previously been commonly used as a marketing strategy in the media11,20. Instagram has been a popular tool for promoting “superfood” products21 with #superfoodsalad having over 30.5k tags as of July 202022. It has been used to directly influence the consumers food choice23.
What are the potential consequences of “superfoods”?
• Environmental impact. The increased demand means production may no longer follow the traditional practices, instead follow intensive agricultural procedures24.
Furthermore, the production of açai reduces biodiversity, avocado production contributes to water depletion and quinoa production causes soil degradation7.
Of course, it is important to note that foods not considered “super” also do have an environmental impact25,26.
• Social impact. Production of “superfoods” has an impact on the communities producing them27. For example, the increase in demand of quinoa from Bolivia, increased its price above which the local community were able to afford it28.
• Low accessibility. The high price point often seen on “superfoods” further presents an issue of access, increasingly associated with socio-economic differences and health disparities27.
What are functional foods?
There is often confusion between the term’s “superfoods” and functional foods and distinguishing between these two may help us understand the difference.
Functional foods are defined as foods with proven health benefits beyond basic nutritional needs28. Examples include probiotics and prebiotics products which contribute to gut health and plants stanols and sterols products which have been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol2.
“Superfoods” are not functional foods2.
What do we know?
Eating a balanced diet, high in plant-based products and reduced animal and animal products will contribute to a healthy life. Eating so called “superfoods” may contribute to this but no single food can compensate for an unhealthy diet29.
We do not need “superfoods” to be healthy.
Foods contributing to a balanced and healthy life which is sustainable, and you enjoy, are great! We do not need to pay a premium for products to achieve a healthy diet.
Some examples of underestimated foods include:
• Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, the compound which our body’s convert into vitamin A, and have been shown to have a positive impact on blood cholesterol30.
• Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, a carotenoid compound, which have been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors. Tomato products like tomato paste and tomato juice are also good sources of lycopene31.
• Canned fruit and vegetables have been shown to be just as good nutritionally compared to their fresh and frozen counter products whilst also being cheaper32. Consumption of fruits and vegetables are shown to reduce the risk of some cancers and cardiovascular disease mortality33.
• Brown Bread is a source of fibre containing 3.5g/ 100g34,35. Some health benefits of consuming fibre include supporting digestive health, heart health, preventing constipation and may reduce the risk of some cancers36.
• Tinned Legumes can contribute to our protein, fruit, or vegetable intake! For example, a 150g portion of baked beans, kidney beans or chickpeas is a portion of protein37, whilst an 80g portion of beans or pulses contribute to one of our five-a-day38.
If you like “superfoods”, enjoy them as part of a balanced, sustainable diet. But do remember, there are cheaper foods which also contribute to a balanced, sustainable diet; we do not need “superfoods” to be healthy.
Resources to help us achieve a balanced diet.
• NHS – Tips for eating a balanced diet39.
• British Nutrition Foundation – Healthy diet recommendations and resources40.
• British Dietetic Association – Healthy Eating Food Fact Sheet41.
This blog post was written by Emilia Fish, a Food Science and Nutrition graduate and soon-to-be MSc Clinical and Public Health Nutrition student at UCL. She is part of the Nutrition Rocks intern team and enjoys sharing simple, evidence-based nutrition on @nutritionnourishment. Emilia has recently launched a podcast: Journeys in Food, Nutrition and Sustainability.
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