What is a superfood?
Superfoods are a range of foods that have gained mass credibility in recent years due to their high concentrations of nutrients. The lists of superfoods is ever-expanding, but some of the more common superfoods include goji berries, acai, matcha tea, berries, quinoa, maca, turmeric and kale. Almost anything healthy these days is being cited as a superfood, as well as some surprises like red wine and dark chocolate.
Some sites are listing over 100 foods that can be considered superfoods, with many of them described as having cancer-fighting or anti-aging properties, or that they can increase brain function or lead to weight loss. But are these foods really as super as we are led to believe? Should we be taking the superfood trend seriously or is it all just down to marketing?
The marketing behind superfoods
The term superfood has been floating around since the 1990s, and since then it has become a household term for pretty much any food that is nutrient-dense or unusually high in antioxidants. Studies are coming out almost weekly with a new way that the enhanced nutrients of superfoods can help us live longer, or beat cancer, or fix pretty much any ailment, mental or physical.
This emphasis on the healing and enhancing powers of superfoods has become exaggerated due to the effects of marketing. It is no longer enough to eat healthy – you need to be eating the healthiest, most nutritious version of what is out there. Brown rice just won’t cut it these days if there’s quinoa available – a grain with one of the highest protein and nutrient densities.
A side effect of this is that marketing often works too well – for example, quinoa’s superfood status has caused the demand to skyrocket. This has not only increased the price for the average consumer, but it has increased the price for the growers as well, who used quinoa as a staple in their diet for centuries before the western world caught wind of its nutritional value. Between 2006 and 2013, the price of quinoa tripled per tonne, making it one of the more expensive grain options out there.
Don’t believe everything you hear
Many of the studies that are conducted around superfoods cannot be relied on for conclusive results due to issues like too short of a testing period, not enough test subjects and uncontrollable variables, to name a few. They may also not be conducted on humans. For example, a test around resveratrol found in red wine showed that it extended the lifespan for yeasts, roundworms, fruit flies and mice, suggesting that it could be linked to having a positive effect on the ageing process. However, the equivalent dosage of resveratrol for a human would take several bottles of wine daily, which is a fatal amount for pretty much anyone.
While there are ongoing studies into the anti-cancer properties of a number of superfoods, the reality is that it has been tried and tested that eating more vegetables and fruits per day, sticking to unrefined sugars and carbohydrates as much as possible and limiting the consumption of animal fats is a proven way to stay healthy.
The only major benefit to superfoods is that you can consume more nutrients from less quantity, but these foods don’t contain anything different to what is in a regular varied diet with plenty of fruit and veg. These foods don’t possess special powers and are often an expensive way to get the nutrition you need.
So, as is often the case when something seems too good to be true, the superfood myth may be just that – a myth created by clever marketing. By presenting these foods as having special health powers, we are more inclined to buy them as an easy ‘cheat’ solution to living healthier. Foods like acai, maca or goji berries are pricey, and the truth is there are a lot of cheaper options you can include in your weekly shop that are just as good for you that contain a ton of nutrients. Remember when you shop that all fruits, vegetables and grains are good for you, and you don’t need to alter your diet to specifically contain superfoods. This would not only limit your diet, but it also increases the price of your weekly shop.
Unfortunately, when it comes to living healthy there isn’t really a way to cheat – it all comes down to making long term changes, including a balanced diet rich in good whole foods, exercise and activity.
Written by Katherine Ramsden, Nutritionist
Nutrition Force is a Western Australian based company of Nutritionists and Accredited Practising Dietitians that offer weight loss programs, private dietetic consultations, children’s nutrition & dietetics, school nutrition and Corporate Wellness programs. If you would like more information on our Perth Dietitians and the other services we offer call us today on (08) 9385 7755.