Superfoods...or super marketing?

We weigh into the superfood debate and ask some people in the know what their views are on this popular trend.

From acai berries and coconut oil to bee pollen and organic raw cacao powder, the food industry is awash with ‘superfoods’. Some people swear by them, while others say it’s a load of nonsense. We asked those in the know to unravel the superfood debate.

What is a superfood?

“Although there is no scientific definition in its truest sense, a superfood is something that has a high concentration of nutrients and offers a health benefit above that of other foods,” says Emma Beckett from the department of Human Molecular Nutrition at University of Newcastle.

The term ‘superfood’ originated in the 1970s, but in the last few years superfoods have become increasingly exotic. Superfoods may well have high nutrient contents but are often no more potent than everyday healthy foods – the main difference is their heavy marketing as novel ‘new’ foods and the health claims that often accompany them.

The unsubstantiated health claims of some superfoods are also causing consternation among health professionals. The promises range from the ordinary (‘packed with antioxidants’) to the life-changing (‘slows the growth of cancer cells’), but unfortunately for those looking for a quick fix or a miracle cure, most of these claims are unproven. 

In 2007, scepticism about these types of claims led to the European Union banning the use of the term ‘superfood’ in marketing unless it is backed up by an authorised health claim.

Superfoods are often no more potent than everyday healthy foods.

Hip-pocket health

While there may not be any serious health dangers of exotic superfoods, they can be expensive. If you fork out $60 per kilogram for ‘vitamin C-rich’ goji berries you may be disappointed to learn that they have about the same amount of vitamin C as an orange.

Cost aside, becoming overexcited about superfoods can lull people into a false sense of nutritional security.

“People focusing on a small group of nutrients means they could neglect to eat a wide range of other foods,” says Emma. “They think: ‘I’ve had my healthy superfood for today, so I can relax about the rest of my diet’.

“No single food item has enough superpowers to replace a balanced, varied and healthy diet.”

The bottom line is that we need to eat a ‘rainbow’ of different colours and types of fruit and vegetables. “Kale is wonderful, but so are spinach, broccoli and cabbage. People tend to eat the same fruit and vegies over and over again,” says Catherine Saxelby, a well-known nutritionist.

“Green smoothies are also a wonderful trend – anything that encourages people to eat more fruit and vegies should be welcomed,” Catherine adds. “Swap your morning coffee for a green smoothie and see how you feel.”

The bottom line is that we need to eat a ‘rainbow’ of different colours and types of fruit and vegetables.

Some suggested everyday superfoods: 

  • Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts
  • Asian and leafy greens
  • Tomatoes
  • Grapefruit, orange or lemons, berries
  • Oats, wheat germ, brown rice, quinoa
  • Almonds, flaxseed, chia
  • Eggs, pink salmon and oily fish 
  • Yoghurt and soft cheeses
  • Green herbs – oregano, thyme and basil
  • Tea

The debate about superfoods is sure to continue with more ‘new discoveries’ being made all the time. However, after talking to experts it’s clear that many everyday foods can be just as ‘super’ if they’re rich in nutrients, low in salt, saturated or trans-fat, or sugar, and are easily available and affordable.
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