The most conservative definition of a superfood is a food rich in vitamins or antioxidants, high in fiber and low in calories. By consuming it we get a lot of the good and not much of the bad! For the true believer this does not go far enough. Advocates, and marketers, claim that superfoods go much further and actually contain nutrients that boost health beyond the bounds of simple healthy eating.
So, are superfoods the secret to a healthy diet and a long life or are they the latest in a long line of hyped up health fads? Are there foods out there that not only feed us but have to power to regenerate our body. The European Union doesn’t think so! In 2007 it banned the use of the word superfood for marketing purposes unless backed up by a specific medical claim supported by credible scientific research.
Part of the problem is that nobody has come up with a definition of exactly what is meant by the term superfood. Since the scientific understanding of nutrition is based around avoiding deficiencies in essential nutrients, the idea that some substances can boost health is radical. It is also pretty unscientific! Many of the properties of the nutrients in superfoods have only worked in a test tube rather than inside the human body.
Let’s look at one superfood in more detail and analyze the claims made on its behalf; the acai berry has been heavily marketed as a miracle berry with exceptional health boosting qualities.
Sellers of acai products quote the incredibly high antioxidant content of the tropical Brazilian berry, actually a palm tree fruit. An independent analysis found that acai has lower antioxidant potency than acerola, mango, strawberry, and grapes. Furthermore, a study by the Centre for Human Nutrition at the David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, found that acai has lower antioxidant potency than pomegranate juice, red wine, Concord grape juice, blueberry juice and black cherry juice.
Sellers also mention the acai berry’s huge oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score caused by high anthocyanin and flavonoid levels. Both the US Food and Drug Adminstration and European Food Safety Authority have stated that no food compounds other than vitamins A, C and E have been proved with antioxidant efficacy in vivo. This means that while some phytochemicals such as anthocyanin may be powerful antioxidants in the test tube this effect is not duplicated inside the human body. In the US and Europe it is currently illegal to imply potential health benefits on package labels of products with high ORAC.
The case for the superfood status of the acai disappears under close analysis faster than the savings of people who have signed up for the latest miracle acai product.
Healthy nutrition is more a case of making sure you are not deficient in essential nutrients than it is about loading up on the latest miracle compound. In general, beware of any marketing department or health guru claiming that a certain food will dramatically enhance or boost your eyesight/sex drive/memory or reduce your wrinkles/belly/joint pain. The concentration of a vitamin or mineral in a food is less important that the total amount of it you actually eat.
So far, not one food has proved to be kryptonite for cancer or to get rid of wrinkles after one bite. Everybody has heard the urban myth about the man who ate nothing but carrots and turned orange; he never got to see in the dark. Nutrition simply doesn’t work like that.
It is just as healthy to eat a few locally sourced, seasonal plums as it is to queue for the latest miracle berry from the Amazon. Both probably contain the same nutrients and vitamins even if you have to eat an extra plum or two to get your RDI. Seasonal plums are also cheap, even free, while that punnet of berries might set you back a fortune.
Superfoods are best thought of as nutrient rich foods that, as part of a balanced diet, allow us to easily ingest all the essential nutrients our body needs. If they taste good at the same time, More’s the better.
Superfood: A food exceptionally rich in one particular nutrient known to be beneficial to health or a food that has a high level of several beneficial nutrients. Oily fish qualify due to their high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids while blueberries are rich in a number of antioxidants and vitamins.
Phytochemical: A chemical compound occurring naturally in a plant food source that is thought to be beneficial to health but is not yet established as an essential nutrient. Examples would be beta carotene and lycopene.
RDI: Recommended Daily Intake.