Bringing you food and nutrition insights to close the gap between fiction and fact. Here we look at the world of “Superfoods”
“Superfoods” and “power foods” are catch-phrases that we hear and see in our daily lives in the media to promote the benefits of exotic, rare and often expensive specialty foods. But, just what are “superfoods” and are they cracked up to be as good as they sound?
The term ‘Superfood’ has no legal or scientific definition. So, technically anyone can label any food they are promoting as a ‘superfood’. At this very moment, a new product is no doubt being spruiked for its magical powers. Promises of weight loss, glowing skin, shiny hair or cures for cancer, delivered to you in a neatly packaged food found on wholefood market shelves. It’s almost impossible to keep ahead of the claims, information and products out there.
This article is part of Health Breaks’ Food Pods – audio Pods designed to listen to while you move! This Superfoods series will provide an overview of both the claims made in the media and the scientific evidence around popular ‘superfoods’ available today. The aim is to deliver a balanced view, allowing you to make informed decisions about the food choices that work best for you, for the right reasons.
“the superfoods label is largely all about creating consumer hype with promises of all sorts of extraordinary health benefits”
Although there is no argument against the health benefits of foods like broccoli, fish, oats, blueberries, garlic and beetroot, the “superfoods” label is largely all about creating consumer hype with promises of all sorts of extraordinary health benefits. Such hype creates a frenzy and a high demand for very expensive items to be added to the shopping list. The frenzy creates a high demand for services relating to special diets consisting of these foods. Subscriptions to special diet programs and celebrity inspired social media campaigns drive the craze even further.
Diet-driven recipes from celebrity cook books like we have seen with the Paleo diet, often list specialty superfood products like cold pressed virgin coconut oil, raw cacao, carob powder, chia seeds, maca, dried cranberries and blueberries, raw honey, cinnamon verum, himalayan salt, sumac, pomegranate molasses and more. Many of these products are challenging to locate in the average supermarket and are only available in specialty health food stores. They also often come with a price tag that makes a significant impact on the average weekly grocery budget. These products are simply inaccessible to many; are those who cannot afford these foods missing out?
In delivering this series on Superfoods to you, there are some underlying philosophies that Health Breaks will always consider in assessing the pros and cons of foods. These include:
1. National nutritional guidelines
Guidelines created for whole populations include simplified food guidance that is backed up by a large volume of peer-reviewed, non-biased (no commercial affiliations), and in many cases longitudinal and cross-sectional large population based studies. They feature recommendations that are suitable to the majority of populations. In partnership with these guidelines, we also acknowledge specific diets like vegetarianism and veganism. Also, we give special consideration and solutions to those experiencing food intolerances and allergies where national guidelines may fall short.
2. Non-reliance on specific and expensive products
Although there are some delicious products out there in supermarkets and whole foods stores, any diet that relies exclusively on these items needs to be queried. Simple products found in every-day fruit and vegetable markets are probably delivering the same health benefits at a fraction of the cost.
3. Not supporting ideas to exclude whole food groups or macro nutrients
Diets that exclude whole food groups, such as grains or dairy, are not uncommon and create huge attention because they sound special. There is an abundance of research to support that gaining as much variety as possible from all food groups is the best nutritional approach. The only valid reason to exclude whole categories of foods is for management of allergies. In most other cases, finding alternatives within the food group is usually enough. For instance, those with celiac disease need to avoid gluten products but this does not mean they must drop carbs.
4. Supporting a healthy intake of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, protein sources from animal or plant alternatives, and a low intake of ultra-processed, packaged or fast food items.
Diets and food plans that prescribe a reliance on a small number of foods and/or an over-reliance on one type of food or nutrient (e.g. protein or fat only), run the risk of creating nutritional deficiencies and increasing the risk of chronic illnesses. Our food philosophy is somewhat aligned with the Mediterranean approach, going well beyond the boundaries of food alone.
5. Considering how we eat
Healthy eating is so much more than the foods we eat. Health Breaks takes a holistic approach. It’s how we think, feel and behave around food that is also important for healthy bodies and minds. Over-exaggerating the health benefits or health risks of individual foods (unless actually toxic) can also increase the risk of disordered eating in vulnerable people. The social and emotional context of food is as important as the food itself.
6. Keeping in mind food equity and access
The belief that health is only accessible via specific superfoods can increase the gap between socio-economic groups in society. The reality is that optimal food health is accessible to everyone in the community in some form. For some, it’s a shift away from convenient and cheap fast foods towards whole food alternatives. For others, it’s limiting the over-indulgence in fancy gourmet foods consumed for enjoyment. Finding middle-ground for all people to feel they can gain health from food is an important part of our mission.
So, come along with us as we explore the super powers (or not) of quinoa, oats, blueberries, coffee, dark chocolate, wheatgrass, green tea, chia seeds, acai, ancient grains, turmeric, ginger and more.
(Author: Kristin McMaster, Director, Health Breaks – Masters in Nutrition)