Thursday, 18 December 2014

So What is a Superfood Anyway?

Sorry I'm a bit late with my post tonight.  I got caught up at work, and even though I love blogging, I had to choose the bit that paid the bills :)

I was thinking the other day that there seems to be lots of superfoods being splashed across magazines and advertising campaigns.  I had never really stopped to understand what a superfood is defined as.  So I decided to do a bit of investigation, and then share with you.

Is there a definition of 'superfood'?

On the one hand, sometimes superfoods are defined as foods that are nutritionally dense and therefore good for your health.  'Nutritionally dense' may include details such as those rich in antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids.

What I did find interesting that seems to be a common theme is that there is no scientific meaning to the term superfoods, and that any list of such foods is purely subjective.  In fact, it is often proposed that the term is primarily used by food companies as a marketing tool.  The food industry wants to persuade us that eating some foods can slow down the ageing process, lift depression, boost our physical ability and even our intelligence.

I found quite a few references to the fact that dietitians are not fans of the labeling of foods as super.  It has been argued that by using the term superfood, food advertising is just tapping into the consumer's desire to believe that eating a single food item will cure us of our health ails.

What do some health professionals say?

A spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association is quoted as saying that "No food, including those labelled 'superfoods', can compensate for unhealthy eating.  If people mistakenly believe they can 'undo' the damage caused by unhealthy foods by eating a superfood, they may continue making routine choices that are unhealthy and increase their risk of long-term illness."

Dietitians avoid the term superfood and prefer to talk of "super diets", where the emphasis is on a healthy balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods.  Becoming too fixated on one antioxidant or one nutrient in food can make you lose sight of a really important point: nutrients in one food or a combination of foods can work together in synergy to benefit your health.

Food synergy is a simple way to look at healthy eating: consume a variety of wholefoods each day for optimal health instead of the 'food of the moment'. Wholefood is food eaten in as near as possible to its natural state, with minimal processing.  The advice given is that instead of focusing on superfoods, eat a range of wholefoods.

A researcher from Tufts University advises that, "What is ultimately the most important to good health is a dietary pattern that includes all these foods, along with a wide variety of other nutritious foods and regular physical activity."

And of course, we have to remember that portion size matters, even when it comes to healthy foods. You can take more liberties when eating simply prepared vegetables, but you should take care to eat other super foods in sensible portions.

What about those superfoods I've heard of?

Below are a list of some of the recognised 'superfoods', with links to research into whether they live up to their superfood hype.

  • blueberries One of the best fruits you can choose
  • goji berries The evidence of health claims are weak - spend your money elsewhere
  • dark chocolate The positive evidence is associated with cacao, rather than chocolate
  • oily fish There is strong evidence that fish is good for your heart health.  Go for it!
  • wheatgrass No higher nutritional value than other fruits and vegetables.  Don't bother!
  • pomegranate juice health benefits are inconclusive, but can count towards your daily fruit intake
  • green tea again, health benefits appear to be inconclusive, but it won't hurt you, so go ahead
  • broccoli may not live up to the superfood hype, but it certainly has many important nutrients to support numerous body functions
  • garlic great flavour, nothing special when it comes to health support
  • beetroot a great addition to a balanced diet, but no specific health benefits
There are obviously a bunch of other superfoods out there that I haven't looked at.  I found this really interesting!  I think the takeaway for me is to consider how these foods fit into a balanced diet, but that there really is no one (or ten!) foods that will be the answer.  I kind of feel like I'm back to where I started, with eating a range of real, whole foods.

I still like goji berries in my porridge though!  They are staying :)

I'm not a doctor nor have I had any medical or nutrition training.  I was just interested in the topic and did some research myself.  Consult your health adviser if you have specific questions about your health or obtaining health related information.


What do you think about superfoods?  Fact or fiction?  Do you have a superfood you swear by?

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