So today’s post is born out of a conversation I had with one of my friends the other day on superfoods. There is so much to say about “superfoods”, and so today, I thought I would give you a bit more insight into the topic. Let us dive into superfoods – fact or fiction?
What is the Definition of a Superfood?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a superfoods as “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health“. At the moment, though, there is no scientific or regulated definition of superfoods. Rather, this term was coined by the marketing industry in order to identify and promote foods which are beneficial for our health, have nutritional value, and/or prevent disease.
The First Superfood
The ever-first “superfood” that was marketed was… a banana. Import levels of bananas were meant to go up in the US in the early 20th century and so a food marketing strategy was developed in order to promote said import. Pamphlets were printed with advantages of bananas and how they were beneficial to our health, in particular for children. Bananas have natural packaging against germs and can be eaten all day long – from being added to cereal in the morning, salads at lunch, and fried alongside other foods for dinner in the evening.
Simultaneously, scientific research was published which pointed into the direction of bananas being helpful to treat diabetes and celiac disease. Based on this research, the American Medical Association jumped on the “bandwagon” and also promoted bananas as helpful to celiac disease. Bear in mind that back in the day, gluten had not been identified as the true culprit. Alas, the “perfect storm” of a superfood was born. Marketing material made bananas known everywhere. This was backed up by evidence that they were good for you, especially children. Which led to bananas becoming a large staple in our diet.
Superfoods – Fact or Fiction?
I thought the story of the first superfood was quite interesting and certainly offered a lot of insight. Marketing claims meet somewhat scientific evidence, meet being picked up in the press. Bring this phenomenon into the 21st century, where through our 24 hour news cycle and social media use, (mis-)information is spread a lot faster than anything else and you have a claim on a nutritious, new food what feels like almost every other week.
And this is the challenge I see with the coined word “superfood”. Superfoods have created a billion-dollar sales industry. Products with health claims, promoted health claims, or claims to make you more something. Studies show that we, as consumers, are much more willing to pay a premium price when we believe it is good for our health. We are also keen to treat diseases (and our Western society has a lot of those, unfortunately) with food. And, of course, foods that are targeted in this way are usually a lot more appealing to us. So, superfoods – are they fact or fiction?
Most things that have been labeled a “superfood” have research to back them up and may be beneficial to you. I am saying “may be” for a very specific reason. Just because something is deemed “healthy”, “nutritious”, or a “superfood” (and anyone who knows me knows that I hate working with such labels) does not mean that it is necessarily healthy for you individually. I have mentioned this example before, but let me re-iterate: I cannot eat broccoli. I like broccoli. But every time I have it, my tummy swells, bloats and hurts. I cannot digest it and I also get a bout of diarrhea (apologies for oversharing). Broccoli is a food that a lot of people deem healthy and health-promoting. Indeed, science also supports those claims. But it does nothing for my body and, therefore, it is not supportive of my personal health.
Stepping away from this example though, superfoods can support your health and may support you with antioxidants and micronutrients that you would not else get as part of your diet. That is the fact part.
I think part of the fiction is the actual marketing around these so-calle “superfoods”. A long time, for example, acai was hyped. A small, mighty, potent berry coming from Brazil. It was meant to cure most of our problems with food and also make you lose weight. Most of these claims have not been able to substantiated. Also, blueberries have been shown to have a similar antioxidant profile to acai berries. In addition, acai berries are quite sour, so they are usually in some sort of concoction with a lot of sugar, which kind of takes away from its health benefit. So, you may be getting everything you need from a nutritional value perspective out of the humble blueberry, without the cost of paying for acai.
What to Take Away From This Post?
Superfoods – fact or fiction? As with all things health-related, there is not a one-answer fits all. Health is a unique balance of nutritious food (potentially supported by superfoods), sleep, exercise, stress management, mental health, and hydration. There are no short-cuts. Please remember, if there were short-cuts to our health, they would be known by now because people would talk about it because they work and they would apply to a large mass of people. This is not the case.
A lot of it is about balance. Rather than focussing on adding one superfood, focus on adding the rainbow to your plate and eating as close to nature as possible. Because, in my opinion, those are the true unsung heroes. Veggies and fruits nurture us with loads of different antioxidants and health benefits. This is irrespective of whether they are deemed “super” or not. I will give more of an insight into those next week 😉.
A Small Disclaimer
Last but not least, I wanted to point out that this post is generalized. If you do have a specific health problem, superfoods (or other foods) may well be beneficial to you and support you in getting well again. I certainly do not want to take away from that 💕. Beautiful cover photo by Tiago Faifa on Unsplash.