‘Super’ (fucking not) food

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This is one topic that I absolutely need to have a great big rant about. I don’t know exactly when it happened but somehow this word has become commonplace in everyday life, in adverts and written brazenly on packing of so many foods. Bandied around as if it made the most clear sense of all health statements, backed by the most solid evidence base.

How have we all become so hood-winked and mis-led..? I’m not the only one who despairs with this, the NHS and British Dietetic Association have both written on this topic previously. Primarily a food-industry led con backed by marketeers and fronted with fancy packaging the dictionary definition is “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.”

I’m sure you’ll all have heard of the supposedly ‘super’ properties of blueberries, kale, salmon, acai, maca, goji berries, cacao, turmeric, chia seeds or green tea. Common properties ascribed to these ‘magical’ foods include anti-ageing, weight loss, immunity-boosting, reduced cancer cell growth and more vague benefits like increased vitality, brightened complexion and ‘keeping bugs out of your system’. Some of these can be damn well dangerous.

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Actually food manufacturers and marketeers have to be very careful with use of the term superfood as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) don’t allow its use in relation to food unless an EU authorised health claim for the ‘superfood’ ingredient backs it up. This is because the term may lead consumers to believe that the product or ingredients within have some extra health-giving properties beyond its nutritional value. It also implies there is some inherent hierarchy to foods. This echos very nicely the (hopefully!) dying belief in clean eating that advocates that certain lifestyles, diets and foods are right and some (most apparently) are wrong.

The reason bloggers, journalists and even healthcare professionals have selected certain foods as being super is that they are all undisputedly healthy; often packed with nutrients including phytochemicals (which are non-essential compounds, but which may help to improve sub-optimal health). You may have heard certain phytochemicals bandied around in the media like resveratrol (grape skins), anthocyanins (blueberries) or lycopene (tomatoes) and also all the magical properties they have been blessed with. It is worth pointing out at this point that these often have very low bioavailability in the body as they are rapidly metabolised and therefore inactivated. This is because the body sees them they way they would a poison – the action of detoxifying mechanisms in our body being blind to the cries of journalists and health ‘experts’.

However, research for superfoods’ superior abilities is often in vitro (performed in the lab) or animal studies; results of which cannot (and should not) be extrapolated to effects we might see in humans. Extracted or purified version of the food as we would actually consume are often used too and (if carried out in humans at all) are often with a very small number of participants. If we were to consume the physical foods to get the level of the concentrated extracts used in research we would have to be eating huge amounts – for example turmeric is only 3% curcumin (the anti-inflammatory active component of turmeric) so from diet alone it would be very hard to get the same amount used in studies and you’d have to eat up to 28 cloves of garlic to get the dose of antioxidant used in some studies!

However, if one good thing can be taken from the superfood juggernaut it might be that people are more aware of a wider range of foods and potentially now have greater diversity in their diet (even if they believe these foods are healing them somehow). But that’s about the only positive I can take from these foods that are often very expensive and also therefore promote economic exclusivity entirely unnecessarily.

It is such a waste of energy to obsess over particular foods or nutrients as balance and variety in diets is key – if you just ate superfoods I promise you short and long-term health consequences. Even though it is so tempting to be lured by the possibility of quick-fixes to health complaints, that are as easy as downing a shot of apple cider vinegar every morning, they just don’t exist!

Sorry to burst the super, shiny bubble; there just is no such thing as a superfood.

Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing”- Euripedes

For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:

NHS Choices – ‘What are superfoods?’  https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/superfoods/Pages/what-are-superfoods.aspx

BNF – Coconut Oil, explained https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/resources/coconutoilfaq.html

BNF – Dark chocolate, explained https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/resources/darkchocolatefaq.html

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