Acai, chia seeds, coconut oil and quinoa. These exotic, expensive products were virtually unknown to the western world 30 years ago, but today they form key components of a global industry valued at US$130 billion this year. That’s right, it’s the superfood industry. Though these ‘superfoods’ might be the costliest items on supermarket shelves, brilliant marketing ploys have made them among the most popular with consumers. In 2012 sale of the Brazilian berry Acai grossed almost US$200 million in the United States alone, despite the fact it was barely known outside of its country of origin a decade ago. Though usually plant-based, superfoods can include fish, dairy and other food products thought to be nutritionally dense and they are changing the way modern consumers eat – and spend. In 2019, to ‘not’ kale on a regular basis or to opt for water over kombucha seems the equivalent to ethical and nutritional crime. Just wander into any hipster hangout, gourmet supermarket or trendy café in the developed world and you would be hard pressed to find a menu that doesn’t feature Tibetan goji berries, quinoa, spirulina smoothies or desserts drizzled in manuka honey – possibly the world’s most expensive syrup. Second tier ‘superfoods’, including avocado, coconut oil and Greek yoghurt were also relatively unpopular until they hit headlines for their high nutritional content, but now have replaced their more mundane counterparts: butter, olive oil and regular yoghurt.
But who decided these foods were ‘super’? And just how accurate are their marketing claims? We are spending inordinate amounts of money on these seemingly magical ingredients – but is it all a scam? Are we merely responding to ads and articles that highlight their nutritional content in ways that lead us to assume they are ‘better’ than other foods and products?
There is some serious doubt as to the true health benefits – and consequences – of these so-called superfoods, so much doubt in fact that the FDA and British Dietetic Associated are unwilling to support claims regarding their health benefits as accurate. To this day there remains little quantifiable evidence to support the claim that certain foods are capable of fighting cancer and preventing aging, along with a thousand other healing benefits, and all evidence shows that many superfoods in fact underperform in the nutrition department.
By way of example, it was found recently that one has to drink a whopping 13 servings of goji berry juice to get as many antioxidants as one could by eating a single apple. Apple cider vinegar, lauded to be the solution to a whole host of health problems including digestive disorders, high cholesterol, cancer, dandruff and acne, among others, has actually not been approved by the EFSA due to the fact it has never actually been tested on humans. Spirulina is another supposed ‘miracle food’ that, while it does contain some beneficial nutrients, lacks any scientific evidence that proves it helps in the treatment of metabolic and heart disorders as well as mental health disorders including anxiety, depression and ADHD.
Rather, it has been proven that other foods – and much cheaper ones- can rival the health benefits of ‘superfoods’. Broccoli is far cheaper than kale, yet contains more vitamin C and vitamin K and therefore supports heart function better. One study on the powers of antioxidants, which followed 10,000 people over a four-and-a-half-year period, showed no benefits from vitamin E supplements in the prevention of heart disease. Lentils have more protein and fiber than quinoa, and sardines are less than half the price of salmon but contain not only the same levels of omega-3 but three times as much vitamin B12, which is essential for energy. How long will we be led astray by amazing marketing and false claims? Until the next wave of innovation arrives, another great ploy for separating consumers from their money?
In this day and age, where we are constantly discovering new and powerful uses for naturally occurring ingredients such as CBD products from cannabis plants and body scrubs from ground coffee beans, it’s no surprise we get a little carried away by the idea of plant-based foods providing the solutions to our health problems. But until we know for sure the hard facts about how these foods are really helping our bodies, perhaps it’s best we refrain from spending two thirds of our salary on empty promises and instead focus on maintaining a balanced, healthy diet. Avoid processed foods, excess white-flour products, too much sugar and trans fats such as vegetable oils and palm oils, and instead work on establishing a diet that is natural, plant-based and consists of as many fruits, vegetables and lean protein as possible. The verdict is in on this type of diet and experts agree with the results studies have shown – that this to be the best way to eat for optimal health.