Superfoods - How Super Are They?

in Health

Do you sometimes have a suspicion that you aren't as healthy as you might be? Do you worry that your health might begin to suffer if you don't change your lifestyle? Then you're in good company. These are common responses in food health questionnaires. 

And it might make you very likely to buy something containing a superfood to hedge your bets and salve your conscience -- after all, making actual changes in your diet will seriously shake your comfort zone, won't it?

Should we eat superfoods?

What's a superfood? It has no legal definition, but in general use, it means a product especially rich in phytonutrients: plant chemicals especially good for nutrition. In the EU, anything advertised as a superfood must now have research backing for the claims.

I recently re-read a Readers Digest article from 1975.  It rubbished the idea that some 'miracle' foods might have 'magical' properties, mentioning, for example, honey and brown rice. The article instead recommended taking expert advice based on long-standing scientific research. Is that right? Are what we now call 'superfoods' a waste of money, or even dangerous?

If you want to look it up, the article is in the April 1975 UK edition of RD and was by Elizabeth Whelan, condensed from the June 1974 Glamor (Condé Nast).

I reckon that, as usual, moderation is the name of the game here. In one country after another for decades, people in the West have been shown in medical surveys to be on average badly nourished -- which means that a majority are affected. Although for every health nut there's a real slob at the other end, most of us are a culture of ill-fed, junk food addicts. I suggested why in previous articles. And the idea that we might eat some 'special' food that would put right all the ills of overindulgent piggery is just as cracked now, yet just as common, as in 1975. The difference is that today's usual diet is even worst than a third of a century ago, so maybe people are more desperate for the miracle cure that some superfood peddlers advertize.

Most of us are short of essential nutrients

What are people short of? Over three quarters of us are low in chromium, copper, magnesium, vitamin B6 and Omega-3 oils. Worse, over half of us are also deficient in calcium, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamin A. And shockingly, a quarter of us also lack enough phosphorus, manganese, silicon and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B12, C and E -- all essential nutrients. That's one in four of people you know short of 19 essential nutrients out of a total of maybe 43 -- nearly half, then -- and you, dear reader, are odds-on to be lacking in five to ten of them.

Where do you think you rank here? The worst quarter? Or the healthiest? And what would you do if you had tests and proved the deficiency? Do you think it matters? Well, you should, because there's no possible doubt that nutrient deficiency is at the root of the rise in most of the modern diseases.

Rather a lot of people are now looking to improve their prospects by a radical change of diet along the lines nutritionists have recommended for decades, but even more turn to well-advertised (and pricey) fixes like superfoods and pills (sometimes pills of superfoods) and hope the problem will go away. The scale of public nervousness is obvious if you look in any health magazine or newspaper health section and see the adverts there for nutrient and superfood supplements.

Superfoods really are just that -- super. 

They are richer in some of the essential nutrients than other foods. So there is no reason not to eat them, unless they take up too much of your diet for balance. (The main pitfalls here are excess of vitamins A and D, and high levels of fat and sugar, even natural ones.)  You might think, then, that I shouldn't be casting doubt on them. Well, I'm not -- yet there are some warnings needed even though superfoods are certainly a better idea than simply popping supplement pills.

So, what to beware of? 

I'll pick out three examples to show you that the old motto 'buyer beware' is still #1 when you're shopping or watching ads.

  • What's better for you -- 10g (1/4oz) of dried Goji berries, world's best food for vitamin C content, or 150ml (6oz) of fresh orange juice at the same price? The juice wins out handsomely -- far healthier. So be balanced. More of an ordinary food can outperform a superfood and cost less!
  • How much of a superfood is in the product? I recall a top brand fruit smoothie with three super berries: Blueberry, Acai and Goji. Great -- except it was mostly apple juice and banana. A fine smoothie, but not worth the premium price if you want to be healthy. Use a little more of a cheaper product to get the same benefits, plus more nutrition at less cost. Read the labels!
  • Advertisers extol the virtues of their superfood, then list its impressive health benefits. Most of these claims will be just as true for a lot of less exalted alternatives. Of course, this is what advertising is for -- to puff the product. So, don't be taken in by claims. Read them with scepticism and compare them with ordinary pure foods before you buy. On the whole, superfoods command a premium price while they're the latest fad, then become just 'food' when their replacement comes along. At that point, they may be good value.

Was the 1975 article right? I reckon, yes. And adding a few superfoods to your diet to avoid thinking about your slobbish lifestyle is just plain crazy.

Have you got a favourite superfood? Why is it better than any other rival? Let me know and we can argue a little.

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David Croucher has 1 articles online

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Superfoods - How Super Are They?

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This article was published on 2010/03/29