1 July 2009

Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Myth: Superfoods make you super healthy

Nicole Senior

Fact: Superfoods and supplements are over-hyped and super-expensive
The term ‘superfood’ was coined to describe foods with high levels of nutrients and phytochemicals that offer health benefits such as green leafy vegetables, berries and oily fish. However, food and supplement marketers have ‘gone to town’ with the whole concept and make inflated promises and exaggerated claims. While I used to love talking about superfoods, I now brace myself for the next ridiculous product claim. The first examples that come to mind are superfood supplements – not even foods at all. A cursory internet search yields claims of such enthusiasm and exaggeration as to qualify as fiction.

Take acai berries. According to the promo, they contain “every single essential nutrient required for humans”, or are “the most perfect food on the planet”. These claims are unsubstantiated and if taken literally imply that all you need to eat is these little berries and nothing else! However, unless you live in Brazil, the berries aren’t for sale. What you buy instead is a highly touted, processed dietary supplement – a tablet or instant drink powder.


And spirulina (a dried blue-green algae extract) containing “rich vegetable protein 60–63%, 3–4 times higher than fish or beef”. How is this relevant when you only take 5–10 g at a time and a typical daily protein requirement is 50 g? Or, “1 kg of Spirulina is equivalent to 1000 kg of assorted vegetables”. How silly. The obvious omission from this comparison is the valuable dietary fibre component of vegetables. I wouldn’t recommend giving up eating your vegetables on the basis of this. Spirulina is also described as “the most complete food source in the world”, again suggesting a bit more than the suggested dose of 10–20 tablets a day may be required for this claim to be tested. And how about that dose – most people struggle to take their prescribed life saving medications or a single daily multi-vitamin, never mind 20 tablets!

As for superfruits such as acai, goji and mangosteen, while they sound tantalisingly exotic, many are unfeasibly expensive. Often they are grown in far flung places and have to be imported dried, juiced or as extracts for supplements. For instance, dried acai powder retails for around (AUD) $40 per 100 g (3½ oz), a 500 g (1 lb 2 oz) packet of dried goji berries is around $30, goji juice is $40 per litre (about 1 quart), and dried mangosteen powder is $25 per pack (making 2 litres). You have to question the “natural goodness” of such processed derivatives, and what about the carbon emissions produced during transport?

In Australia we have a wealth of traditional indigenous superfoods that have maintained the health of our Aboriginal people for thousands of years, yet it is a growing trend to buy processed superfoods from halfway around the world. And don’t get me started on the spin-off products that have spun-off most of their health benefits like milk chocolate coated goji berries ($15 per 300 g pack).

Nutritional goodness does not have to cost the earth or be hard to get, as illustrated by the humble apple. According to a scientific review by Horticulture Australia, apples are one of the best and cheapest fruit sources of antioxidants around with one apple containing more antioxidants than half a punnet of blueberries or a cup of strawberries. Apples are grown within 45 minutes from my house and cost around $4 a kilogram – you do the maths. And they are also low GI. You’re likely to have similar examples in your area.

The bottom line? Lots of foods are super and work best in combination rather than on their own. It is whole diets containing a variety of different foods – not single foods or supplements – that help prevent disease and promote health and wellness. If you’re into exotic superfoods and supplements and you have money to spare then go ahead but take the claims with a good dose of skepticism. For the rest of us, health and vitality can be ours without the hefty price tag. For good health and a healthy environment buy a variety of fresh, local, seasonal and minimally packaged produce – they’re super too.

For Nicole's heart-healthy eating advice, tips and recipes go to www.eattobeatcholesterol.com.au



Glenn Cardwell said...

Agree with all you say Nicole. Although there is no formal definition or agreement on the term superfood, I have come up with the following attempt:

• Be minimally processed without nutrient enriching
• Have nutritional benefits not seen in other foods commonly eaten in its class
• Have at least 20% of the daily needs of two or more essential nutrients in a normal serve
• Have a high nutrient density compared to its kilojoule content
• Provide essential nutrients without increasing the consumption of salt, saturated fat or other compounds linked to poor health
• Provide other bioactive compounds such as antioxidants
• Have research linking the food to a potential reduced risk of long-term disease
• Be easily available and affordable

You have probably guessed that I think only whole foods are likely contenders (oh, and chocolate, of course)

Sue Bride said...

Although not one to be taken in by extravagant claims I was not aware how little these "super foods" contributed in comparison with cheaper, fresher local produce. Thank you

GI Group said...

Glenn - thanks for that.

Sue, we really appreciate your taking the time to post your thoughts.