It seems we can’t go very long without hearing about a new superfood. A food considered to be so rich in nutrients, it’s promoted as better than other foods. The notion of a superfood is so common now, it appears in the dictionary. In general, it’s a food considered to be of particular benefit to one’s health. Some definitions also consider superfoods to be low in calories.
There are numerous lists of superfoods on the Internet, in books and in the media. But what foods are included varies from list to list and based on who is making the list. In general, superfoods are almost all fruits and vegetables (such as berries, broccoli, dark leafy greens), eggs, certain spices (thyme, ginger), legumes and nuts. Also included are fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines.
The Origins of the Superfood
The term superfood was first used to describe the banana. (Oddly enough, bananas are rarely found on current superfood lists.) In 1917, the United Fruit Company coined the term as a marketing ploy to promote bananas. This wasn’t based on any scientific studies, but more on the versatility of the banana given its thick peel, cheap cost, and being edible whether cooked or not.
Since then, many foods have been labelled superfoods. And with the global food industry worth approximately $9 trillion each year, marketing to increase sales of a particular food can make a huge difference in profits. This is because as many as 40% of people may be willing to pay more for foods that provide a health benefit.
As a testament to the growth of superfoods, there has been a three-fold increase in the number of foods and drinks labelled superfoods between 2011 and 2015. It’s not that hundreds of new foods have been discovered, rather existing foods are being added to superfood lists. This includes certain grains (i.e. quinoa) and seeds (i.e. pumpkin seeds). Current lists also include new packaged and processed foods such as ready-made salads, supplement bars and drink mixes.
Do Superfoods Provide a Super Benefit?
Many of the foods designated as superfoods are fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and certain types of fish. Decades of research has supported these foods as being associated with reduced disease, increased health and longer life. Disease-preventing diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets have these foods in their plans.
Many superfoods include a combination of multiple different vitamins, antioxidants and fibre. All of which have been shown to have some sort of health benefit. As one example, some superfoods are promoted based on their vitamin C content in comparison to an orange. Indeed, bell peppers, guavas and the herb thyme, all have higher concentrations of vitamin C than an orange. It’s not necessarily that oranges are the vitamin C gold standard, but more a result of the extensive marketing by companies promoting orange juice.
It’s important to note you can have a nutritious diet even if you never eat any of these so-called superfoods. For example, apples are highly nutritious but are rarely included in any list of superfoods. Likewise with carrots.
Labelling certain foods as ‘super’ can be problematic. The term itself suggest one food is better than another. It can also create a false impression that we all should be buying and eating superfood X or superfood Y creating a distorted view of nutrition. This could lead to ignoring other foods that have essential nutrients superfoods don’t. If continued over the long-term, potential nutritional deficiencies may occur.
Conversely, people might think they can make up for a poor diet by consuming one or two superfoods. Many of the superfoods are also at the high end of the price range. For people on a fixed or low income, do they spend more on the superfood and forego other foods?
It also begs the question, who decides what a superfood is? There isn’t a superfood committee of health and nutritional experts comparing foods and deciding which ones make the cut. From a dietary point of view, there is no such thing as a superfood. Food is food. And while some foods may be considered healthier choices than others (such as fresh fruit compared to sugar sweetened juice), the labelling has solely been provided to foods for marketing purposes either by the food or diet industry.
The truth is, you can’t survive solely on any one food, whether it’s called a superfood or not. And like Superman, superfoods may be an appealing idea and nothing more. Because of that, dietary guidelines recommend we eat a variety of foods in order to have a healthy diet.
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