The dark side of the superfood craze

goji berries rehydrated
CC BY 2.0 Miriam

Superfoods are seen as silver bullets by many health seekers, but the label is completed unregulated. Is it really worth the premium?

Goji, açaí, chia, mangosteen, maca, quinoa, dragonfruit. Over the past decade, these foreign names have become part of our daily vocabulary. They all fall into the category of “superfood,” which health-conscious North Americans understand to mean “packed with more nutrients than ordinary fruits and vegetables.”

The problem, however, is that the superfood category is an informal, unregulated one. The label has no official definition, which means that, technically, anyone can slap it onto a product and hope it brings in the big bucks as consumers buy into the hype.

Andy Bellatti, a registered dietician, told Civil Eats that superfoods are all about marketing:

“The field of nutrition is primed for these gimmicks because manufacturers know there are a lot of people looking for silver bullets. The term ‘superfood’ as we know it today is silly because it is basically code for ‘grown 15,000 miles away in a remote mountain range and sold at a premium’.”

Civil Eats reports that the European Union banned the use of the term “superfood” in 2007 because it has little substance. “Now, foods can only sport that label there if sellers can provide a specific, authorized health claim that explains to consumers exactly how the product can benefit their health.”

That is a likely deterrent, as the nutritional profiles of superfoods, upon closer examination, are not unusually spectacular. The cancer-fighting and anti-aging properties of the exalted antioxidants have been called into question by studies. They are not “a way to get more nutrition with less eating,” as health guru David Wolfe described them, but rather an ordinary source of vitamins and minerals that is comparable to any old fruit. As Bellatti puts it, “Are goji berries healthy? Sure. So is an orange.”

The term ‘superfood’ as we know it today is silly because it is basically code for ‘grown 15,000 miles away in a remote mountain range and sold at a premium’.

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle also doesn’t believe in superfoods. She told the Washington Post:

“All plant foods – fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains – have useful nutrients. The whole point about diets is to vary intake, because the nutrient contents of various foods differ and complement each other.”

There is the added ethical problem of importing exotic fruits from far regions of the earth, both in terms of the carbon footprint for shipping and the way in which demand increases the cost and decreases availability to local populations who rely on a particular crop for sustenance, as is the case with quinoa and avocadoes in South America. It’s a double-edged sword when an exotic nutritious food becomes North America’s new darling.

What’s wrong with eating local, seasonal fruits? Nothing! In fact, we should all be eating more of them. Instead of spending a fortune on a bag of chia seeds and using a spoonful each day in your smoothie, consider buying a box of fresh strawberries, a bag of local apples, or a container of oranges, depending on where you live, and enjoying them in their entirety. You’ll save (a lot of) money, keep your business local, have a smaller carbon footprint, and – if Nestle, Bellatti, and other scientists are correct – be just as healthy for it.

Check out Melissa's slideshow on "8 awesomely ordinary superfoods for spring" if you're needing inspiration.

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