Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

FOOD HONESTLY

The problem with the word “superfood”

It’s a marketing term, and yet another confusing message muddying the debate over healthy eating, says Angry Chef’s Anthony Warner

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By Anthony Warner on

I have a plan. I spend a lot of time researching food science and I think I might just have stumbled upon something interesting. A brand new superfood. We are going to make millions.

The food in question is extracted from Saccharum Officinarum, a variety of tall perennial grass that grows in warm temperate climates. The sap is packed full of natural plant energy and recent research from the University of Bath has shown that consuming small amounts might lead to better performance in endurance athletes.  To back this up, many island nations where it is grown have a disproportionately high number of Olympic medallists. Even Usain Bolt, arguably the greatest athlete of all time is known to be a fan (I recently watched a video where he uses a drink made from it in an old family recipe.

Even better, in the laboratory it is known to destroy cancer cells by drawing water through the cell membrane. It is used throughout the world in the treatment of a huge number of conditions as a cheap, effective, natural medicine. In combination with a little salt, a weak solution has revolutionised the treatment of diarrhoea and is estimated to save the lives of around two million children every year.

What is this miracle superfood I hear you ask? Where can we buy shares in this new venture? It is of course cane sugar, one of the world’s largest crops and perhaps one the most reviled food ingredients of modern times. It is blamed by many for a whole plethora of health problems, yet with a little rebranding and a slight twisting of the evidence, I am sure that it would be possible to manipulate people into believing that it deserves superfood status along with coconut oil, acai berries, quinoa and kale. 

This is the problem with the word ‘superfood’. It is merely a marketing term, not accepted by dieticians or serious nutrition scientists. Yet in many quarters it is believed to somehow convey real health benefits. It is attached to ingredients by self-appointed health gurus and unscrupulous marketing teams, selling false promises of better health, improved looks and increased vitality. We are told that certain food stuffs have miraculous properties, and yet the science underlying this is at most overplayed and at worst downright misleading.

I am not saying that diet and health are not linked – they quite clearly are. The problem is that people will always want simple answers in a complex world. We want to hear which new miracle food is going to cure which chronic condition, but the real answers are rarely simple or clear cut

Take antioxidants. These miracle micronutrients lie at the heart of a number superfood claims. Proponents tell us that antioxidants surge through our bodies, mopping up rogue free radicals, vicious products of our toxic lifestyle that can cause huge damage to our cells. During the 1990s, a number of laboratory experiments did seem to indicate that this was the case, showing that antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and flavonoids might just have a key role in ridding our body of free radicals and so helping to prevent chronic conditions like cancer, strokes and heart disease. This was reported extensively at the time and still forms the basis for many superfood stories today. 

Unfortunately, as the science has moved on, reality has become a lot less clear cut. It is always worth remembering when you read reports that a substance has an effect on cancer cells in a laboratory, that those cells would also killed if you hit them with a hammer. Or if you set them on fire. Just because something has an effect in laboratory conditions, does not mean it will work in the human body. In the case of antioxidants, a number of studies and reviews have shown no evidence that the laboratory effects are reflected in a real world impact on human health (1). In fact, some research has shown that the previously reviled free radicals may have an important role in immune function and that high levels of certain antioxidant supplements may be harmful to recovery from disease (2). As is so often the case, the reality is complex and unclear. 

I am not saying that diet and health are not linked – they quite clearly are. The problem is that people will always want simple answers in a complex world. We want to hear which new miracle food is going to cure which chronic condition, but the real answers are rarely simple or clear cut. The thousands of chemicals and micronutrients that we ingest every day act together in glorious combinations that science barely understands. The best thing that anyone can do is to eat as many different things as possible. Variety is the key to a healthy diet. We should not focus on a limited number of supposedly ‘super’ ingredients. 

Carrots, onions, apples, tomato puree, tinned kidney beans, salmon, brown rice, broccoli, eggs. There is a near endless list of normal, accessible and delicious foods that are packed full of hugely beneficial nutrients, but these are too often ignored as they do not make for an interesting newspaper headline. Variety is key. You should not avoid ‘superfoods’, but neither should you focus your healthy eating on them alone. 

 

5 SUPERFOODS THAT AREN’T SO “SUPER”

 

 

WHEATGRASS

There are numerous claims about wheatgrass, often centred on a belief that the chlorophyll in it helps to oxygenate the blood. Not only is this claim based on no evidence (and from a scientific point of view it is completely bizarre), a shot of wheatgrass is not even nutritious enough to count as one of your five-a-day. 

Alternative: Common vegetables like spinach and broccoli have just as many micronutrients, are less expensive and far easier to incorporate into a normal diet.   

Coconut Oil

Perhaps one of the most surprising ingredients to be lumped into the superfood category. Advocates claim that it can fight a huge number of chronic diseases (including AIDS and cancer), promote weight loss and improve heart health. Coconut oil is not the worst fat you can eat, but like any fat it is highly calorie dense. Also, 90% of it is saturated fat, which contrary to what some people say has not suddenly become good for you. To make things worse, it makes everything taste of coconut, which in many dishes is just bad cooking. As for the various disease prevention claims, they are completely made up – no serious scientific study has shown it to have any role in fighting disease. Much of the “evidence” comes from the low levels of heart disease in some Polynesian populations who consume a lot of coconuts, but this makes about as much sense as my links between sugar cane and the performance of Jamaican athletes. 

Alternative: Olive oil is a far better choice for culinary and health reasons.

Kale

Kale is currently the most ubiquitous of superfoods, said to be packed full of micronutrients. This is probably true (although it is also true of all green vegetables), but my main problem with kale is that it really isn’t very nice. I am a pretty decent chef and I really struggle to make it edible. The most valuable nutrients in food are the ones that people eat, enjoy eating and want to eat again. Kale tastes vile and has the texture of animal fodder. 

Alternative: Any dish will be improved by replacing kale with Savoy cabbage. Even if kale is more nutrient dense (which it probably isn’t), people will eat more of the cabbage.  

Chia Seeds

One of a new breed of miracle superfoods, not only are chia seeds are said to be packed full of nutrients, they are also said to have the power to help with weight loss due to a high fibre and protein content. Unfortunately for its advocates, no experiment has shown this to be the case. They are not so bad on a salad or in bread, but when it comes to the infamous Chia Seed Pudding, if there is a more revolting and inedible creation to have come from the current wellness and superfood movement, I have yet to find it.

Alternative: Chia seeds do contain lots of valuable micronutrients, but no more than other less fashionable seeds like sunflower, pumpkin, linseed and hemp. 

Green Tea

Green tea may be packed full of antioxidants, but as we have discussed, the presence of these micronutrients is not enough to make wild health claims. In recent times, companies talking about the health benefits of green tea beyond hydration have been forced to remove them as they are misleading and not based on any evidence. 

Alternative: As the only health benefits are from hydration, tap water makes a more cost effective alternative. 

Chocolate

Perhaps some of the most appealing superfood myths are those around chocolate. Much of this is based on research into the Kuna Indians of Panama who drink a lot of cocoa and have low blood pressure (again, see Jamaican athletes and rum). Although there is some limited evidence that cocoa may lower blood pressure, and it does contain many valuable micronutrients, this needs to be balanced against the unfortunate fact that most of us consume it in bar form combined with generous amounts of sugar and fat. This is fine as an occasional treat, but not if you think it is going to cure you of disease. Again, repeat after me - balance, moderation, variety. 

Alternative: I have learnt over the years to never dare suggest an alternative to chocolate. For many people it simply cannot be replaced. As with anything it is fine to eat, as long as it forms part of a balanced, varied diet.

@One_Angry_Chef

angry-chef.com

1. Bjelakovic, G., Nikolova, D., Ll, G., Rg, S., Gluud, C., Bjelakovic, G., … Gluud, C. (2012). Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases ( Review ) Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases.

2. Albanes et al. The Effect of Vitamin E and Beta Carotene on the Incidence of Lung Cancer and Other Cancers in Male Smokers. The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group* N Engl J Med 1994; 330:1029-1035 April 14, 1994.

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food
food honestly
Health
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