Superfoods: yay or nay?

By Wietse In het Panhuis

Superfoods are a hot topic. Several people claim superfoods have high amounts of good nutrients and antioxidants, and numerous of beneficial health effects. When you eat a lot of superfoods, you will be healthy. Or will you?

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What are superfoods?  
Some well-known examples of superfoods are: Goji berries, cacao beans, chia seed, hemp seed, and coconut oil. According to the definition of the term superfood, a superfood is any food with a beneficial health effect. This term is actually a marketing term instead of a scientific term. There are no nutritionists, dieticians or doctors with an academic background that would promote the use of it.

Are superfoods super healthy? 
Superfoods are claimed to have high levels of healthy nutrients and antioxidants, which in turn would have many health effects. Such effects include: Increases in energy and concentration, improvement of the immune system, even the prevention and curing of diseases (including cancer), anti-aging properties, and last but not least: Increases in life force! Is there any truth in any of these claims?

There is a flaw in the reasoning of articles that claim these things. You probably have seen it more than once: ‘Top 10 reasons to eat –insert superfood-‘. The superfood fights cancer, improves your eyesight, protects from cardiovascular disease, and so on. Here is an example to illustrate the reasoning behind most superfood articles is this: Superfood X contains vitamin A. A shortage of vitamin A has been shown to be bad for your eyes. Thus, when ingesting enough vitamin A by eating plenty of superfood X, these eye problems due to a shortage are prevented (true). Writers of these articles interpret this as: Eating enough vitamin A can prevent eye problems caused by a vitamin A shortage, therefore, Vitamin A is good for your eyes. Since vitamin A is good for the eyes, consuming more vitamin A is even better: You will improve your eyesight (false). Thus, superfood X improves the eyesight. In reality, vitamins (and other compounds) don’t work like that. They have a beneficial effect up to a certain point, and if you ingest more than that, it will not be more beneficial (and possibly even harmful). In superfood articles, the above described reasoning and exaggeration is often used. Hereby, the truth of a very small effect is turned into a miracle, a magic formula: When you eat this food, you will be healthy.

Superfoods are often claimed to have big effect sizes (in other words: a big impact on the body). These claimed effect sizes of superfoods are comparable to those of medicine (drugs), since medicine also has a big effect size on the body. Take anti-diabetic drugs for example: They improve glucose tolerance (an important measure in diabetes) and thereby give a significant ‘improvement’ of the situation. (This doesn’t mean that this is a good solution. It is treating symptoms, not treating the source of the problem.) In reality, single foods in general have a relatively small effect on health. There is not a single food (and thus not a single superfood) that could improve glucose tolerance like anti-diabetic drugs can, and this example goes for all drugs. However, when looking at a whole diet-lifestyle approach, big effects could be reached. It has for instance been shown that a good diet and exercise works just as well as medicine for treating diabetes[1]. (This does not hold true for any disease. Cancer and many other diseases cannot be cured by nutrition, while chance of survival can be improved nonetheless.) So, diet and nutrition should be looked at as a whole, and not at the effects of single foods.

It is for the reason that single foods only have small health effects, that scientific studies on superfoods either find no truth in claims on single superfoods, or they conclude there is not enough evidence to support these claims. So far, there has not been a single (super)food that has miraculous health effects.

Some people swear by superfoods. They say eating a lot of superfoods everyday changed their life. They felt much healthier and energetic. In such cases, these persons often dropped their unhealthy habits, such as overeating and eating unhealthy products, and replaced these with superfoods. Undoubtedly, this is good for your health. However, when you would replace unhealthy foods with vegetables and fruits you would see the same effect. Superfoods are healthy foods in general, but they are not healthier than fruits and vegetables.

One problem that might occur when people depend on superfoods, is that they choose superfoods over vegetables because they think superfoods are healthier. This might result in a diet with little variation, while the key to a healthy diet is a varied diet. Variation in a diet assures that you get all the nutrients you need, since different foods contain different nutrients. In this way, superfoods might work counterproductive.

How expensive are superfoods?             
Prices differ for different superfoods, but superfoods are generally sold in small packages with about 2 weeks worth of a daily serving. As an example, dried Goji berries from Body&Fitshop cost €4,90 for 250 grams. It is recommended to take at least 20 grams of berries per day, so a package lasts for about 12 days. Monthly this will cost you €12,15. When you look at table 1, you can see that a consumption of 20 grams of goji berries does not contribute a lot to the recommended daily intake (RDI), because this portion is small. Thus, goji berries are relatively quite expensive. Additionally, when you would eat greater amounts, this would contribute more to the RDI, but also would result in a high sugar intake.

This is only one of many examples, but in general you pay a lot for little product.

Table 1: Nutritional values of dried goji berries[2].

Nutrient Amount per 100 grams Amount per 20 grams % of ADH
Energy (kcal) 343 68.6
Sugar (g) 45.6 9.1
Fibre (g) 13 2.6 7.4%
Calcium (mg) 190 38 3.8%
Iron (mg) 6.8 1.3 14.4%
Vitamin C (mg) 48 9.6 12.8%

How are superfoods marketed?              
People are often ranting on the pharmaceutical industry, since this industry has the primary purpose of making money, while not caring about the consumer’s health. It is true that a lot of money is being made in this industry and making money is always the driving force behind important decisions. However, I seldom hear people about the superfood industry. They are selling regular healthy foods for high prices, while marketing them as super beneficial for health. What they are doing is like selling tomatoes for three time the original price, and people buy it because of smart marketing. In this respect, there is little difference between the pharmaceutical industry and the superfood industry. When you read about superfoods, there is often a story behind it, like: The famous Li Qing Yuen (born in 1678) ate lots of Goji berries that grow in old protected valleys in Mongolia and Tibet. Li Qing Yuen became 256 years of age. Articles on superfoods often start with such a romantic story and then just give you a top 10 of the superfood’s (claimed) effects. Sometimes these background stories are obviously nonsense, like this example, but sometimes there are more impressive, believable stories. I remember one story about a sheep herder, who had a lot of sheep suffering from cancer. Then the sheep accidentally ate from a certain superfood, and the cancer disappeared. Of course, when common sense is used, you might find this story quite unlikely. There are however a lot of people without a background in biology and these topics. To those people, this can be a trustworthy story. Nearly all superfoods have been given a story like this, which is all part of the marketing trick.

One example of marketing superfoods is kale. As a Dutchman, you all know kale (boerenkool). Apparently, kale has been marketed as a superfood in the US. It has been called an antioxidant superstar with impressive anti-cancer effects. It’s good for this, good for that, etcetera, etcetera… Meanwhile, in the Netherlands we have been eating kale for a very long time. Is it healthy? Sure! Is it super? No. Is it expensive in the Netherlands? No. Is it expensive as a superfood? Take a guess. One funny superfood product called ‘Essential 10 Super Greens Super Food with Kale & Barley Grass’ contains kale and some other regular vegetables. This product costs €14,25 for 21 servings. That will cost you €20,- per month. One serving provides you with 20 to 35% of the RDI of fibres, vitamin C, vitamin K and calcium. This product thus contributes only a small part of the RDI of only four nutrients (there are over 20 vitamins and minerals). That means you still need to eat a lot of other foods to get everything you need. In comparison, when eating 100 grams of broccoli, this will contribute to 100% of the RDI of vitamin C, about 50% of the RDI of vitamin A, 22% of the RDI of copper, about 15% of the RDI of zinc, 14% of the RDI of fosfor, 11% of the RDI of iron, and 10% of the RDI of fibres. Broccoli is roughly said a better source of nutrients when taking portion sizes into account. 100 grams of broccoli costs €0,30 while one serving of the superfood costs €0,68. Thus, even though the above mentioned superfood might be good because of its fibre and vitamin K content (two nutrients that are more difficult to consume plenty of), it is way too expensive in relation to the small contribution to your health. (Of course it is difficult to make a 1 on 1 comparison, since you are not and you should not be eating broccoli every day, but you get the picture.)

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People want to believe there are such things at superfoods, because we want to believe that we can dramatically improve our health by simply eating a few new products. The superfood industry exploits this desire by knowingly telling fairytales (such as the sheep story), and the next thing that happens is that some self-proclaimed food expert writes a book about super foods. After that, people start to blog about superfoods and how it changed their lives, and then share it on the internet. Anyone can write anything they want, while it is not checked whether the facts are true. Subsequently, other people will believe the claimed facts because they are uninformed, and have a strong desire to do what is best for their body. More and more people will start buying foods and spreading the word on the amazing effects of superfoods. This is a vicious circle that keeps expanding. It is brilliant marketing from the superfood industry.

Conclusion – superfoods: yay or nay?   
Concluding so far:

  • The term superfood is a term invented as a clever marketing strategy
  • Superfoods are healthy, but they are not healthier than regular foods
  • Superfoods are expensive

Superfoods: yay or nay? NAY!

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In general, superfoods are a waste of money if you buy them because you think they are super healthy. Are superfoods bad for you? No, they are healthy products, but you still need variation in your diet. If you like your money, you are better of buying regular fruits and vegetables, because they are equally healthy and much cheaper. Buying regular fruits and vegetables will save you a lot of money. Of course, when you buy superfoods for their taste, that is totally up to you.

If you love eating superfoods and are feeling great by doing it, please feel free to do so. The message of this article is: Just don’t get deceived by this marketing strategy. There are no magical formulas for being healthy.

References
[1] Gillies, C. L., Abrams, K. R., Lambert, P. C., Cooper, N. J., Sutton, A. J., Hsu, R. T., & Khunti, K. (2007). Pharmacological and lifestyle interventions to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes in people with impaired glucose tolerance: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bmj334(7588), 299.
[2] Bessen goji- gedroogd (NEVO-code 3445), NEVO-online versie 2016/5.0, accessed on 31-03-2017. http://nevo-online.rivm.nl

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Posted on April 2, 2017, in Articles, Nutrition, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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