Are you being fooled by clever marketing? Catherine Saxelby reports.
I’ve been a fan of superfoods since hearing Dr Adam Drewnowski from the University of Washington describe his method of grading nutrient-dense ‘super’ foods. To me, they make sense in our overweight world – eating superfoods “makes each mouthful count”, as he put it.
However, while the original concept of a ‘superfood’ was intended to apply to wholefoods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, oily fish, herbs, spices, etc.), enterprising marketers have freely begun labelling everything from chocolate to juice as superfoods – foods which, in my opinion, can have nutritional drawbacks that outweigh the benefits.
So how can you tell whether a food is really a superfood, or simply bolstered by some clever marketing? You’ve probably read that superfoods are high in antioxidants, which can be true, but that’s not the only important thing to look for – other beneficial components such as essential fatty acids, minerals and fibre can make a food ‘super’. Moreover, different foods have different kinds of antioxidants – we can’t say for sure which ones are ‘better’ than others. (And there isn’t a globally acknowledged method of measuring antioxidant levels, anyway!)
Other things to look for include:
A high nutrient density. A superfood should be rich in components like vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats or fibre compared to its kilojoule count – without overloading the body with salt, saturated or trans fat, sugar or other compounds linked to poor health. That means something like spinach is on my list, while dark chocolate, which has antioxidants but is laden with fat, is not.
Significant quantities of what could be regarded as healthpromoting and/or protective substances, such as probiotics or other substances not usually found in other foods in its class. For example, yoghurt, with its friendly bacteria, is unique in the dairy group.
A background of scientific research linking the food to a potential reduced risk of illness or poor health. Think tomatoes with their lycopene content.
It should also, in my opinion, be easily available and affordable.
Of course, superfood or not, it’s also important to remember that part of being healthy is eating a varied diet. Just because berries are more commonly considered ‘superfoods’ than melons, doesn’t mean you should avoid the latter.
The bottom line
The original superfood concept referred to nutrient-rich wholefoods – something that’s been lost in marketing hype. Regardless, don’t forget that, superfood or not, all wholefoods are nutritious.
Carlson MH et al. 2010. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutrition Journal, 9:3 Darmon N , Maillot M, Drewnowski A. 2005. A nutrient density standard for vegetables and fruits: Nutrients per calorie and nutrients per unit cost. J Am Diet Assoc; 105:1881-1887. Drewnowski A. 2005. Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 82, No. 4, 721-732 Halvorsen BL , Carlsen MH, Phillips KM, Bøhn SK, Holte K, Jacobs DR, Jr and Blomhoff R. 2006. Content of redox-active compounds (ie, antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States Am J Clin Nutr; 84: 95-135 Pérez-Jiménez J, Neveu V, Vos F and Scalbert A. 2010. Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols: an application of the Phenol-Explorer database European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 64, S112-S120 Tapsell LC , Hemphill I, Sullivan DR et al. 2006. Health benefits of herbs and spices: the past, the present, the future. Medical Journal of Australia (supplement), 185(4).