It’s hard not to find a mention of the term, “superfood,” in any magazine or mainstream website. It’s an attractive notion that implies superior health benefits. Unfortunately, it’s merely a marketing tactic that is misleading at best, explains the Harvard Medical School. Let’s delve into the history of this potent advertising campaign.
A Brief History
The use of the word isn’t new. Many touted certain foods as having essential health benefits as far back as the early 1900s. Bananas were the fad at that time. The term and marketing continued to exist. Then, it took off again in the early 2000s. Many fruits and vegetables shared this spotlight—especially exotic ones.
Foods such as blueberries, goji berries, açaí, and chia seeds all have worn this crown. Just when it seemed to be waning, the craze picked up again in recent years. A new wave of so-called superfoods hit the markets. Different superfoods have taken center stage which may lead you to question the concept. Yesterday, it was pomegranate juice; today it is quinoa.
What Is a Superfood?
The fact is that there is no scientific consensus on what a superfood is, explains the European Food Information Council (EUFIC). There are certain common traits. Some of them are nutrient-dense foods, rich in essential vitamins and minerals. They often contain other chemicals with additional potential health benefits. You may be thinking, so what is the problem?
Overpromising Health Claims
The issue exists with how they are marketed and presented to the public. Some sellers make unsubstantiated claims about disease prevention and cures. They may imply that other foods aren’t as healthy. Worse yet, they may promote these alleged functional foods as the main thing you should eat at the cost of variety in your diet.
These false and misleading messages have drawn sharp criticism from the science community and health officials. The EU, for example, has banned the use of term, superfood, without an authorized health claim that specifically identifies why it is good for you. Cancer Research UK has taken a similar stance.
Overstating the Science
Part of the problem lies with how the research behind a food is interpreted. Many marketers will cite scientific studies that show the health benefits of certain superfoods. However, these claims are often inflated. They may use research done on rodents or in lab settings done on humans cells. It’s not necessarily a segue to implying it will have the same effect as part of your diet.
The bigger issue exists with the scientific consensus. Researchers don’t create treatments based on one experiment. Rather, the gold standard of science relies on the ability to reproduce the same results in independent, third-party studies. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces regulations on the way marketers and manufacturers may present this type of information.
They have called out misleading language for a number of superfoods such as green tea, soy protein, and green coffee bean extract. Unfortunately, these warning letters come after the proverbial genie has gotten out of the bottle. The word gets out, and consumers buy into the hype before science and the FDA can sort out the evidence.
The Shifting Face of Antioxidants
You’ll often see the antioxidant content of a superfood as proof of its superior health status. The human body produces by-products from natural processes such as metabolism. Some may cause cell damage, leading to the craze for foods high in antioxidants to combat the issues. But these health claims were based on preliminary evidence that has since shifted.
It’s essential to understand that the human body has evolved with defenses against these free radicals. We won’t still exist had that not happened. There is no doubt these reactions occur. However, it may be a matter of putting the chicken before the egg. The damage may be a symptom of other factors at work rather than causing it.
Research has also shown that the body harnesses these same forces to protect itself against pathogens and tumors. And, the science is evolving with recent research debunking their health benefits. There is even emerging evidence that suggests eating too many foods high in antioxidants may increase your risk of an early death.
Health Risks of Superfoods
There’s another undervalued reason for exercising caution about consuming large quantities of a particular superfood. Let’s consider pomegranate juice, for example. Some research has identified some cardiovascular benefits. However, drinking too much could interfere with prescription medications for controlling high blood pressure.
A similar health risk exists with grapefruits and cholesterol-lowering drugs. Unless you read the fine print on the medication’s label, you may miss these serious food-drug interactions. But it doesn’t end there. Diets high in one nutrient may reduce the absorption of other vitamins and minerals.
For example, a potentially dangerous relationship exists between vitamins A and K. A diet that includes superfoods high in the former can inhibit the body’s uptake of the latter. Vitamin K is essential for proper blood clotting. It’s easy to see why you need to tread carefully in the superfood landscape. Even marketing materials may fail to mention these harmful interactions.
The Health Value of Superfoods
All of this is not say that foods like blueberries, kale, and avocados are in any way bad for you. They are all a part of a healthy diet. The key, however, is variety. You should eat a myriad of fruits and vegetables every day. Sadly, the average American diet falls far short of the recommended daily servings, explains the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Adults should consume at least five one-cup servings of vegetables and two to four of fruit. These foods provide excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. However, no one food will meet all of your nutritional needs. That’s why you need to eat a many different types of plant-based foods.
And for better health value, eat unprocessed products to keep your sugar and sodium intake in check. Following these simple guidelines can improve your health in a safe and reliable way. And good health, after all, is priceless.