What Makes A Superfood Super?
Superfoods are another thing on my fast-growing list of healthy-eating peeves.
The second you work one into your diet, another pops up without warning.
Over the last couple of years, age-old (albeit lesser known) foods, like kale, quinoa, kefir and turmeric, have been awarded superfood status. And 2016 brought with it a new wave of headline grabbing superfoods like black pudding, teff and kohlrabi… to name a few.
This got me thinking.
What’s the deal with superfoods and who the hell decides which foods to award superfood status to?
What if I decided, say mango oil (yes apparently it’s a real thing), should be a superfood. Does it become one simply because I say so?
This may sound absurd, but I’ve been doing some investigating and it seems it may be that easy.
If you read my old blog (Health Trend Doctor), you may recall that several months ago, I wrote about a PR stunt in which a website promoting black pudding (yes the Scottish delicacy of pork blood and fat sausages) declared the artery clogging delight a superfood at the start of 2016. The scary part was that despite the absurdity of the claim, everyone bought into it and national papers ran the story without even stopping to check it out.
They basically made it all up to boost black pudding sales, and it worked beautifully, with Scottish black pudding and haggis maker MacSween announcing a surge in its black pudding sales soon after.
How did they get away with it?
There’s no official definition of a superfood. Like ‘detox’ it’s a pseudo-scientific marketing term devised to help sell stuff to health conscious people.
The general consensus (and according to the Oxford English dictionary) is that a superfood is simply a nutrient-rich edible substance thought to confer health benefits beyond those offered by average foods.
This suggests that as long as a food or drink contains notable amounts of any nutrient, ranging from vitamins and antioxidants to fibre and protein, it really can be called a superfood… which means, things we take for granted, like water, bran and chicken are also ‘superfoods’.
The UK government has labelling laws to prevent food manufacturers from actually using the word ‘superfood’ on their product’s packaging without legitimacy, but there’s nothing to stop the term being bandied about in the media – and let’s face it, that’s where most health myths are born.
So, how can you tell if that new superfood all the glossy magazines are writing about really is more nutritious than other dietary staples?
For those in the know, there’s a simple way to check this. It involves a scoring system called the US Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), which ranks foods according to their nutritional density.
Take a look at the scale for yourself. You’ll spot a few reassuring things and some not so reassuring things.
For example, well-known superfoods kale and watercress rank at the top of the index. In fact, they score a maximum 1000 out of 1000. However, renowned superfood avocado has the same nutrient score as the widely demonised white potato (both score just 28 out of 1000).
But the explanation is simple: ANDI rates foods for their overall nutritional content, whereas superfoods often gain their status based on exceptionally high levels of just one or two health-boosting nutrients.
So avocados, for example, are considered a superfood because they’re thought to be high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats (84% of avocado oil is unsaturated), fibre, vitamin K and E, and various minerals. But did you know that 80% of the fruit’s flesh is actually just water (this study explains further)?
That’s right. The superfruit everyone has been talking about is not as super as you think. Yes avocados contain lots of health-boosting nutrients, but you may need to eat more than you think to get a large dose of its vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
The take home message here is simple and provides more support for the highly irritating-but-true ‘everything in moderation’ saying. Superfoods contain beneficial nutrients. Fact. But they’re not the sole answer to optimal health because none contain all the nutrients your body needs and certainly not in large enough amounts per serving.
Bear that in mind the next time you read a ‘x is the new cancer-curing superfood’ headline.
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