From super-berries to super-powders, there always seems to be a new food with extra 'special' nutrition super powers that we all should be eating; and these foods often come with a hefty price tag. But are these superfoods all they are cracked up to be or are they a super fad?
What is a superfood?
‘Better for you’ products are big business, and today we are being bombarded with all sorts of foods and drinks claiming to be ‘superfoods’. But what does this term really mean? In a nutshell (or kale leaf), 'superfood' is an overused (and unregulated!) marketing term, which often refers to a nutrient-dense food which is perceived to be beneficial for your health and wellbeing. Typically these foods have a unique and mystical backstory, about being found in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest or that they were a food of the Ancients, making them seem even more special and appealing. We all love something that sounds a bit different and exotic, right?
The thing is, and to put it bluntly, ALL whole foods contain a unique range of nutrients, phytonutrients and compounds which can be beneficial (and 'super') for our health depending on how you look at.
How do common superfoods stack up?
Quinoa is gluten-free pseudo-grain (it’s actually a seed) that has been linked back to being included in the diets of the Incas. While quinoa is not ‘high in’ protein compared to many other protein rich-foods, it does contain more protein and iron than many grains. Unlike many plant proteins, quinoa is considered a ‘complete protein’, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids. Quinoa also has a low glycaemic index (GI), which raises our blood glucose (sugar) levels slowly over time. However, does this mean we should be ditching our regular whole grains in favour of quinoa? Essentially, no. When we compare quinoa to oats for example, quinoa actually contains a similar amount of protein and much less fibre!
Swap quinoa for oats, other whole grains or even legumes.
Like quinoa, chia seeds are also said to have an ancient history and are believed to have been included in the diets of the Aztecs and Majans. Chia seeds have risen to fame over recent years due to containing high levels of omega-3s fats. The omega-3s found in Chia are in the form of Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA). ALA is an essential fatty acid which we must get from our diets, because our body is unable to make it itself. While ALA can be converted to Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) by the body, this is done relatively inefficiently. DHA has been shown to be important for a healthy brain, skin and eyes. Oily fish are the best source DHA however, if you are vegetarian or vegan, using chia seeds could be a helpful way of increasing your ALA (and ultimately DHA) intake.
Swap chia seeds for oily fish, flaxseeds (linseeds) or kiwifruit seeds.
Acai berries are a red berry fruit grown in Amazonian rain forrest. Touted by many as being as being an antioxidant-packed superfood, which may boost energy levels and our metabolism and fight disease, unfortunately much more research is needed to determine if these super berries really do live up to the hype. While acai berries do contain a number of beneficial nutrients and properties (such as polyphenols), so do many of our more common berry fruits, which are not only much more readily available, and often with more scientific evidence behind them, but cheaper too!
Swap acai (and goji) berries for common berries such as blueberries, blackberries or strawberries.
Remember frozen berries still count and can be an affordable and versatile option when berries are out of season
While there’s no denying that kale is a nutritious green, it is a vegetable after all, it is not the MOST nutritious vegetable or fruit as ranked by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. The top spot goes to watercress, with Chinese cabbage, Romaine and leaf lettuce, and spinach all taking out higher rankings than Kale.
Swap kale for watercress, Chinese cabbage, spinach, Romain lettuce or any dark green leafy vege for that matter.
Kombucha and fermented foods
Fermented foods, such as kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh or kombucha have been
around for thousands of years. Due to the fermentation process, they are easily digested by the body and can provide our gut microbiome with live bacteria, some of which can beneficial to our health. These ‘good’ bacteria, which have a proven health benefit, are also known as probiotics. However, while all probiotics are live bacteria, not all live bacteria have probiotic activity, so it pays to do your research!
Most store-bought foods which contain proven probiotics will clearly state so on-pack. You will usually see the probiotic strain listed in the Nutrition Information Panel, along with the product’s corresponding amount of live bacteria, as CFUs (Colony Forming Units). Unfortunately, it is more difficult to determine if your homemade fermented foods or brews have probiotic activity, unless you get them tested. If products have been pasteurised, or heat-treated, it is also likely that many of the beneficial bugs would have been killed off during the heating process.
Kombucha advocates often claim the fermented tea drink will do anything from improving digestion to preventing cancer and defying the effects of ageing. However, most claims are based on anecdotal evidence or studies with a number of limitations, rather than robust science. While evidence looks promising, many more clinical trials are needed to fully asses the health affects of this fermented beverage. It also pays to check the sugar and alcohol content of your favourite booch too, as some may be higher than you think.
Swap kombucha for unsweetened probiotic yoghurt or green or black tea.
Super-powders, such as matcha, turmeric or sumac, can contain powerful antioxidants or active
compounds, such as curcumin in turmeric. Many claim these super-powders, will help to prevent or even reverse various health complaints.
As with many so-called superfoods, often there are many limitations in the research underpinning these claims. Often the claims are based on testimonial evidence, observational data or from the results of laboratory testing or animal trials; usually using mega doses of the active compounds which would be difficult to replicate in our everyday diets. While there is a question of how much of these powders we need to have each day in order to see any benefit, and whether the proposed health effects transfer across to humans, the research does look promising. However, there needs to be many more high-quality studies before we can go claiming these super-powders have super-powers.
Swap matcha for green or black tea.
Super food or super fad?
One pro of the superfood movement is that it has helped many of us to become more adventurous with our eating, and that is a very good thing indeed! However, the implication that eating a specific food, is going to be a magic bullet and prevent you from getting cancer or heart disease is just plain wrong, and even potentially dangerous. The reality is that for optimal health we need to focus on having a super diet, rather than focusing in on any single super food or nutrient. By eating a variety of nutritious whole foods, with plenty of non-starchy vegetables and fruit we will be ensuring that we are getting all the nutrients we need to support our optimal health and wellbeing.
If you enjoy eating the latest superfood, and you can afford to do so, by all means continue. However, don’t be swayed into thinking that you will be any ‘healthier’ than if you had included some comparably cheaper and more common, whole food alternatives into your diet. Remember, a poor diet is still going to be a poor diet, regardless of how much turmeric, acai berry or fermented foods you add to it. So, while superfoods can be a healthful addition to a healthy eating pattern, it is your whole diet which is going to support your health, rather than any specific food – super or otherwise.