Created by marketers, the idea of superfoods can be both misleading and beneficial; here’s what you should know
By Wendy Haaf
The Top 10 Superfoods of 2019. 11 Superfoods You Should Know About. 15 of the Most Powerful Superfoods.
The word “superfood” gets tossed around with abandon in headlines—the above being just three recent examples—and ads alike. What isn’t as common, however, is in-depth information about the term, such as what it means and whether it’s a label worth using. So let’s take a look at what lies behind this descriptor.
What is a superfood?
“There’s no scientifically based definition of a superfood,” says Katherine Hillier, a registered dietitian in Truro, NS, who blogs about food at katshappyhealthylife.com. Nor are there any legal or regulatory criteria a food distributor or marketing board must meet before using the term to describe one of its products. However, Hillier says, the word is usually used of “a food known to be rich in certain specific nutrients, such as antioxidants, fibre, and fatty acids.”
Where did the concept originate?
According to the website for Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the word “superfood” wasn’t coined by nutrition experts but instead began life as a marketing tool, and, surprisingly, it dates back much further than you might think. It may have made its debut around the First World War in pamphlets published by the United Fruit Company to promote bananas as a convenient, nutritious, and inexpensive diet staple.
Today the word is sometimes used to help convey an air of exoticism or to hint at special, unproven properties. Goji berries, for instance, are promoted as having been used in Asia for thousands of years for medicinal purposes.
But do consumers buy into the notion of superfoods? Yes, at least according to the results of a 2017 survey conducted by the US market research company Label Insight, which revealed that 85 per cent of consumers reported seeking out specific so-called superfoods, with blueberries, avocados, and green tea topping the list.
Okay, so the “superfood” label probably influences consumers’ buying patterns, but does it have an effect on their eating habits?
It would seem that’s up for debate. “The term ‘superfood’ is very polarizing,” says Jane Dummer, a Kitchener, ON, registered dietitian and the owner of Jane Dummer Consulting. “It’s controversial because using it to describe a food or ingredient may imply extra powers compared to other healthful ingredients or foods.” Or, as Hillier puts it, “the term can sometimes cause misunderstanding or misinformation to be spread about, favouring one food over another that could be just as healthful.”
Nevertheless, some experts see the superfood phenomenon as potentially beneficial. “I think the media coverage of superfoods is a good thing, as superfoods are essentially nutrient-dense foods and any media coverage of them is positive,” says Alison Duncan, a professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph. In Duncan’s view, this type of spotlight “is an opportunity to introduce consumers to foods they may not have heard of before. It’s a positive thing to try new foods and insert creativity and diversity into your diet.”
Dummer, too, says this approach is part of a welcome shift in nutrition messaging. “I really like the idea of positivity,” she says. “A change I’ve seen in the past five years is that it’s not about removing things from your diet, but adding healthful things.”
Take certain foods containing fat, for instance. “Years ago, nuts and avocados were seen as causing weight gain,” Dummer explains, despite the healthy fats they contain. Now, she says, “we look at almonds and walnuts as healthful ingredients or healthful foods” and focus instead on keeping portion sizes within sensible limits.
Similarly, Dummer and some other health professionals have begun borrowing the “superfood” terminology from marketing and turning it towards expanding people’s culinary horizons beyond a handful of familiar foods.
“I’ve used it in my writing and my work,” Dummer says. For example, while her 2016 self-published Kindle book, The Need for Seeds: How to Make Seeds an Everyday Food in Your Healthy Diet, isolates a single food category—nuts and seeds—Dummer’s intention was not just to educate readers on their nutritional value but also to answer the question, “How can you add more of them to your already healthy lifestyle?” she explains. While public awareness of the benefits of plant-based dietary patterns has surged, North Americans “need education about what that looks like,” Dummer says, since many of us grew up with plates full of meat, potatoes, and vegetables.
Even some major health-focused non-profits have begun hitching themselves to the superfood bandwagon and steered it in the direction of promoting public good. For instance, a page on the American Diabetes Association website lists “Diabetes Superfoods,” including such nutrient-rich staples as beans and citrus fruits.
Are superfoods really nutritionally superior? For example, is kale preferable to another dark green leafy vegetable, or are blueberries better than strawberries?
While individual items in a broader category such as berries or dark green leafy vegetables may have varying levels of different nutrients, the truth is that it’s notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to study whether one member of a food category has a greater impact on a specific health outcome than another over the long term. And the results of some of the existing research may or may not be extrapolated to what actually happens in the human body.
On the other hand, we have robust evidence linking certain broad dietary patterns to lower rates of a host of health problems. That’s what Toronto registered dietitian and nutrition writer Rosie Schwartz points out in her blog, Enlightened Eater. She writes, “A diet based mainly on whole plant foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils along with small amounts of animal foods, if desired, and minimally processed foods—is what to aim for.” (Incorporating an array of these foods, including fruits and vegetables in an assortment of colours, will give you a healthy supply of micronutrients, vitamins, and fibre.) The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Mediterranean diets, and the (Canadian) Brain Health Food Guide are examples of such a diet.
It’s the big picture that’s important. “No one food can make or break a healthy diet,” Duncan says.
Nor can a single superfood or even an overall wholesome, balanced diet replace developing good habits concerning getting enough of the other key components in maintaining health—namely exercise, sleep, and water. If you’re living an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle, “you might, for example, think: Okay, if I increase acai berries, it’s going to be a silver bullet. But it’s not,” Dummer says. At the same time, she points out that mid-life isn’t too late to start eating better. “If you’ve eaten poorly up until your 50s, you can definitely redeem yourself,” she says.
So how do I choose from these categories of whole and minimally processed foods?
Two key elements are personal taste and variety. Bring home kale even though you loathe it, and it’s more apt to end up turning to glop in the crisper than landing on your dinner plate. “We need to stick to foods that we actually enjoy eating rather than putting a lot of stress on a particular food,” Hillier says.
“It’s important to keep in mind that healthy eating doesn’t have to include superfoods,” Duncan says. “In fact, a healthy diet can consist of basic, typical, and familiar foods; using the concepts of moderation and variety, your nutrient needs can be met.”
There are cases, however, for which it may be advisable to seek expert advice from a registered dietitian or doctor on how to make sure your nutritional bases are covered.
“At age 55, people are concerned about heart health, eye health, and bone health,” Dummer says. “So when I look at this demographic, instead of focusing on superfoods,” she says, she suggests considering such conditions. “Say you have concerns about heart health and bone health because of your family history,” she says; you might wonder which foods you can increase to lower your risk for heart disease and osteoporosis. And if it’s not possible to consume these foods in adequate amounts to benefit your health goals, you might consider whether a supplement would be appropriate.
But before heading for the pharmacy shelves for a supplement, beware. “At this stage in life, you definitely need an all-encompassing assessment or medical history beforehand,” says Dummer, who recommends sitting down with someone who has the appropriate training. “Don’t try to figure it out on your own,” she urges. “You need to speak with a qualified health professional.” This is also good advice if you’re thinking of radically changing your diet in some way—for instance, by restricting or eliminating an entire food group.
If I want to find out if a particular claim about a food is credible, where can I go for reliable, scientifically sound information?
And of course, for personalized advice on matters such as working around food preferences or aversions, managing chronic conditions, and attaining other health goals, you can ask your physician to refer you to a registered dietitian or you can find one in your area by visiting dietitians.ca.
“If you don’t like a food, we’ll choose another that gives you the same nutrients,” Hillier says. “And if we don’t have the answer, we’ll research it and give you recommendations that are backed by science.”