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Health:

Wed 24 Aug, 2011
By Sam Bristowe


They are keen to make us believe that, in order to stay healthy and fight off certain illnesses, we need to be eating superfoods in abundance

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The term 'superfood' is increasingly being used by supermarkets, advertisements and TV chefs and is perceived to mean 'extra-healthy'. Foods that are given this 'label' are now more widely available than ever before, and sales have increased dramatically. So-called 'superfoods' are often promoted as having almost magical health-giving properties, but is this really the case?

Below we look to see whether, superfoods are actually super, or, in reality are they just foods that are high in antioxidants and vitamins, like the common old English apple and cabbage?!

With a clever surge in marketing and promotion, many food manufacturers, supermarkets and authors of countless healthy eating books are making a fortune out of the superfood phenomenon. They are keen to make us believe that, in order to stay healthy and fight off certain illnesses, we need to be eating superfoods in abundance (and that if we're not eating them that our diet is somehow deficient!). Furthermore, the list of supposed superfoods is ever growing. Blueberries, almonds, broccoli, acai and gogi berries are all supposed to be super, and clever marketing techniques are encouraging huge sales of superfood produce and products.

Many 'superfoods' are imported from far away countries, and this can lead to a large carbon footprint, because of the CO2 produced by transporting these foods. Furthermore, superfoods are often sold at premium prices (for maximum profit margin). For consumers on a low income, who cannot afford these foods, this can lead to worry that they are missing out on the health benefits that these foods are claimed to offer.

Blueberries are a good example of a food that have found superfood fame. Blueberries rarely used to be available in this country, but now supermarket shelves are piled high with them and they are used in countless products, including yoghurts, muffins, juices and smoothies. I even recently noticed blueberries in beauty products, shampoo and, would you believe it, a condom flavour!? I'm now just waiting for blueberries to be used in my toilet paper, like aloe-vera!

So, is there any evidence that superfoods are actually super? Or is it just a case of using our common sense? Really, no one food by itself is 'super'. In reality, all of the foods that have been given the superfood label, along with many other foods that we have been eating for many years (many of which are UK grown), all contain their own unique and effective nutritional benefits, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, 'phytochemicals' and fibre.

It's no bad thing that we continue to eat the so called superfoods, mind, as many of the foods provide us with the nutritional benefits mentioned above. But, it is important to try and eat foods when they are in season, and they don't necessarily need to be exotic and imported into the UK. Many of the berries grown in this country are just as good a source of antioxidants and phytochemicals as
the more exotic imported berries, and buying 'home grown' is good for British farmers too!

Anna Denny, Nutrition Scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says "There's no such thing as superfoods, only superdiets! No food is a magic bullet, so what's really important is eating a varied and balanced diet. Try to eat a rainbow of colours of fruits and vegetables and make sure that you eat at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day."

There is currently no official or scientific definition of the term 'superfood' but, thankfully, from the 1st July 2007, the marketing of products as superfoods is banned by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), unless accompanied by a specific medical claim that is supported by credible scientific research. There is a transition period of two years to give companies and advertisers enough time to comply with the new rules, so it will be a while until we see the word 'superfood' disappearing from labels.

The new EFSA regulation will help to prevent us from being misled or confused by superfood claims in the future and should help to put an end to the myths and exaggerations of recent times. It should also promote a culture amongst food importers and manufacturers to invest in the necessary scientific research to substantiate claims made on foods. This will help to sift out the truth from the marketing spin and hype.

There are huge costs associated with conducting scientific trials in humans to substantiate health benefits, so it remains to be seen how much research is actually done. Only large pharmaceutical companies are realistically positioned to finance such costly research, with return on investment from sales of a patented drug. Such investment far exceeds what might be regained in profits from food producers and manufacturers, as one cannot patent a blueberry! PN

A big thank you to Anna Denny, Nutrition Scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation for her invaluable consultation.

For more information on superfoods see

Information sources:
Food Standards Agency - Putting the 'super' into 'superfoods'.

 

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