Superfoods or superlies?

A smoothie bowl with fruit.

Is the hype about superfoods a very successful ploy?

What do Acerola, Quinoa, Chia, Acai, Goji berries, Noni and Chlorella have in common?

The answer: they are classified as superfoods, also known as powerfoods.

There is literally no day that passes without the publication of at least one new study about the incredible impact of superfoods. They are supposed to make you fit, thin, beautiful and keep you young. In addition, they also seem to have several almost magical and miracle health impacts: seemingly they have the ability to cure cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, they strengthen the immune system and improve sperm quality. Questionable consultants, experience reports and commercial providers further idolize and worship the foods.

So the signal sent out to consumers is: eat superfoods… they are not normal foods … they are health-giving and will make you live forever. In short: they are the answer to all of our health woes. So why change your habits when you can just add some goji berries or acai to your food? Blinded by the wish to be healthy, fit and beautiful consumers do not shy away from very high prices; 1kg of goji berries costs 30€ and only 100g of acai fruit-powder costs startling 20€!

But what are superfoods actually? Do they really differ from other foods? And can they really help us to keep healthy?

The whole problem starts when one wants to define the term superfood. There is no proper definition but the wide community has agreed that they are foods that are higher in nutrients, active and vital substances (they are more concentrated), that are antioxidants, act anti-inflammatory and activate the detoxification organs. The foods that are advertised greatly as superfoods are mostly not fresh and purely consumed but are dried or extracts that are used to enrich our functional foods like for example muesli-bars, smoothies, yoghurts, fizzy-drinks etc.

In 2011 the NHS report has stated that: “There is no official definition of a superfood and the EU has banned the use of the word on product packaging unless the claim is backed up by convincing research."

Nevertheless, the food industry has continued to misuse the terms linked to superfoods.

The publications and advertisement of superfoods sends the wrong message about healthy eating and fuels nutritionism (definition: “A paradigm that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine their value in the diet”) Minter GNPD (Global New Products Database) has stated that there has been a global 202% increase of new foods containing the terms „superfood“, „super-grain“ or „super-fruit“ between 2011 and 2015. In 2015 there has been a 36% rise.

These figures are remarkable, but also very explainable: they are the food industry’s response to strong consumer demands on highly nutritious products. While most western food trends still go in the direction of fast-food and ready-to-eat meals there is an increasing awareness and interest about healthy diets. More than 7 in 10 consumers is France, Germany, Italy and Spain think that natural foods are preferable to added benefits from functional groups. Superfoods are marketed and sold specifically to people that want to live healthily. In a 2014 survey, 61% of the questioned British reported buying foods because they are supposed to be superfoods that are good for the health.

What many, or even most consumers do not know is, that one does not necessarily have to look far to find superfoods or pay high prices… just because a food sounds exotic, does not necessarily make it better. Why eat acai when you have regional blackberries? Or why buy expensive chia when there is flaxseeds? Regional superfoods are normal foods… but not for the average modern western fast-food and ready-to-eat-meal eating person. They are foods that have been known for decades and centuries and where important components of our ancestors’ diets. For us modern people pizza, hamburgers, ready-to-eat pasta and cookies are the norm while beetroot, stinging nettle and dandelion already sound exclusive as we only know a handful of foods that we eat over and over again.

Many people also do not know that many ingredients that are widely available and very cheap are also superfoods. Just to name few: onions, garlic, oats and kale. Each fresh food is unique in its chemical composition and can contribute to our general health and well-being. Health cannot be attained by adding some extracts, grains or dried pieces of fruit into our normal food which is chemically heavy and full of sugars and fats (hidden surely as the food industry does not want to scare of health-conscious consumers), and processed and transported over long distances. Health can only be achieved if we invest into a regional and seasonal diet that provides a variety of different vitamins, fibre, nutrients and minerals, that together, hand-in-hand contribute to the establishment of a healthy, functioning body. In addition to that a holistic approach that comprises movement/sports, sleep, air and light and relaxation beside the diet, is vital.