Acai berries! Kale! Spirulina! Quinoa!
Oh the world of superfoods, where some foods just get a better reputation than others. But when it comes to healthy eating, are superfoods actually doing us more harm than good?
The first problem with superfoods is that there is actually no definition of what a superfood is. In fact, if anything, the term “superfood” is used more for marketing purposes than health. Be honest: if you see “superfood” on the label of something at the market, you consider buying it now don’t you?
Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. In a time where fast food rules the world, agribusiness keeps us eating anything and everything made from corn, and obesity rates are skyrocketing, it’s no surprise that we’re looking for ways to eat better, and incorporate more healthy ingredients into our diets. That’s why the “superfoods” term has caught on so well.
In general, superfoods are foods that are “nutrient powerhouses.” In other words, they pack a nutrient punch; full of lots of vitamins and minerals and all the good things that a body on the Standard American Diet (yes, it’s SAD) naturally wants more of, even if it’s on a subconscious level. When it comes down to it, there are a lot of foods that could qualify as a superfood. We live in a culture of “bigger and better” and just like we want fast cars and larger houses, we want food that ups the ante on all the other foods.
However, the problem with superfoods is that the concept gets us focusing on individual ingredients instead of diets as a whole. No one is going to argue that eating kale or blueberries isn’t good for you, but individually targeting certain foods distracts our attention from not only a lot of other foods that are good for us – hello, why doesn’t anyone care about celery root?! – but also it encourages a mentality of “if only I eat a few extra good things, I can continue eating whatever I like.”
Let me break it down for you: popping exotic berries into a smoothie is not going to make you immortal, or even get you to the age of 90, and it certainly isn’t going to offset the negative effects of a poor diet. Sure, you may eat a raw acai bowl for breakfast every morning, but if that’s followed by a can of Coca-Cola at lunch, then you can forget about taking advantage of all the nutritional benefits of your morning meal.
When we put certain individual ingredients on a pedestal, it also keeps us from thinking locally. This is often the problem with superfoods marketing, as you’ll commonly find lots of foods that come from nowhere near your backyard. Let’s take goji berries for example. Do you know where goji berries come from? They may be branded as the Himalayan superfood, invoking images of tranquil fields in the foothills of mountains, but the reality is that the majority of goji crops hail from industrial fields in Northwestern China. And hey, even if we get sick of that superfood, the food marketing world will always come up with another exotic option to replace it with. Kakadu plum anyone?
While superfoods may seem like a healthy alternative to all the chips, cookies and other processed foods on the market, don’t let yourself think that these food companies are operating in your best interest; they’re applying savvy marketing principles just like all the other food companies and brands on the market.
Superfoods can, and do, get recalled – Sunburst Superfoods had to recall a raw carob powder earlier this year – and companies that market them definitely get reprimanded for mismarketing their so-called incredible benefits. One of the more notable cases was POM, the seller of pomegranate juice, who the FDA charged for making “false and unsubstantiated claims that their products will prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.” Proof that you can never believe the marketing claims on food packaging, even if the food product in question appears to be a health food.
Superfoods in and of themselves aren’t hurting us, but the concept and marketing of superfoods certainly is, so much so that it’s probably time that we simply got rid of the term “superfoods” entirely. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as a superfood,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told the Washington Post. “All plant foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains — have useful nutrients. The whole point about diets is to vary food intake, because the nutrient contents of various foods differ and complement each other.”
In Europe, the use of the term “superfood” is in fact banned, and if we know one thing about the Europeans it’s this: they tend to have a much better relationship to food than we do, certainly a more well balanced one.
But beyond the effects (or lack thereof) of superfoods on our health, there’s something else that’s even more important to consider: the effect on the people that grow them. The popularity of quinoa has made it so that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, quinoa’s native growing spot, can’t afford the grain that once sustained them.
Our obsession with exotic superfoods also has a negative affect on growers back here at home. As Tom Philpott pointed out in an article in Mother Jones last year, “The domestic blueberry, for example, is periodically (and justifiably) marketed as a superfood, and in 2012, products featuring blueberries as a primary ingredient saw their sales nearly quadruple. But they only raked in $3.5 million—less than 2 percent of açaí-based product sales.” In a world where so many people are talking about eating more local and supporting communities closer to home, do these kind of sales statistics make any sense to you? It’s as if we have to say, “sorry blueberry farmers, your berries just aren’t as sexy as the ones that come from far away.”
Want to eat healthy? It’s not a well-packaged bundle of berries that’s going to be your solution. Skip the aisle full of health claims, and walk right over to that produce aisle and fill your basket with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Eat whole grains. Make your daily diet of real foods that don’t come from the other side of the world.
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