Distinguishing the truth from the hype

The use of the term “Superfood” has been recorded as far back as the beginning of the 20th century, but it has become extremely popular in mainstream language in the later years with the increase interest shown in food and health by the public.

A quick search of the word “superfoods” in Google reveals you a 14.7 mil results! There is so much said about superfoods, this so-called “special category” of foods! Despite its omnipresence in the media, however, there is no official or legal definition of a superfood. Both, the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster dictionary, omit any reference to health.

However, what they both agree in broad terms is that what makes superfoods special in their natural state is that they are low in calories but literally packed with large doses of antioxidants, vitamins, polyphenols, minerals , all essential nutrients – nutrients we need but cannot make ourselves. This is all good stuff for your health and wellbeing!

Let’s get the categorizing out-of-the-way for more clarity.

Some of the most popular superfoods:

Green Superfoods
• Wheat grass
• Barley grass
• Wild blue-green algae
• Spirulina
• Chlorella
• Green leafy vegetables

Fruit and Nut Superfoods
• Berries (blueberry, cranberry, strawberry)
• Goji Berries
• Raw Cacao
• Maca
• Acai
• Coconuts
• Coconut oil
• Noni

BEE Superfoods
• Royal Jelly
• Bee Pollen
• Propolis

Seaweed Superfoods
• Nori
• Kelp
• Dulse
• Arame
• Wakame
• Kombu

Herb Superfoods
• Nettle
• Aloe Vera
• Echinacea
• Ginseng

What is evidence?

All marketers are liars as Seth Godin says and it is not far from truth when comes to over-emphasizing the benefits of the superfoods. Many superfoods brands exploit the idea that healthy lifestyle choices, a balance diet can reduce the risk of chronic diseases (cancer, stroke, heart diseases) and equally induce a state of overall wellbeing. That is why it is important to look at the scientific evidence behind the superfoods propaganda.

The evidence on blueberries

Blueberries, maybe one of the most popular superfoods, have incited the scientist curiosity and made them one of the most studied superfoods. There are now researches showing that their high concentration of the antioxidant anthocyanins reduce the growth of the colon cancerous cells in humans. Other antioxidants in blueberries have been attributed with the prevention and reversion of the age-related memory decline in rats.

A study in 2012 of 93,000 women found that participants who ate three or more portions of blueberries and strawberries a week had a 32% lower risk of a heart attack compared with those who ate berries once a month or less. However, the study could not prove that these fruits definitely caused the lower risk.

The evidence on pomegranate

Our so loved Middle Eastern fruit is claimed to be effective against heart disease, high blood pressure, inflammation and some cancers, including prostate cancer. Studies on pomegranate juice have suggested that it can lower blood pressure in the short-term, as well as reduce oxidative stress, in healthy people.

A 2013 study on mice (there is no certainty on the applicability to humans) found evidence that pomegranate strengthened bones and helped prevent osteoporosis.

A well-conducted small study from 2006 found that drinking a daily 227ml (8oz) glass of pomegranate juice significantly slowed the progress of prostate cancer in men with recurring prostate cancer.

Evidence on beetroot

Like pomegranate juice, beetroot has been proposed as a heart-healthy superfood. Its high levels of nitrate are claimed to be converted by the body into nitric oxide which, among other functions, has been shown to lower blood pressure and the tendency for blood clotting in humans.

A well-conducted review of the current evidence from 2013 concluded that beetroot juice was associated with a modest reduction in blood pressure. However further long-term trials would be needed and in people at greater risk of heart disease before we could say beetroot was clinically useful.

Another well conducted study from 2013 found that inactive and recreational active individuals saw “moderate improvements” in exercise performance from drinking beetroot juice. The review however concluded that on élite athletes the effect was minimal.

A closer look

Those and many other studies on the health properties of superfoods like cocoa, garlic, goji berries, green tea, wheat grass etc, among countless other foods elevated at the “super” rank, are trying to demonstrate their healing powers and health benefits. With certainty, the high nutrients in these foods have numerous health benefits.

However, majority of these studies use high quantity of nutrients, difficult to replicate in reality and remain inconclusive because of the difficulty of applying their result to real diets. The studies of these superfoods are done in isolation and do not reflect actual human eating habits.

Another greater consideration when looking at these studies is that many of them are conducted on animals with little known applications of the results to humans. The research may give scientist an idea of the health benefits of these superfoods but there is no guarantee that the effect on people will be alike.

Conclusion – a balanced, healthy diet goes a long way

Whilst there are demonstrated benefits of the superfoods and whilst the exceptional qualities of those are very appealing to us all, we need to remain realistic as to how this evidence translates into our everyday diet.

Whilst I remain a fervent advocate of the superfoods I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a healthy balanced diet rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods. It is wrong to believe that the inclusion of one or more superfoods will undo the damage made by an unhealthy diet.

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